Happy National Writing Day! Looking for inspiration for that great novel/epic film/era-defining limerick you’ve been meaning to write? Take a look through this list of stories that have inspired generations of writers. Perhaps you’ll find something you can put your own spin on.
Romeo and Juliet
Everyone knows what a Romeo and Juliet story is. It’s West Side Story. It’s Noughts and Crosses. It’s Twilight. It’s Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. The tale of two star-cross’d lovers, insistent that love can overcome the hate between their two tribes.
Shakespeare didn’t invent the plot, but his play is the template for an abundance of imitators. Change the environment or change the conflict between the families and voila, you’ve got a brand new story. Whether your version ends happily or not is completely up to you.
Lord of the Flies
The Simpsons have retold nearly all of these stories at some point. The episode, Das Bus, where the students of Springfield Elementary were stranded on an island was one of their more direct adaptations.
William Golding’s novel about unsupervised English choirboys running rampant on a desert island also inspired Libba Bray’s brilliant book Beauty Queens, which replaces the boys with teenage beauty pageant contestants. The concept is particularly popular on TV. Lost used the formula to great success, as did reality series Survivor. The simple set-up of Golding’s book allows writers to substitute whichever demographic they like into the place of the boys, and then it’s social commentary ahoy.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece kickstarted the entire genre of science-fiction. However, there are a number of different directions writers have gone with it. If you want to focus on the arrogant scientist whose subject outgrows him, there’s George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (admittedly also based on its own earlier myth). If it’s the reanimating dead bodies that grabs you, then there’s Robocop. If you like your mad scientists to come with music, B-movie homage, and disrupted sexual norms, then look to The Rocky Horror Show, my friend.
The most recent story on the list but one that is having a moment. Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day, Russian Doll, and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle have all borrowed its time-loop concept over the last decade.
Upcoming rom-com Palm Springs also looks to play off our shared understanding of the Groundhog Day plot. As with many of these stories, the plot can work in any genre, transferring to different environments and characters to tell a new story every time. Danny Rubin’s initial concept has the added bonus of setting writers up with a story that prioritises character growth. When done right, as in Harold Ramis’ film, the emotional pay-off can be magical.
One of the earliest stories most of us ever hear. Christopher Booker’s brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots divides every story ever told into seven different structures. Cinderella is the archetype for the Rags to Riches structure and has therefore been broadly adapted in millions of ways. Its legacy runs from The Sword in the Stone to Rocky. Some stories have taken more specific inspiration from the tale, though modern versions generally seek to give their Cinderella-character a bit more agency. Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries is a prime example, as an ordinary teenager learns she’s a princess, without needing a prince to get there.
Red Harvest probably has less name recognition than many others on this list, but Dashiell Hammett’s gangster novel formed the basis for fundamental films in both the samurai and western genres. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo took Hammett’s plot and applied it to feudal Japan, before Sergio Leone reused it for A Fistful of Dollars, the first of his and Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns. Later, the Coen brothers reclaimed it for gangster movies with Miller’s Crossing. A story of a canny outsider walking into the middle of a gang war and playing all sides off against each other is well-suited to each of these genres, and possibly to a few more we’re yet to see.
The War of the Worlds
The quintessential alien invasion story has, unsurprisingly, lent itself to plenty of stories about alien invasions. Independence Day and Avatar are just two films which must be grateful for H.G. Wells’ book. But – as Avatar showed – there’s no reason why it has to be aliens doing the invading. Sci-fi stories often act as analogies for things happening on our own globe, and real life has never been short of brutal invasions. Stories that shrink the scale right down, such as Assault on Precinct 13 or Panic Room, borrow from Wells just as much. Then there are horrors such as The Walking Dead, or Night of the Living Dead, where the invasion is supernatural. Panic, terror and helplessness apply in many different situations, after all.
And Then There Were None
Another that may not have the highest name recognition, partly due to multiple, very necessary, title changes. But Agatha Christie’s book introduced the ‘murder island’ concept. Ten strangers are stranded on an island, while an unknown killer picks them off one by one. It borrows from another novel on this list, Lord of the Flies, but turns the focus towards murder mystery.
The environment is more flexible than Lord of the Flies. Any cut-off location will do. It could be an old country house – a location Christie herself was fond of – or the Antarctic, as with the multiple versions of The Thing. The premise even lends itself quite well to farce – watch 1985’s Clue for an example. The whole slasher-horror genre owes a debt to Christie’s story.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Mr Hyde’s most obvious successor is The Incredible Hulk. However, plenty of superheroes with their dual identities and scientifically-enhanced abilities borrow something from Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark tale. As do werewolves, the classic monster most likely to resist their own transformation. Flowers For Algernon shows that Jekyll and Hyde stories can be told even without such a clear-cut hero and monster dynamic. All you need is a character divided within themselves.
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