Studios love to make movies that have built-in audiences, where people are already familiar with the stories and characters. Many such stories are in the public domain and therefore are owned by everyone. They’re part of our shared culture, just like our history.
Public domain stories also are free for anyone to use and for artists to experiment and play with. The creators were compensated during a limited period of monopoly protection and now the public at large can benefit from them.
Two major motion pictures in theaters now are based on public domain works. Disney’s “Frozen” is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” (1845). The historical drama “12 Years a Slave” is based on an 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup.
What follows is a list of movies in production or awaiting release based on literature in the public domain.
- The Bible: At least six movies based on the Bible are coming to theaters soon. “Noah” stars Russell Crowe as the Old Testament ark builder. Will Smith is working on “The Redemption of Cain,” based on the story of Cain and Abel. Warner Bros. is developing a movie called “Methuselah,” based on the biblical 1,000-year-old man. Christian Bale is set to play Moses in the Ridley Scott film “Exodus.” Diogo Morgado stars as Jesus in “Son of God.” Brad Pitt is looking to play the title role in the Warner Bros. film “Pontius Pilate.”
- Plays by William Shakespeare: This fall saw the release of two films based on Shakespearean plays: “Much Ado About Nothing” from director Joss Whedon and “Romeo and Juliet” starring Hailee Steinfeld. Coming soon are “Cymbeline” starring Ethan Hawke and Ed Harris; and “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
- Classic fairy tales: After the success of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Hollywood took a renewed interest in fairy tales as source material for movies. Angelina Jolie is playing the evil fairy in “Maleficent,” based on the “Sleeping Beauty” story. Director Kenneth Branagh is making “Cinderella,” starring Lilly James and Cate Blanchett. Two movies of “Beauty and the Beast” are in the works, one from director Christophe Gans and starring Vincent Cassel and the other from director Guillermo del Toro and starring Emma Watson. Disney is making a live-action musical “Into the Woods,” which features such fairy tale characters as Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Filmmaker Henry Selick is set to direct a live-action version of “A Tale Dark and Grimm,” which features Hansel and Gretel and other Brothers Grimm characters. Meanwhile, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters 2,” a sequel to the revisionist fairy tale is in the works.
- Classic children’s stories: Robert Downey Jr. is set to star as Geppetto in a live-action “Pinocchio.” (A stop-motion animation adaptation of the work by director Guillermo del Toro is on indefinite hold.) Disney is making “Alice in Wonderland 2,” a sequel to its 2010 hit. Disney also is doing a live-action movie of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Two Peter Pan origin story movies are in the works: “Pan” from director Joe Wright and “Peter and the Starcatchers” from director Gary Ross. Director Guy Ritchie is working on a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate tale “Treasure Island.” Several Wizard of Oz movies are in the works: the sequel to “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the animated “Dorothy of Oz” and possibly “Twisted Land of Oz” from Warner Bros. Director David Fincher is developing an adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
- Charles Dickens stories: Director Mike Newell’s adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel “Great Expectations” was released in select theaters last month. It stars Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane. Red Bull Media House is making “Twist,” a parkour action version of the Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.” Sony Pictures is making “Dodge & Twist,” based on the characters Oliver Twist and Artful Dodger.
- Sherlock Holmes: Warner Bros. is developing a third “Sherlock Holmes” movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as the famed detective. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures is remaking “Young Sherlock Holmes,” which depicts Holmes and buddy Watson as teenagers.
- Tarzan: Director David Yates is directing a live-action “Tarzan” for Warner Bros. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ King of the Apes also is being adapted as an animated movie featuring Kellan Lutz called “Tarzan 3D.”
- Frankenstein: Frankenstein’s monster is the subject of several upcoming movies. First up is “I, Frankenstein” starring Aaron Eckhart, which is set for release Jan. 24. Paul McGuigan is directing an update of “Frankenstein” for 20th Century Fox, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. The Fox version of Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel is told from the perspective of Igor, played by Radcliffe. This year also saw the release of “Frankenstein’s Army.”
- Dracula: Universal Pictures is making “Dracula Untold,” which is described as an origin story for the famous vampire. The film stars Luke Evans and is directed by Gary Shore. Tom Cruise is slated to star as Dracula’s nemesis in the Universal film “Van Helsing.”
- Classic literature: David Goyer plans to direct an adaptation of the classic Alexandre Dumas revenge tale “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Actor Johnny Depp is working on a big-screen modern-day re-imagining of “Don Quixote” for Disney. Paramount Pictures is developing a “Huck and Finn,” a modern-day interpretation of Mark Twain’s most famous characters. MGM wants to make a new movie based on the 1880 novel “Ben-Hur.” Screenwriter Albert Torres is working on a feature adaptation of the Dark Horse graphic novel “The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde,” which is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”
- Legends and mythology: Two Hercules movies are on the way. First up is “The Legend of Hercules” starring Kellan Lutz as the Greek hero. It’s set for release on Jan. 10. Next is “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” starring Dwayne Johnson and directed by Brett Ratner. DreamWorks has teamed with director Scott Waugh to make a Robin Hood movie called “Merry Men.” Warner Bros. is making a live-action movie “Merlin” about the wizard from Arthurian legend. Warner Bros. also is developing “Arthur & Lancelot” from the same legend.
15 years ago, Congress kept Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. Will they do it again? (The Washington Post; Oct. 25, 2013)
Why you should care about the public domain. (Feb. 22, 2012)
Public domain works flourishing on TV: Dracula, Sleepy Hollow and more. (Oct. 25, 2013)
Photos: Posters from “12 Years a Slave” and “Frozen.”