When Art and Film Become One: 9 Movies Inspired by Art

botticelli art and film
Scene from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) inspired by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Art and film are inextricably linked, both employing masterful techniques to create an incredible aesthetic, tell fascinating stories and evoke powerful emotions. It therefore comes as no surprise that film directors choose to pay homage to the world’s greatest art masterpieces. Whether it be through a character, location or even a near-identical cinematic recreation, the references directors make to an artwork can be subtle or totally unmistakeable! Discover 9 movies where artistic boundaries blur and art and film become one…

1. Scream (2000) and Edvard Munch’s The Scream

Scream art and film
Left: Scream (2000) / Right: Edvard Munch’s The Scream

Wes Craven’s iconic and influential slasher horror franchise draws clear inspiration from the Norwegian Expressionist, and Craven’s favorite artist, Edvard Munch’s famous Modernist painting The Scream. The painting depicts an ambiguous, genderless face that radiates chaos and fear, amplified by the painting’s anxiety driving yellow and red tones in the sky above.

Craven embodies this chaotic, fearful energy of the painting through the Scream franchise’s iconic Ghostface mask. Worn by several different characters, like the painting the mask renders their identity to nothing, leaving only these powerful emotions.

2. Shutter Island (2010) and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss

Shutter island art and film
Left: Shutter Island (2010) / Right: Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss

Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss is thought to be symbolic of Klimt’s relationship with Emilie Flöge. The artwork is often considered an archetypal depiction of lust and romantic love. Klimt’s contrast between the simple background and the ornately adorned figures of the lovers highlights their importance to one another. 

Martin Scorcese’s neo-noir psychological thriller Shutter Island overtly recreates this painting. This can be seen from details such as the patterns of the woman’s dress to the muted golden and green tones in the background. This artistic reference has the effect of emphasizing the intense lust and instability of the marriage between Leonardo di Caprio and Michelle Williams’ characters.

3. Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

hopper art and film
Left: Pennies from Heaven (1981) / Right: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

The 1981 film Pennies from Heaven directed by Herbert Ross features a movie scene that bears a powerfully distinct likeness to Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks. The painting depicts four individuals in close proximity, although their vacant expressions indicate an emotional distance between them. Hopper’s intention for the piece was to represent the paradox between feelings of isolation and being in an urban space. The use of light and color, moving between dark, gloomy tones and stark, fluorescent light, further creates a bleak tone, void of any hope.

Set during the American Depression era, a period of despair and hardship, the protagonist of Pennies from Heaven struggles to succeed and connect with those around him. The painting’s recreation therefore becomes a symbol of the isolation and hopelessness at the forefront of Ross’s film.

4. Django Unchained (2014) and Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy

django unchained art and film
Left: Django Unchained (2014) / Right: Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy

Quentin Tarantino’s post-Western blockbuster Django Unchained earned renowned critical acclaim. This was in large part for its subversion of Hollywood’s longstanding and overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Black individuals. The film’s costume designer was drawn to The Blue Boy, a commissioned portrait of a white, wealthy merchant’s young son, after learning that the title character of Django, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, would wear a blue suit in his new line of work as a bounty hunter after having escaped slavery. 

Adopting a similar attire to this white boy of immense privilege and reasonable status contributed to the director’s intended subversion of racial stereotypes. In addition to this, it is symbolic of the character of Django’s shift in societal position.

5. The Shining (1980) and Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Left: The Shining (1980) / Right: Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining based on the novel by Stephen King is known for its iconic identical twins. The girls, who haunt the hotel that the protagonist caretakes, terrorize both him and the audience with their eerie likeness. Over the years, they have become a symbolic cliché of the horror genre.

Diane Arbus is known for her photographs of people considered to be outsiders or unusual. One such example is this iconic photograph taken in 1967 of Cathleen et Colleen Wade, a pair of 7 year old twins.  Kubrick is known to be a fan of Arbus’ work, and although this inspiration is unconfirmed, the likeness is so striking that it’s bound to bear some truth!

6. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son

Left: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) / Right: Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son

Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth leaves many with haunting memories of the nightmarish monster the Pale Man. However, it would appear that the monster is not purely derived from the filmmaker’s imagination. It is instead an homage to Italian artist Francisco Goya, a favorite of de Toro. A scene in which the Pale Man consumes a fairy bears a striking resemblance to Goya’s mythical painting Saturn Devouring His Son. The artwork depicts the Roman god Saturn is depicted consuming his own child. The horrific brutality of the painting no doubt contributed to creating the movie’s terrifyingly memorable antagonist.

And this wouldn’t be the only time that del Toro has drawn inspiration from Goya! In his film Pacific Rim, the director reimagines the giant of Goya’s The Colossus as an enormous robot, once again connecting art and film.

7. A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Vincent Van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising

Right: A Clockwork Orange (1971) / Left: Vincent Van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising

Stanley Kubrick’s nightmarish and violent film is based on the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name. The story unveils a horrifying and bleak portrayal of human nature. After committing a brutal attack, the protagonist Alex is imprisoned, where he experiences an inhumane experimental treatment intended to treat his violent impulses.

In one scene, the prison inmates are exercised by being continually led in circles. The claustrophobic atmosphere created by the tight, high walls draws clear influence from Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Prisoners Exercising. In recreating these elements of the painting, the director highlights the dehumanizing conditions of prisons and by extension the protagonist’s unsuccessful experimental therapy.

8. The Dark Knight (2008) and Francis Bacon’s Head VI

Left: The Dark Knight (2008) / Right: Francis Bacon’s Head VI

Christopher Nolan’s 2008 addition is perhaps best known for Heath Ledger’s phenomenal portrayal of the Joker. The perfect characterization of this villain is without doubt accredited to Ledger. However, it is the director that created the character’s equally iconic aesthetic, inspired by his favorite artist, Francis Bacon.

The artist’s Head VI drew in Nolan with its chaotic energy, purple tones and smearing colors. Subsequently, he decided to incorporate these elements of the painting into the Joker’s chaotic makeup and purple costume. This wild, messy aesthetic perfectly reflected the erratic and unpredictable personality of the character.

9. The Exorcist (1973) and René Magritte’s Empire of Light

Left: The Exorcist (1973) / Right: René Magritte’s Empire of Light

Director William Friedkin’s cult classic film The Exorcist marked a new chapter in the horror cinema genre. Rumour has it that the director saw the Belgian artist René Magritte’s painting Empire of Light and was struck with inspiration. 

The legendary Surrealist’s painting was undoubtedly the perfect choice to inspire this eerie shot; the mysterious darkness shrouding the house, and pockets of light emanating from it create a strong sense of foreboding. Using Magritte’s Surrealist art style as a reference point also creates the perfect ambiance for the paranormal film.

Art and Film: Bound Together

If these past cinematic examples are anything to go by, then there’s no doubt that filmmakers will continue to draw inspiration from the art world in the future. Art and film share such profound links that it is difficult to separate them. Next time you sit down to watch a movie, keep your eyes peeled for a touch of Hopper or Hockney! Sometimes directors even choose to put physical famous artworks in their movies, sometimes as a focal point of the plot or a hidden easter egg. Here are 10 famous artworks you can spot in movies!

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