When a book is adapted to the big screen, we often feel that some of its beauty is lost in the interpretation. Yet when powerful verses are spoken by movie characters, they gain a whole new level of meaning.
The cinematic ambiance is a powerful way of funneling complex emotions expressed in poetry. This often makes it more understandable and more relatable even for people who rarely read it in their daily lives. That’s why movies are a genuine means of bringing poetry to life and helping us connect to it on a deeper level. Skillfully crafted verses are not only a way to enrich a screenplay, but also an opportunity to honor great poets, celebrate the art of writing, and elevate poetic imagery.
Below is our pick of twelve movies that do just that. We chose to present them chronologically (with a discrepancy), as each is a true gem and would be impossible to try and rate them by their qualities.
1. Splendour in the Grass, 1961
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
Of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
When Elia Kazan shot the teenage drama that brought together Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, he had already been known for his literature-inspired masterpieces. In 1951 he brought us a stellar interpretation of Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire featuring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, and only four years after, he adapted John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, assigning the lead role to the up-and-coming young star James Dean.
When Splendour in the Grass was released in 1961, it was praised by both audiences and cinema critics. Even today, it is relevant to and loved by different generations, mainly due to the timeless topics it deals with. Much of these have their roots in William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, whose verses are reflected in the title.
Written in 1802, the poem deals with aging and the loss of youthful vigor, evoking nostalgia and introspection that are present in the movie as well. Like most Wordsworth’s poems, this one was provided to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for a review and soon gained a response in the form of the latter poet’s Dejection: An Ode. By the time the two poems were published, their authors had already published their Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poetry that has marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature. Focusing on the use of vernacular language and topics relatable to average readers, they changed the course of literary history and left us verses that can resonate with readers even today.
2. Stalker, 1979
So summer is gone,
leaving no epitaph.
It’s still warm in the sun,
only that’s not enough.
All that true could have come,
like a five-fingered fluff.
Folded into my palm,
only that’s not enough.*
Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is a vivid reimagination of Roadside Picnic, a 1972 novel by Soviet-Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Consistently on all-time-best movie charts over the past half a century, Stalker is a psychological science fiction drama that follows a group or characters on a clandestine trip to a mysterious area called “Zone”. The imaginative sequences captured by Tarkovsky’s recognizable long takes, intelligent dialogues, surrealist ambiance, and remarkable acting have made and changed the history of cinema.
In addition to all these qualities, the movie also includes a poetry quotation that takes place right before the climax, when the true desires and motivations of the characters become clear.
The poem was written by Arseny Tarkovsky, the director’s father, who was a prolific Soviet and Russian poet and translator from Azerbaijanian, Georgian, Armenian and Arabic. During his life, he was celebrated as a prominent representative of the Russian Silver Age although his first collection of poems was published only in 1962, when he was fifty-five. In the years following his death, he became known internationally through the works of his son Andrei Tarkovsky, which were argued to have been highly influenced by his poetic voice.
* There seem to be multiple translations of the poem, and the one we selected seems to follow the Russian original more loosely than the other available versions. Two English translations can be found here, but there seem to be many more out there.
3 + 4. 84 Charing Cross Road, 1987; Equilibrium, 2002
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
The iconic British-American drama by David Jones is as bookish as it gets. The plot is based on the true story of an American woman who maintained a 20-year-long correspondence with a bookshop owner from London. Throughout the movie, we’re witnessing insightful discussions between the two literature connoisseurs while enjoying a lovely book-inspired setting and amazing acting.
As the characters grow closer to one another through their correspondence, one of them starts developing romantic feelings. Incapable of expressing them directly, he opts for the verses of W. B. Yeats‘s He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven as a way of giving a hint about his internal struggles.
The great Irish poet might seem an unlikely choice for the romantic context given that his poetry mainly deals with themes of death, war, divinity, and immortality. However, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (the narrator’s name in the title later replaced by “he”) is one of Yeats’s rare love poems, assumed to have been dedicated to Maud Gonne, the poet’s love interest and the muse whom he never married.
Curiously, the poem was also used in the 2002 blockbuster Equilibrium, a futuristic dystopia depicting society that is prohibited from having feelings. A book of poems by W. B. Yeats helps the lead character John Preston (Christian Bale) discover that his partner has stopped using the prescribed drugs and is able to feel. The poem also sparks a discussion between the two characters on the value of emotions and dreams, which eventually sends Errol Partridge, played by Sean Bean, to yet another movie death. And while we’ve seen Sean Bean die on screen so many times, we have never seen him do it so poetically.
5. Dead Poets Society, 1989
O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
It’s been thirty five years since this masterpiece has hit cinema and TV screens, and it’s still probably the best-known, most loved, and most heartbreaking poetry-inspired movie we’ve ever seen. Dead Poets Society is a true treasure trove of iconic English verses delivered by some of the greatest names of contemporary cinematography. It is a high school drama about the role and meaning of poetry in the modern world, the power of artistic aspirations, the youthful strive for a fulfilled life, and the tragic sense of being misunderstood by the world around.
The movie abounds in references to English poets such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Robert Frost, with Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! likely being the most resonating thanks to the memorable final scene. However, for the purpose of this article, we’ve selected the gripping interpretation of the poet’s Leaves of Grass delivered by the acting genius Robin Williams.
Originally published in 1855, the collection has become one of the most celebrated works of American poetry. Dealing with the topics of freedom, love, and democracy, Leaves of Grass has never stopped being relevant in the modern society and is particularly suited to the context of the movie as it criticizes rigid social norms that prevent an individual from living a fulfilled life. The verses are highly evocative of death as a possible choice for people who feel they don’t belong to this world. And we all know how this is related to the plot.
6. Sense and Sensibility, 1995
Let me not with the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Jane Austin’s novels have had multiple on-screen adaptations, some less successful than others. Ang Lee’s 1995 recreation of Sense and Sensibility with a stellar cast including Emma Thompson, Allan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant certainly belongs to the latter group and is still one of the most eagerly watched and most readily embraced Austen interpretations. The plot is typical of our favorite 18th-century lady novelist, depicting the life of an average middle-class English family with their daily nuances, most of which are related to romantic aspirations and married life.
Austen was known for her sharp and intelligent dialogues, filled with thought-provoking discussions and frequent literary references. However, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 that is masterfully delivered in the movie (by Willoughby and later Marianne) is not a part of the book itself. Still, both outstanding readings have made it such a great addition to the original plot.
Sonnet 116 is one of the most widely known and quoted Shakespearean sonnets (out of 154 in total), whose unique topics broke the Petrarchian and Dantean tradition that has dominated the form since the 14th century. The Bard decided to abandon the topics of unreachable love for whom a poet develops feelings solely based on her looks, and introduce a love interest that is “fair, kind, and true”. To this day, the critics argue about the possible inspirations for his sonnets and their potential interpretations, which only speaks about their richness.
We’ll follow up with six more movies in the following weeks. Stay tuned!
Featured photo taken from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/
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