Hollywood loves a remake, sometimes to an absurd degree. The industry shifted to readapting or reworking existing intellectual property in recent years. With studios absorbed by the big corporations, marketing now decides which movies get the green light. And sadly, executives consider original a four-letter word.
Yet many properties, particularly classic literature, deserve reinterpretation for a new generation. A writer or director can also make a fascinating film by bringing their unique style to a classic work, making it relevant for modern audiences. Many of these classics get remade over the decades because the material examines the human condition.
Assembled below, find a list of the top intellectual properties that Hollywood can’t quit.
Hollywood’s long fascination with the legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men dates back to the silent era when Douglas Fairbanks starred as the famed archer in 1922. Errol Flynn brought his brand of swash and buckle to the lavish technicolor The Adventures of Robin Hood, pairing him with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. Disney released an animated version in 1973 that populated the classic tale with animals, with a wily fox playing the title character.
By far, the most popular incarnation of the character remains the 1991 summer blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, headlined by Kevin Costner. Despite a fantastic, scenery-chewing performance by Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Costner remains miscast as the spirited archer. He doesn’t even attempt a British accent.
As the classic tale of the thief stealing from the rich grows in relevance in this age of inequality, the more recent adaptations haven’t done the legend any favors. Director Ridley Scott brought his Gladiator approach to the material with Robin Hood, starring an equally miscast Russell Crowe. In 2018, the talented Taron Egerton and Jaimie Foxx attempted an edgier approach to the mythic storyline. But the film tries so hard to be stylish and hip that it loses sight of its main character.
In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published her famous, and at the time, controversial, two-part novel Little Women. The classic tale chronicles Jo March and her three sisters coming of age during America’s Civil War. The slice-of-life storytelling became popular with girls of all ages, but the book crosses gender lines by exploring the writing process through Jo March, making it required reading for ambitious storytellers.
Little Women spawned dozens of adaptions over the decades. MGM alone made two big screen versions that starred the likes of Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Janet Leigh. On the TV side, it’s hard to keep count of the multiple mini-series produced from broadcast to BBC. In 2018, Alcott’s classic tome received a little-seen modern-day reinterpretation that’s a fascinating watch. The March sisters even made their Broadway musical debut in 2005.
Yet the two most recent film translations remain the best adaptions of Alcott’s Ode to sisterhood. In 1994, Winona Ryder brought her star power to a faithful and earnest retelling directed by Gillian Armstrong. For any Little Women newcomers, this version hits all the major beats of the novel and features a smorgasbord of upcoming stars like Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale.
But for viewers who want a more complex interpretation of Alcott’s novel, look no further than the 2019 Greta Gerwig adaption. Before she remade Barbie into a pop culture icon, Gerwig brought a deconstructionist lens to the March sisters. Utilizing a flashback structure, the film focuses on the sisters navigating a complicated world as they remember the simple lessons from childhood. At times, the film plays like a meta-narrative dialogue between Gerwig and Alcott that recontextualizes many of the novel’s classic sequences. For now, this remains the definitive version of Little Women.
Lew Wallace’s historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ received three audacious film versions that span the history of Hollywood. The story follows the Jewish Prince Ben-Hur who is sold into slavery after being betrayed by his childhood friend, Messala. But Ben-Hur perseveres and rises through the ranks, eventually winning his freedom in a spectacular chariot race.
MGM’s budget-busting 1925 silent epic became the studio's first massive hit, making Ramon Navarro a star. The production cost a record 3.9 million, making it the most expensive film of the silent era. The 100-year-old film nearly broke MGM with its constant shooting delays and ballooning budget. But the results are all on screen, making this incarnation a beloved silent classic.
In 1959, MGM raided its library and produced a new version of the novel. This even more lavish take on the material stars Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur and became an Easter staple. The film turned a substantial profit thanks to its larger-than-life production and thrilling set pieces like the iconic chariot race. The remake also features a subtle, queer-coded relationship between Ben-Hur and his “best friend” Messala, adding a new layer of drama to the story.
But the third time was not the charm for the 2016 Timur Bekmambetov-directed reimaging that was DOA upon arrival. This Ben-Hur hoped to ride the sword and sandals revival kickstarted by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (itself a loose adaption of the story). But the stylish feature proved to be an expensive misfire, lacking the passion and drama of the classic predecessors.
Hollywood and author Jane Austen share a passionate, decades-long love affair. One of her most beloved novels, Emma, follows the adventures of a naïve but hopeful matchmaker who tries to unite couples wrong for each other with comic results. Gwyneth Paltrow starred in the popular 1996 film, a faithful, charming version of the novel. And in 2020, Ana Taylor Joy played the romantic heroine in the colorful and stylized Emma. This incarnation features a heightened comedic tone contrasting with the more naturalistic 1996 adaptation.
And Emma served as the inspiration for the 1995 teen classic Clueless. The film updates the material to a 1990s Beverly Hills high school, reinterpreting the novel’s main plot beats in clever ways. And Alicia Silverstone’s charming performance does Austen’s heroine proud, retaining the sweet romantic spirit of the novel.
Several visionary filmmakers have reimagined the Dark Knight and his rogues’ gallery of villains. The kitschy TV series starring Adam West became a beloved favorite when it premiered in 1966. The show pushed the character into camp territory with big-name actors like Cesar Romero and Julie Newmar chewing the scenery in their villainous roles.
In 1989, director Tim Burton gave the caped crusader a gothic makeover with his visually stunning Batman. Starring fan favorite Michael Keaton, both Batman and the sequel Batman Returns create a brooding atmosphere with narratively inert storylines. When Joel Schumacher took over the franchise, he amped up the kitsch factor, creating a strange tonal hybrid of the Adam West TV series and the edgy visual look of the Burton films.
Christopher Nolan brought his auteur sensibilities to the franchise in 2005’s Batman Begins with Christian Bale. Nolan traded Burton’s stylized tone for a grittier atmosphere that recalls Michal Mann’s Heat. His Dark Knight trilogy maps out Batman’s relationship with fear (Batman Begins), chaos (The Dark Knight), and pain (The Dark Knight Rises). Nolan's reinterpretation of the vigilante remains the gold standard for superhero filmmaking.
Warner Bros brought Batman into their shared cinematic universe, attempting to mimic the success of Disney’s MCU in Batman v Superman. The critically panned blockbuster featured Ben Affleck as an older, semi-retired caped crusader who returns to battle Henry Cavill’s Superman. Sadly, Warner Bros abandoned this incarnation of the character in favor of yet another reboot of the DC cinematic universe.
But Batman lives on thanks to Matt Reeves's excellent The Batman, starring Robert Pattison and Zoe Kravitz. Reeves is hard at work on a sequel to his bold and haunted vision of Hollywood’s favorite superhero.
Romeo & Juliet
The OG dramatist who shaped dramatic storytelling has seen his work radically adapted to the screen. The star-crossed romance of Romeo & Juliet remains one of Shakespeare’s most beloved works. The play practically invented the notion of teen romance and forbidden love set against the backdrop of two warring families in Verona.
The most faithful film adaption of the play comes from acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli. The 1968 Romeo and Juliet stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as the young lovers and leans into the play's theatrical roots. The movie courted controversy as Hussey and Whiting were actual teenagers when filming the picture's steamy love scenes.
For those with more daring tastes, Baz Luhrmann directed the post-modern Romeo + Juliet in 1996. This adaptation updated the material to a modern-day Verona, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes. While Luhrmann butchers Shakespeare’s text, the director’s rapid-fire editing and musical sensibilities reinvigorate the classic romance for a new audience.
Romeo and Juliet also served as the inspiration for the Broadway musical West Side Story. The original production and two subsequent film adaptions use the story's basic premise, moving the action to 1950s New York. Audiences unfairly overlooked Steven Spielberg’s surprisingly strong film version when released in 2021.
Like Batman, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire has seen his share of remakes over the years. In 1922, German director F.W. Murnau crafted a loose adaption of the story with his atmospheric Nosferatu. The now 101-year-old film remains a frightening watch thanks to the performance of Max Schreck and the creepy, moonlit-drenched cinematography.
But Bela Lugosi's performance in 1931’s Dracula turned the vampire into an iconic character. Dracula became the centerpiece of Universal’s classic monster-themed films featuring The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. In Hammer's edgier update, Christopher Lee played the undead count, giving his Dracula a magnetic makeover.
In 1991, Francis Ford Coppola directed the macabre remake Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Coppola infuses Stoker’s text with a grand guignol theatricality, filling the screen with gonzo in-house effects that evoke the classic movie monster features. The film assembled an eclectic group of actors like Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Gary Oldman as Dracula. This adaption frames the tale as a love story, bringing an air of gothic romance.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s famous novel has long been part of the Hollywood remake machine. The classic tale charts the combative courtship of feisty Elizabeth Bennet and the brooding Mr. Darcy, exploring the pressure of women to marry and marry well. For Austen superfans, the 1995 BBC mini-series starring a dashing Colin Firth as Darcy remains the most beloved and faithful version of Austen’s text.
One wonders what Austen would think of the wildly offbeat Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel. The film takes Austen’s classic love story and gives it an Evil Dead makeover, setting the action in an alternative version of England filled with flesh-eating zombies. The movie hits all the novel's major beats in this stylized atmosphere, even as the filmmakers turn Darcy into a Marvel-style superhero. The ridiculous finale with Darcy fighting George Wickham, now remade as a zombie anti-Christ leading the undead army, must be seen to be believed.
The most popular version of Pride and Prejudice remains the lush 2005 film starring Keira Knightly as Elizabeth. Austen fans might bristle at the streamlined storytelling, but the film captures the deeply felt romance of Elizabeth and Darcy as they navigate their complicated courtship.
The legend of King Arthur, his mighty sword Excalibur, and the Knights of the Round Table reads like an ancient comic book tailor-made for the cinema. The varied incarnations define themselves by the character of Arthur’s mentor, the wizard Merlin. Many earlier adaptions present Merlin as a playful trickster with magical powers that push the material into fantasy adventure territory. The more recent incarnations prefer a grounded tone, removing Merlin and the mystical elements entirely.
John Boorman’s Excalibur embraces the fantasy aspects of the Arthurian legend, placing them front and center. The 1981 film was initially developed as a live-action Lord of the Rings, and the film’s rich cinematography heightens the medieval atmosphere. The central conflict between Merlin and his corrupt student, Morgana, drives the narrative, treating Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot as side characters. But Boorman’s larger-than-life visuals and a top-flight cast make Excalibur the most authentic film interpretation of the classic legend.
On the other side of the spectrum, 2004’s King Arthur gives the Camelot saga a gritty, action-heavy makeover. This magic-free retelling, directed by Antoine Fuqua, focuses on the historical King Arthur and his merry band of knights. The intense action set pieces recall Braveheart, and Fuqua brings a mythic quality to the historical figures. But by removing the supernatural elements of Excalibur and Merlin, the film lacks the high adventure tone that makes the Arthurian myth so compelling.
The Great Gatsby
Hollywood has adapted Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel exploring the decadence of the Jazz Age into four very different films. A silent version produced a year after the book’s release has been lost, with just a one-minute trailer teasing the picture’s melodramatic tone. The 1949 The Great Gatsby, starring Alan Ladd, infuses the story with a noirish atmosphere, but the censors of the time dilute the seedier aspects of the novel.
In 1974, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow starred in a big-budget adaptation scripted by Francis Ford Coppola. Redford perfectly inhabits the title character, and the gorgeous costumes and production design make the picture a visual feast. Yet the slavish devotion to the novel creates a flat, uninvolving tone, and Farrow’s grating performance doesn’t help. Sadly, the beautiful movie makes for a tedious watch.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann seems like an odd fit for The Great Gatsby, but his frenetic filmmaking style perfectly fits the Jazz Age set story. Released in 2013, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan headline the hyper-stylized version of Fitzgerald’s text. This remake brings new flavors to the story while staying faithful to the book, and the innovative soundtrack blends the sounds of Gershwin, hip-hop, and modern pop. While one wishes that Luhrmann had cast more American actors for this uniquely American story, the actors embrace the heightened drama of the classic novel.
Arguably one of the most famous fairy tales ever, Cinderella has seen hundreds of variations since the story was first published in 1697. There’s a version of the classic folk tale for everyone. Disney fans will enjoy the studio's beautifully animated 1950 picture co-starring her two precocious mouse helpers. Broadway lovers get two versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s beloved musical. There’s the 1965 TV movie starring Lesley Ann Warren, then updated in 1997 with R&B star Brandy and Whitney Houston. In 1998, Drew Barrymore produced and starred in Ever After: A Cinderella Story, giving the storyline a feminist twist.
Kenneth Branagh directed a romantic reinterpretation of the fairy tale in 2015. Originally developed as a dreaded live-action remake of the Disney classic, Branagh wisely ignored the animated version, crafting a charming, modern take on the character. Lily James makes for a lovely Cinderella, and the movie bursts with bright technicolor visuals that recall the old-school charm of the MGM musicals.
Amazon Prime produced the most recent version in 2021, with pop star Camila Cabello in the title role. The film takes significant liberties with the classic storyline, and the jukebox musical uses pop songs from various eras to great effect. There’s a nice collection of actors surrounding Cabello, including Billy Porter, who practically steals the movie with his gender-bending performance of the fairy “godmother.”