Poetry in Motion (Pictures): Movies Based on Poems

For Colored Girls audiobook coverAm I the only one who thinks it’s a bit sad that Beowulf—one of the oldest surviving poems in English (albeit of the Ye Olde kind)—has made the jump to the silver screen with more youthful vigor and a far larger budget than…say…I dunno…something…anything...written in the intervening 1300 years? Granted Beowulf has somewhat more of the kind of stuff that both mead-drinking, horns-on-the-helmet-types, and popcorn-munching 21st century cineastes alike tend to prize in their entertainments, namely: monsters “gorged and bloodied” and “gloating over the raw corpses” of several buff but faceless actor/waiters in gore harvests of cameronian  proportions, and the requisite buxomly bewitching servant girl whose only real function in the story is to be buxomly bewitching so as to test our noble hero’s proto-democratic leanings and to make sure that no one takes all the male-bonding the *ahem* wrong way. Granted, too, that unless you’re French and/or a Comp Lit major, the vague existential dread engendered by finding a dead curlew while on a walk in the sun-dappled silence of a suburban forest that is the essential plotline of every poem written since 1950, does not make for edge-of-the-seat cinema.

Sylvia Plath's Ariel Covert ArtIt’s a fact that we, as a movie-going populace, find poets—especially the tortured and/or dying-in-their-prime variety—far more compelling onscreen than the work for which they are known. The people who made Sylvia (the bio-drama about the tragic, gender-studies martyr-saint Sylvia Plath) were not counting on the Beowulf-crowd to fill the seats. Nor could they rely solely on death-obsessed teens and the folks who posthumously rescued Plath from the indiffernent gaze of the phallocentric Poetry Establishment who’ve made Plath the closest thing to a pin-up that American literature has seen since Edna St. Vincent Millay’s striptease-of-the-soul barnstorming of the 1920s. There just aren’t enough of those people to give much of a return on the producers’ investment. No, the makers of Sylvia were counting on more than a few ordinary folks who may or may not have a copy of Ariel in a box in the attic, but who know the broad outlines of her story and figure an evening spent watching a fictional reenactment of her slow descent into suicidal madness is worth the money and the time spent cajoling a resistant significant other into going. Because people I know, who love Plath’s work more than her story, who understand her value is not as a symbol of anything but as an enormous talent with whom poets and scholars continue struggle fifty years after her death, didn’t go see the movie in the theaters. Those people caught it by accident channel-surfing one rainy Sunday, watched some, marveled at the preternatural good looks of Paltrow and Craig, and gave up on it about the time Sylvia stood in the punt and recited the Wife of Bath to the cows.

Beowulf Heaney translation cover artAaaand…I seem to have wandered a little off track here. A little? I don’t even think I can rightly claim it's a tangent. What I started to say is there are a few movies based on poems and HCPL has some of them, and this whole schmear was supposed to be a tribute to the poetry of cinema and the cinema of poetry and I was going to hustle you off to your Oscar (Registered Trademark) party with a swelling feeling of pride in American ingenuity and our ability to be so charmingly self-congratulatory and look absolutely smashing, Darling, while doing it.

Films Based on Poems [NOTE: When I say "based on" here, I mean that in all likelihood the screenwriter and director were at one time or another aware that there is a poem that they might have based their movie on, but instead decided to just kind of wing it under the not entirely spurious assumption that their target audience had almost certainly not read it and that had the audience known that the movie they were about to shell out ten bucks to see was "based on" a poem would have opted for  the next installment of the Madea Saga instead.]

Beowulf & Grendel
Bright Star
Charge of the Light Brigade
El Cid
For Colored Girls
Gunga Din
O Brother Where Art Thou?
The Raven

If you can think of any others. Please drop me a comment. Also drop me a comment if you have a bone to pick or one of contention, or even if you just want to throw me a bone--especially if that bone happens to look a whole lot like a suggestion for a future post--I will appreciate it. Don't forget to LIKE us on Facebook
As always, thanks for reading.