5 Famous Movies Whose Stories Are Way Older Than We Knew
By this point in the internet, you’ve almost certainly heard the saying “good artists borrow, great artists steal” at least once. And while Pablo Picasso was talking about painting, nowhere is the sentiment more obvious than in filmmaking. Turns out money and explosions can go a long way in hiding a screenwriter’s influences.
Some of the biggest, wackiest, most original movies out there actually have their origins in stories that are much, much, much older. Because, when it comes right down to it, unless you’re Ogg the Caveman, there’s just no such thing as a new idea ...
Dentists, Seances, and the Real-Life Inspirations for Ghostbusters
The stone-cold horror-comedy classic Ghostbusters doesn’t seem like a top contender for being based on a true story, but Ray Stantz would beg to differ. The movie wasn’t only informed by comedies from the 1940s but by co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s own great-grandfather, Samuel Aykroyd, who was himself inspired by Victorian-era ghost-hunters and proto-occultists from the 1700s. Still, no word on if Samuel got deadhead though.
The story, appropriately, starts in a dark and spooky basement. While digging through his late grandfather’s belongings, Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s father) came across a blue trunk containing a whopping 83 journals from the early 1900s, almost all of them about ghosts. For two entire decades, Samuel Aykroyd had meticulously documented the seances he’d witnessed and taken part in, as well as all his other beliefs about the supernatural.
This side hustle as a paranormal investigator began with, of all things, dentistry. Before drugs, hypnosis was an actual, viable method of pain management. And while Samuel probably didn’t swing a gold watch in front of any of his patients’ eyes, his profession’s flirting with mesmerism certainly set off his curiosity. His medical training led him to adopt the academic, “science-based” approach to the occult favored by the American Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1884, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
Around this same time, a new fascination with the occult was sweeping the globe. A host of various influences – including the Fox Sisters infamously letting a prank go too far in the 1850s and the resurgence of 1700s’ clairvoyant/cult-leader Emmanuel Swedenborg’s beliefs in life after death – were merging, and Samuel was going hard on each one. Soon enough, he was neck-deep in the growing Spiritualism movement and trying to talk to the other side.
Samuel’s work was – and is still – a huge influence on the Aykroyd family. His son, an engineer, tried to build a device to communicate directly with ghosts, only for the ghosts to tell him to knock it off. His grandson, Peter, literally wrote a book on ghost-hunting, while Dan brought the “family business” to the world at large via green slime.
So that’s what, four history-minded science nerds obsessed with ghosts? Why does that sound familiar?
SpongeBob SquarePants Went on a Literal Odyssey
2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is – and hear us out – a Greek tragedy. In fact, it’s a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, in ways that go far beyond the archetypal hero’s journey the epic poem represents. For starters, the impetus of the movie is SpongeBob trying to prove he’s a man, much like Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Plankton, meanwhile, sets about trying to usurp the Krusty Krab and the Krusty Burger recipe, the same way countless suitors are trying to grab Odysseus’s wife and home and wealth.
From then on, SpongeBob and Patrick follow almost exactly in Odysseus’s footsteps: after upsetting a vengeful sea god, they end up lost and far from home. They crash the Patty Wagon and end up shipwrecked. They get captured by a cyclops. Along the way, Mindy, a goddess, keeps helping them out, including by giving them a bag of wind – a bag that then gets opened incorrectly and ruins everything.
Mike Merucci of Michigan State University Student Radio, in a deep and cogent analysis to which we can only hope to aspire, takes things even further. A gas station fills in for the underworld. David Hasselhoff represents Odysseus’s Phaeacian saviors. And “The Goofy Goober Song” is as enchanting as any siren’s call.
While creator and writer Stephen Hillenburg never name-dropped Homer, he did specifically refer to the movie’s story as an “odyssey,” which is not a word often used when you’re trying to sell a cartoon to kids.
Ex Machina Is Basically the Fairy Tale of Bluebeard (With Some Shakespeare For Good Measure)
For a movie set “10 minutes in the future,” 2014’s Ex Machina sure does love borrowing plots from the 1600s. Alex Garland’s critical darling about artificial intelligence and sex robots is basically the bastard child of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Bluebeard fairy tale.
Let’s start with the latter: in “Bluebeard,” there’s a man called Bluebeard, and he has a blue beard, which, for some reason, makes him a hideous freak. Despite being extraordinarily wealthy and charming, he can’t seem to find a wife. In order to rectify this, he invites a pair of sisters to his palatial estate for a week, successfully wooing the younger one, and the two get married. Bluebeard gives the unnamed woman a bunch of keys and tells her she has free reign of his house – except for one room, a closet.
Mr. Beard goes away on business, Mrs. Beard throws a rager, and then, naturally, she breaks into the forbidden closet. There she finds a horror show of blood and bones, all the previous wives Bluebeard has murdered. He discovers this discovery, becomes enraged, and decides to add his newest wife to the corpse pile. The wife lies about needing to say her prayers first and calls to her sister; the sister gets their cop brothers involved, who immediately show up and stab Bluebeard to death. The end.
If you’ve seen Ex Machina, then all of that surely sounds familiar. Like, it’s not even subtle. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, founder of the search engine Blue Book and owner of a magnificent beard.
He invites hapless coder Caleb to his rich-person cabin for a week to run a Turing test on Ava, his new artificial intelligence android. Nate gives Caleb a keycard and tells him he can go into some rooms, but not all. Caleb, naturally, breaks into one of those off-limits rooms, opens some closets, and finds the mangled bodies of previous androids. Nathan discovers this discovery and gets ready to murder Caleb, only for a plot to be hatched and Nathan to get stabbed to death instead.
There’s also a good bit of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in there, too. In the play, Prospero, a sorcerer, enslaves Caliban and Ariel, similar to the way Nathan treats his sex-bot servant Kyoko. Prospero also keeps his daughter, Miranda, as a prisoner until Ferdinand – the first non-dad male she’s ever seen – shows up. Prospero starts pulling strings and smashing them together like Barbie dolls, a la Nathan’s puppet-mastering of Ava and Caleb.
And, as a bonus, Ex Machina even keeps in all the gross and outdated misogyny. All the women in the movie are literally objects, and all of them are gratuitously and exploitatively nude under the misguided guise of progressive feminism. What a treat!
Mannequin Wasn’t the First Time Someone Wanted to Sex a Statue
1987’s magnum opus of cinema-as-art, Mannequin, is based on the play One Touch of Venus, which is itself based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion. Because a dude wanting to bone a lady statue so badly she actually comes to life is, apparently, a tale as old as time.
While scraps of Pygmalion had existed for a while, Ovid was the first to really flesh out the story in 8 AD. In his deft hands, ol’ King Pyggie became a sculptor and an incel, a guy so mad at ladies being slutty that he decides to deprive them of his dong. ‘cause that’ll learn ‘em not to go around showing people their ankles.
Worried his missing dingle might not be substantial enough to get his point across, our man Pyg decides to craft a statue of his “perfect virgin” woman, too. Before he can show off his sculpture, though, he falls in love with it, fondling it and kissing it and going to bed with it, until the goddess Venus gets so creeped out she turns the statue into a real lady. Pygmalion and the unnamed lady get married and have a kid and never talk about the whole “she used to be a rock” thing ever again.
While most Pygmalion riffs – My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, She’s All That – are based on wildly inaccurate readings of George Bernard Shaw’s feminist-leaning 1913 play, Mannequin can’t be bothered to even pretend to get it right. No, in true ‘80s’ fashion, the movie goes all the way back to Ovid's Metamorphoses and the story’s ancient, misogynist roots. The master craftsman is now a dummy-maker, and the prostitutes are replaced by a single nagging girlfriend, but otherwise, the moral’s the same: women are literal objects who know how to keep their mouths shut.
No wonder it’s accidentally a horror movie, too.
Little Shop of Horrors Is Based on a Hoax from the 1800s
Despite a musical built around a man-eating alien plant seeming like something out of a bad trip, there’s actually a straight line between 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors and the very first story of carnivorous flora ever, 1874’s “The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar.”
Let’s work our way backward: the Rick Moranis-starring Little Shop was a film version of the 1982 Off-Broadway musical of the same name by eventual Disney kings Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. That musical was a singing and dancing version of Roger Corman’s low-budget black comedy The Little Shop of Horrors, released in 1960. With slight differences, all three revolve around a sad-sack flower shop employee who comes across a weird plant that needs human blood to survive and eventually murders literally everyone.
But wait, there’s more! In 1956, Arthur C. Clarke published “The Reluctant Orchid,” a story about a botanist who discovers a man-eating plant and starts feeding it people he despises. Clarke himself was influenced by H.G. Wells’ “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” first published all the way back in 1894. Clarke even name-checks Wells’ story about virulent, blood-sucking vegetation in his own.
Wells’ story, meanwhile, was (most likely) based on “The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar,” a hoax essay first published in 1874 that took the world by storm. 1874, by the way, was the very same year a young and impressionable Wells was bedridden with a broken leg and reading everything he could find.
“The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar,” about a forgotten tribe that sacrifices women to a tendrilled and bloodthirsty pineapple-shaped tree, is problematically racist, but back before human decency was invented, the story was all the rage. For fourteen years, the general population believed the story was fact, and even after aspiring horror writer Edmund Spencer was outed as the author, the tale kept going. As late as 1932, actual scientists were going on actual expeditions to try and find the tree, and as recently as 20-freaking-14 desperate cryptozoologists were still arguing for its existence.
No word, though, on whether or not anyone bothered to look in New York’s Skid Row.
Eirik Gumeny (@egumeny) is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters. His atompunk western, Beggars Would Ride, is due out this fall.
Thumbnail: Nickelodeon Movies, Columbia Pictures