When you’re writing a script, a nasty voice in your head might keep saying: “It’s all been done before.” Sometimes this can be disheartening. But hey, don’t be sad! The truth is that many stories have been told and retold over and over again. And the magical thing is, there’s something called the Public Domain which contains thousands of stories that can inspire a new take on an old tale.
Have a script based on the Public Domain? Enter the ScreenCraft Public Domain Screenplay Contest here.
The undisputed champion of this is Disney. Many of your much-cherished Disney masterpieces were inspired by stories from the Public Domain, which is made up of works whose copyrights have run out. We were excited by this article by Forbes, which details 50 such movies. It just goes to show that there’s a lot of money that can be made from classic stories if you time it right. Let’s take a look at some favorites.
The Disney version is remembered for its brilliant music, Robin Williams’ performance, and a lead character that looks suspiciously like Tom Cruise. But the original story, called Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, appeared in the Middle Eastern anthology One Thousand and One Nights. This collection goes back to around the 10th century, but only later translations include stories like Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. There have been countless versions of Aladdin, including written stories, theater performances and film interpretations, and elements change from piece to piece. But the important elements are all there for us to recognize and enjoy.
Watch the original trailer here:
2 & 3. The Jungle Book
Another collection of stories comes from Rudyard Kipling in his 1894 publication The Jungle Book. As you’d expect, most of the characters are animals, with our human hero Mowgli at the center. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, Kipling himself admitted to taking parts of the stories from elsewhere, showing just how much these iconic stories borrow from previous ones. There have been two Disney adaptations of The Jungle Book: the animated version (1967) and a live action version (1994). It’s probably safe to say the animated version, with its memorable soundtrack, comes to mind first. Now’s the time to start running “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” through your head for the rest of the day.
Watch the original 1967 trailer here:
Watch the original 1994 trailer here:
4. Robin Hood
Why is Robin Hood considered to be in the public domain? Easy – because it comes from oral tradition (and thus has no copyright). Robin Hood is the hero of old English folktales, not traceable to a specific publication. The folklore references King Richard, who died in the 12th century, so that gives some indication how far back the tales go of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In 1973 Disney took the story and turned it into yet another animated musical. The main difference? Everyone is represented by an animal, not a person. This movie is a great example of how you can take extremely thin material, such as very old ballads, and turn it into a film with added characters and a new plot. Not to mention foxes, bears and lions running around the English countryside.
Watch the “special edition” trailer here:
Hans Christian Andersen is responsible for many children’s stories, including The Little Mermaid (yes that one) and The Emperor’s New Clothes. One other you may know is The Snow Queen, which is what Frozen is based on. Anderson’s story is relatively long, and thus much had to be left out and changed for the film. It also focuses intently on the battle between good and evil, as exhibited by the appearance of the Devil himself. Producer Peter Del Vecho said: “Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Snow Queen is a pretty dark tale and it doesn’t translate easily into a film. For us, the breakthrough came when we tried to give really human qualities to the Snow Queen. When we decided to make the Snow Queen, Elsa, and our protagonist, Anna, sisters, that gave a way to relate to the characters in a way that conveyed what each was going through and that would relate for today’s audiences.”
Watch the original trailer here:
6 & 7. Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and tested his audience’s patience for a bizarre narrative and utterly nonsensical dialogue. The result? One of the most beloved stories of all time. No wonder Disney snapped at the opportunity to turn it into an animated feature in 1951 (Alice in Wonderland), plus the Tim Burton, live-action version in 2010. Carroll’s original version is filled with songs and poems, many of them parodies of contemporary musical pieces. The 1951 version is highly regarded, although it didn’t do well upon release. Because the words themselves are so integral to the rhythm and comedy of the book, Walt Disney himself insisted that the adaptation stick as close as possible to the original text.
Watch the original 1951 trailer here:
Watch the original 2010 trailer here:
Here are the rest of the fifty Disney movies inspired by the public domain, as per Forbes:
8. Adventures of Huck Finn (1993) based on Mark Twain’s book (1885)
9. Tom and Huck (1995) based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)
10. Around the World in 80 Days (2004) based on Jules Verne’s book (1873)
11. Atlantis (2001) from the Legend of Atlantis (Socratic Dialogues “Timaeus” & “Critias” by Plato ~360 BC.)
12. Beauty and the Beast (1991) by G-S Barbot de Villeneuve’s book (1775)
13. Bug’s Life (1998) from Aesop’s Fables
14. Cinderella (1950) from Charles Perrault’s folk tale (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) (1697)
15. Chicken Little (2005) from the folk tale
16. Christmas Carol (2009) from Charles Dickens (1843)
17. Fantasia (1940) scored and based on Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven & other classical compositions (however, “The Rite Of Spring” was licensed)
18. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
19. Hercules (1997) from the Greek myth
20. In Search of the Castaways (1962) based on Jules Verne novel (1868)
21. John Carter (2012) based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)
22. Kidnapped (1960) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
23. Little Mermaid (1989) by Hans Christian Anderson (1837)
24. Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. (1966) based on Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
25. Mulan (1998) from the Chinese Legend of Hua Mulan
26. Oliver & Company (1988) based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1839)
27. Return to Neverland (2002) based on Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (1904)
28. Pinocchio (1940) by Carlo Collodi (1883)
29. Pocahontas (1995) from the life and legend of Pocahontas
30. Princess and the Frog (2009) from the Brothers Grimm folk tale The Frog Prince
31. Return to Oz (1985) from L. Frank Baum’s books
32. Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953) based on Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (1817)
33. Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) from the poem by Johann Goethe (1797)
34. Snow White (1937) from the Brothers Grimm folk tale (1857)
35. Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the Charles Perrault folk tale (1697) (also with music/characters from Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet)
36. Swiss Family Robinson (1960) by Johann David Wyss (1812)
37. Tangled (2010) from the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel (1812)
38. Tarzan (1999) from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
39. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) based on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820) and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
40. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) from Victor Hugo’s Book (1831)
41. The Lion King (1994) from Hamlet (1603) and inspired from a 1960s Japanese animated series called Kimba the White Lion
42. Three Musketeers (1993) by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
43. The Reluctant Dragon (1941) based on the story by Kenneth Grahame (1898).
44. The Sword in the Stone (1963) from the Arthurian Legends
45. Treasure Planet (2002) based on Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
46. Muppet Treasure Island (1996) based on Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
47. Treasure Island (1950) based on Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
48. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) by Jules Verne (1870)
49. White Fang (1991) by Jack London (1906)
50. White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994) based on book by Jack London (1906)
Matt van Onselen is a South African screenwriter living in Los Angeles and a graduate of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program. He focuses on comedy writing, but will do anything for money.