35 Movies That Made Public Domain Characters Cool Again

35 Movies That Made Public Domain Characters Cool Again
Screenshot: Bram Stoker’s Dracula/Columbia Pictures, Fair Use

United States copyright law is a real beast. There was a time, not so long ago, when any creative work would fall into the public domain — meaning the original rights to the work had lapsed, allowing anyone to make use of the characters and ideas within it — after 42 years. Then, in the 1970s, the Walt Disney company realised it would lose control of some of their chief moneymakers (like, oh, Mickey Mouse), and lobbied congress to change the law. These days, copyrights can be extended more or less in perpetuity, provided you’ve got the right lawyers on your side.

Which is a real shame, because some really great things have happened to classic characters once freed from the bondage of their original creators’ control, allowing a new generation of writers, directors, and other assorted creatives to riff on, subvert, and generally fuck around with iconic stories. What follows are 35 films (OK, and a few TV shows) the Lifehacker staff loves for the way they play around with characters in the public domain. (Let us know your favourite interpretations — or where we erred — in the comments.)

God: Bruce Almighty (2003)

Remember that meme about reading “titty sprinkles” in Morgan Freeman’s voice? Well, the phenomenon is real, and while many of us might imagine God’s voice in deep, thunderous booms, I choose to imagine the one from the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty. Typically cast as white and male, the character of God saw some big-screen reimaginings around the turn of the century — and was notably played by Alanis Morissette in Dogma in 1999 — but it’s Morgan Freeman’s deity who stuck in my head most. That’s because it is a perfect portrayal — just don’t tell that to Egypt and Malaysia, who both banned the film from theatres as blasphemous because it depicted God as a man. Someone must’ve told them that Morgan Freeman is no ordinary human though, because they eventually lifted the ban. — Jordan Calhoun, editor-in-chief

Satan: Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell (2013)

OK, so this is actually a television show, but it features my absolute portrayal of Satan in any medium ever. In this show, hell is a standard American office (complete with cubicles and tech support) and Satan is a typical corporate managerial type, except this corporation is in the business of collecting souls. Satan is played by Matt Sertivo — who went to The Juliard School — and he absolutely nails the combination of corporate bro and Lucifer. — Claire Lower, senior food editor

Captain Hook: Hook (1991)

Tempted as I am to suggest you watch that NBC live presentation of the Peter Pan musical, in which Marnie from Girls plays Pan and Christopher Walken looks even more out of place than he usually does, I think the best version of the character (played by someone who isn’t Cathy Rigby) is in Spielberg’s Hook. In fact, just typing this out now makes me feel all warm, fuzzy, and nostalgic, and I think I’ll add watching it to my to-do list this weekend. Robin Williams was a genius, and that’s the only evidence you really need for this pick. — David Murphy, senior technology editor

Dracula: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Sure, this choice is a bit basic (the name of the original novel’s author is part of the title!), but Francis Ford Coppola’s early ‘90s take on the iconic bloodsucker is about as perfect as adaptations get. Gary Oldman’s incarnation of the count is equal parts alluring and gross, which is just how it should be, and the lurid production design and throwback in-camera special effects feel like a fever dream of the Victorian era made tempting flesh. (Also, it features Keanu Reeves’ most hilarious performance.) — Joel Cunningham, managing editor

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984–1994)

Sherlock Holmes is such an icon that anybody can slap a deerstalker hat and a vaguely mysterious story together and basically pull it off. But for a true Holmes experience, you need exquisitely clever, self-contained plots — ideally from the original stories — and an actor who conveys not just the character’s intelligence or propensity for brooding, but a sort of manic intensity. Jeremy Brett captures that better than any other Holmes I’ve seen. — Beth Skwarecki, senior health editor

Cinderella: Ever After — A Cinderella Story (1998)

This Cinderella (the rough-and-tumble-but-also-exquisite Drew Barrymore) doesn’t need magic to land her Prince Charming. She just needs some good friends, luxurious costumes, quick wit, and a little help from Leonardo da Vinci — as any commoner does. It also doesn’t hurt that her evil stepmother, played by Anjelica Huston, is the perfect mix of undeniably awful and a tad bit relatable.

Honorable mention goes to Brandy in the 1997 film Cinderella, which Lifehacker freelance writer Jaclyn Garver has dubbed as her favourite servant-girl-turned-royalty. — Meghan Walbert, parenting editor

Frankenstein: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Boris Karloff’s flat-topped, monosyllabic ogre is quite different from the highly intelligent, comparatively chatty version found in Mary Shelley’s original novel, but that’s what I like about it. Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel was essentially a written on a dare, and it later inspired the sensation novels (i.e., thrillers) of Victorian literature, with a through-line of supernatural horror that leads to the Karloff movies of the 1930s (Bride of Frankenstein being the best of the lot). While both versions of the character are tragic and misunderstood, the over-the-top film portrayal is so memorable that the cork-necked monster remains the most iconic interpretation to this day. — Mike Winters, finance writer

Snow White: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1939)

As much as I love the overly processed cheese of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman and the gaudy visuals of, uh, also 2012’s Mirror, Mirror, and as much as I regret they never made the Snow White + Samurai movie that was supposed to be written by Micael Chabon, there’s no beating the 1939 Disney original for its gorgeous animation or seismic cultural impact. Sure, Snow White herself is kind of a wilting flower, but she refuses to take any shit from those arsehole dwarfs, and that I can respect. — Joel Cunningham

Robin Hood: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is the perfect bad movie. My favourite guilty pleasure film features an American-accented Kevin Costner as Robin of Locksley alongside Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman as two of his Merry Men, opposite the late Alan Rickman as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham, and was the second-highest grossing film of 1991 — second only to Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Costner’s Robin Hood brought us countless deadpanned quips and funny moments — both intentional and not — in a quintessentially ‘90s action-adventure. If Disney’s Robin Hood or Robin Hood: Men In Tights are a bullseye for you, I understand completely, but I have to stay true to my heart. (Let’s agree to save our anger for Russel Crowe’s 2010 movie and the 2018 flop Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx. Remember those?)  — Jordan Calhoun

The Mummy: The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy is one of my all-time favourite movies to rewatch. The playful characters and ancient lore are just plain fun, and the story (obviously) never gets old. The Mummy (Imhotep), played by Arnold Vosloo, is a ride-or-die villain who will stop at nothing to be reunited with his love Anck Su Namun. Vosloo has a death stare that could suck the life out of you but is, in some form, an anti-hero. Even better, the movie also stars pretty people like Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Carnahan, librarian and hopeful archeologist; and Brendan Fraser as handsome, hapless adventure Rick O’Connell. — Aisha Jordan, staff writer

John Carter of Mars: John Carter (2012)

I don’t care if it was an infamous bomb, this movie is good and I shan’t hear you speak ill of it. Certainly it’s better than that other John Carter adaptation, the one starring Antonia Sabato, Jr. and Traci Lords. — Joel Cunningham

Quasimodo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1994)

The 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame might have a higher IMDB score, but I will argue that Disney’s 1996 adaptation has some of the best music of any of its animated films, period, including everyone’s favourite villain song, “Hellfire”, in which a Disney character sings about being too horny. And check out the staged musical if you ever get a chance; it’s hard to not feel moved when a choir is blasting these epic melodies right into your face. Having been in a version of said musical, I can confirm that it is epic, awesome, and beautiful. — David Murphy

Little Red Riding Hood: Red Riding Hood (2011)

I fully admit that this movie is, arguably, very bad. As an hormone-fuelled adaption of the timeless legend, however, it is also completely off the rails fun. Twilight director Catharine Hardwicke injects a strong streak of perhaps misguided feminism into the story, with Amanda Seyfried showing far more mettle (and skin) than previous incarnations of the title character as she tries to protect her cursed lover from being murdered by a crazed, zealous wolf hunter played with gives-no-fucks abandon by Gary Oldman. — Joel Cunningham

Phantom of the Opera: The Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

The best incarnation of the title character from the 1910 French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra is a musical, yes, but it isn’t the filmed version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s eternally enduring Broadway smash (or even the lesser-known Phantom, another song-filled take that was well-suited to the dinner theatre in which I saw it in the early ‘90s). No, it’s Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult rock classic The Phantom of the Paradise, which trades the Paris Opera House setting for the dank basement of a trendy modern-day concert hall and casts memorably masked De Palma regular William Finley as a brilliant composer who vows revenge after his life’s work, a bizarre rock opera, is stolen from him by an unscrupulous record producer. — Joel Cunningham

Ebenezer Scrooge: An American Christmas Carol (1979)

Lifehacker’s editor-in-chief Jordan Calhoun and I see eye-to-eye on a great many things, but the Greatest Scrooge of All Time (GSOAT) is, unfortunately, not one of them. I know it pains Jordan that I called dibs on this character first, because he is under the impression that Scrooge McDuck is the best. But I have to assume that’s simply because he’s never seen Henry Winkler’s portrayal of the classic grump-arse in An American Christmas Carol, circa 1979. Maybe with such a quintessential holiday character, you simply love the Ebenezer you grew up with, but I admire that Winkler never quite sheds his gruffness — he just learns to make better choices. — Meghan Walbert

Cthulhu: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

It’s hard to recommend Cast a Deadly Spell unless you’re already ok with a sometimes-problematic film that mashes together Cthulhu mythos with cartoonish, hardboiled noir, gross deaths, wild tonal shifts, and David Lynchian surrealness on a sitcom budget. The movie opens with the subtitles “Los Angeles, 1948. Everybody uses magic,” which sums up the movie well, as the plot is basically a Chandler-esque mystery with demons.  — Mike Winters

Aladdin: Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin belongs to the public, so while you’re likely thinking of the 1992 Disney classic Aladdin, the character has also appeared in movies like Arabian Nights, anime like A Thousand and One Nights, and on TV shows like Once Upon a Time. The best, of course, is that 1992 Disney movie, which, if the 2019 remake is any indication, will likely be the best version of Aladdin for a long time to come. — Jordan Calhoun

King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

The legends surrounding King Arthur are many and varied; there’s the holy grail, the knights of the round table, Guinevere. But one of the best movies about Arthur is this Disney cartoon about his childhood, when a time-travelling wizard turns him into a series of animals to teach him lessons that will serve him in his future life, before he finally claims his crown by pulling the titular sword from the stone. Does this make any sense? No. Is it fun to watch? Very. — Beth Skwarecki

The Green Knight: The Green Knight Trailer (2021)

As Beth notes, there have been a lot of cinematic takes on Arthurian legend, but most of them are, uh, not that great. One of the most enduring stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, has been adapted for the big screen no less than three times (including twice by the same director — once with Sean Connery as the emerald menace of the title). But I feel safe in saying that the definitive take is forthcoming this summer, when Dev Patel will pick up his sexy axe and his fashionable cloak and set out on a quest with his talking fox. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but even the trailer qualifies. — Joel Cunningham

Mowgli: The Jungle Book (2016)

Here’s one where I’ll choose violence, because while the natural answer might be Disney’s 1967 animated classic, my favourite version among the six popular adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s stories is actually 2016 live-action The Jungle Book. So far, it’s the only live-action (or CGI, for the most part) adaptation I enjoyed more than its animated predecessor, thanks to the film being brave enough to avoid making a shot-for-shot remake of what came before it, and still making a damn good movie. Both Idris Elba’s Shere Khan and Neel Sethi’s Mowgli were great, and when I saw Mowgli running alongside his wolf brethren, sprinting towards danger in the pouring rain looking like Vegeta trying to go Super Saiyan for the first time, I knew this was the version for me. — Jordan Calhoun

Captain Nemo: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

This is a wildly unpopular opinion, but I thoroughly enjoyed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The story was disjointed, and the characters made a ragtag Suicide Squad type of group, but I still could appreciate fun mythical characters in action together on screen (and who doesn’t love Sean Connery, RIP). The film follows iconic literary characters like Dorian Grey (played by Stuart Townsend), Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), and of course, Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah). Shah played Captain Nemo so smooth and regal. Even when he was particular about his ship, he never felt out of line in his demeanour, and his ship was a sleek silver dagger cutting through the sea like butter. A sheik cruise 20 leagues below the sea, it was a vessel only for the finest assassins and well… Gentlemen.  — Aisha Jordan

Zorro: The Mask of Zorro (1998)

The Legend of Zorro, The Mark of Zorro, The Sign of Zorro… There’s a pretty standard formula to the masked vigilante, first written of in 1919 by Johnston McCulley. Disney’s version of the character doesn’t win this one, though. Instead, that credit belongs to Sony and the Antonio Banderas-led 1998 movie, The Mask of Zorro, where he plays opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins. Despite a years-later sequel, it didn’t quite become the franchise the studio imagined (the director is Martin Campbell, who brought James Bond back to life twice with Goldeneye and Casino Royale), but the first one is of its time in a very good way, standing proud with other ‘90s public domain action-adventure movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. — Jordan Calhoun

Romeo & Juliet: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Listen, I’m fully aware that West Side Story is the real winner [Editor’s note: It isn’t! This is.], but I was 14 years old when this version with a 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo (and Claire Danes as Juliet) came out in 1996, so give me some grace here. At the time, Roger Ebert wrote, “I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The desperation with which it tries to ‘update’ the play and make it ‘relevant’ is greatly depressing.”

Roger Ebert was both right and wrong. This version does feel like a desperate attempt to “update” the play, with its Verona Beach, Calif. setting and the classic weapon of choice (sword) being swapped for something a bit more modern (gun). But its indulgence also got the attention of a generation of teenagers who suddenly saw how sexy Shakespeare could be — and now it lives on in our hearts as an ode to the ‘90s. — Meghan Walbert

The Three Musketeers: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

In push back to the teen heartthrob persona he built in the ‘90s, Leonardo DiCaprio began broadening his horizons, and one of the results was 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask. His masked character was banished away to keep them from fighting over the throne with his identical twin, and what came next was like a 17th century heist film as the famed musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis hope to replace the Evil DiCaprio with the Nice DiCaprio. But D’Artagnan, one of the original musketeers, is torn in between his loyalty to the throne and his loyalty to his friends, adding some emotional heft to all those sword fights and palace dance scenes. — Jordan Calhoun

Emma Woodhouse: Clueless (1995)

A few filmed takes on Jane Austen’s seminal story of a young meddling matchmaker have played it straight and done a fine job, from that one with Gwyneth Paltrow, to that one with Kate Beckinsale, to that more recent one with Anya Taylor-Joy. But come on, Clueless is clearly the best. (A period setting? Ugh, as if.) Mapping the social mores of the Elizabethan era onto privileged So-Cal teens was sheer genius, and it still holds up nearly (gulp) 30 years later. (RIP Brittany Murphy, an icon.) — Joel Cunningham

The Headless Horseman: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Tempted as I was to say that World of Warcraft’s Headless Horseman is the best, if for nothing else than his never-ending rhymes that get stuck in one’s head for weeks, I actually prefer the animated Disney version of everyone’s favourite galloping spook. And, yes, I think this film is better than the yawn fest that was Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. (Sorry, Christopher Walken. Mr. Toad is much more fascinating.) — David Murphy

Moses: The Prince of Egypt (1998)

The first movie I saw starring Moses was 1956’s The Ten Commandments. The last one I saw was 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. In-between was the perfect version — not only for a Bible story but for movies in general — and that was The Prince of Egypt. Being raised in a deeply pious home, I wasn’t even allowed to go to theatres growing up, but my mum took me to see it when it premiered in 1998 and it’s been one of my favourite movies ever since. It has action, adventure, drama, romance, and comedy, not to mention bringing Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey together for “When You Believe,” one of many bangers on one of the best and most underrated soundtracks of all time.

And Danny Glover played Jethro! Let’s focus on that instead of the list of 90% white actors (Val Kilmer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Helen Mirren, and more) who played people of colour. Fun fact: That wasn’t Danny Glover singing “Through Heaven’s Eyes” as Moses and Tzipporah fell in love, either; it was another Black actor, Brian Stokes Mitchell, because Danny Glover can’t sing like that. — Jordan Calhoun

Lupin: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Netflix managed to turn a modern-day retelling of some 115-year-old French novels into an unlikely streaming success, but my favourite cinematic take on master thief and consummate gentleman Arsène Lupin is and always will be Hayao Miyazaki’s jazzy 1979 debut. The character has been oddly beloved in Japan for ages, and this 1970s-set anime adaptation (which is rumoured to have inspired the breathless pacing and elaborate stunts of the Indiana Jones films) is a jazzy, frenetic, crime-capering delight from the first frame to the last. — Joel Cunningham

Hamlet: Hamlet 2 (2008)

Hamlet 2 stars Steve Coogan as a failed actor turned drama teacher who is attempting to save his school’s drama program by sequelizing Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and adding time travel). This movie actually features two of the most famous public domain characters — Hamlet and (sexy) Jesus — and is perhaps one of the best arguments for casting well-love characters in new, modern scenarios (and adding time travel). Also Elizabeth Shue is in it (as herself), and I really like Elizabeth Shue. — Claire Lower

The Count of Monte Cristo: Gankutsuou (2004)

My favourite literary update of Alexandre Dumas’ endless tome Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (read the unabridged edition!) is Alfred Bester’s sci-fi classic The Stars My Destination; appropriately enough, my favourite film version is this mid-aughts anime, which was originally intended as a straight take on Bester’s book, but the producers couldn’t get the rights. Still, this gorgeously animated, space-set version of this most satisfying story of revenge being served ice-cold scratch all the same itches, and with 24 episodes to work with, it manages to pack in a lot of the original’s sprawling plot. — Joel Cunningham

Mulan: Mulan (1998)

There isn’t much to say here, because most everyone’s (every American’s, anyway) favourite version of Mulan — the character from the Chinese poem dating back to around the fifth — is Disney’s animated Mulan from 1998. She’s likely one of your favourite Disney princesses, and you likely disliked the 2020 live-action adaptation, and your heart likely still swells when hearing Christina Aguilera’s “Reflection.” This choice is pretty straightforward for most of us. Here’s some fun facts, though: Mushu had a song that was cut, Mulan was the first Disney animated film to deal openly with war, and she has the highest kill count of all Disney animated characters. — Jordan Calhoun

The Scarlet Pimpernel: Daffy Duck in “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” (1950)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic character based on the novel by Baroness Orczy. The Pimpernel is a debonair hero who saves aristocrats from the guillotine at the onset of the French revolution. While a slew of worthy characters has played him, one of my favourite (and hate me if you want) is Daffy Duck in the Scarlet Pumpernickel — an off-brand parody of the character played out as Daffy himself reads the script to film executives page by page. Daffy may not be the perfect Pimpernel, but he is the Looney-est. — Aisha Jordan

Thor: Thor Ragnarok (2017)

Sure, Disney has the rights to the comic book character Thor securely locked down, but the Norse god version is anyone’s game, so he totally counts. Certainly my favourite cinematic Thor comes courtesy of 2017’s Thor Ragnarok, the third instalment of Marvel’s iteration of the ancient character. (Despite being very old and in public domain, our choices for Thor movies are actually pretty limited, making Taika Waititi’s revival of the character following the mistake that was Thor: The Dark World an easy choice.) Ragnarok balances action and comedy in a way that’s become pretty standard for Marvel movies, and for good reason: It makes for easy, fun, entertaining superhero movies. To date, it’s the highest-grossing solo Thor movie, but we can likely expect that to change in 2022 with Thor: Love and Thunder, which will also be directed by Waititi and likely to keep the vibe going. — Jordan Calhoun

Dorothy Gale: Return to Oz (1985)

I love the 1939 Technicolor classic as much as the next human, and Wicked certainly makes for a good sequel, but the definitive filmed version of L. Frank Baum’s creepy-arse novels is the twisted 1985 take starring a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, recast as a tough-as-nails survivor of an arcane mental institution, and featuring a terrifying sentient pumpkin, monstrous averbal creatures with wheels for hands, and a lady with a whole closet full of extra heads. Will the nightmares never cease? — Joel Cunningham

Tarzan: Tarzan (1999)

Since his creation in the 1912 novel Tarzan and the Apes, most iterations of Tarzan have been terrible, and boy are there a lot of them. And they’re not all from the early days of cinema, either. This horrible version of Tarzan came out in 2013, and this dud, The Legend of Tarzan, flopped just three years later. But, of course, there’s the Disney animated version, which wins almost by default — though 1984’s little-remembered Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was somehow nominated for three Oscars. Many people love the Disney take — and for good reason — but it doesn’t much to be the “best” Tarzan movie. Maybe there’s something inherently flawed in its story, but that’s a conversation for another day. — Jordan Calhoun

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