25 of the Best Movies Based on Mythology and Folklore

25 of the Best Movies Based on Mythology and Folklore
Screenshot: O Brother, Where Art Thou? / Touchstone Pictures

Given the ubiquity of shows like Vikings, movies like The Northman, and the forthcoming Thor: Lover and Thunder (this instalment differentiated by the presence of a bonus Thor), Norse mythology is very much in the zeitgeist lately.

Aside from its uncomfortable associations with white supremacy (which isn’t in any way the fault of the Norse of old), there’s plenty to be fascinated by in the ancient tales: a drama-loving squirrel responsible for any number of major conflicts, boats made entirely out of fingernails, and the moment when Thor very nearly married Loki. It’s all fairly alien to minds soaked in Greek mythology, which is itself full of glorious weirdness. The point being: the further afield you go into the realm of myth and folklore, the more interesting things get.

Many films drawing from legend might be described as revisionist takes, but doing so misses a key tenant of mythology and folklore: In every cultural context, stories bend and shape themselves with the teller and the listeners. Those that are less malleable don’t have nearly the lifespan of these tales, many of which have survived for centuries or millennia.

Black Orpheus (1959)

Inspired by: Classical Greek tales of Orpheus and Eurydice, circa 6th century BCE onward.

A blend of impressionistic fantasy with realism, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus moves the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. The two lovers, played by Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, are pursued by a figure who might be literal Death, or perhaps just a local hitman, as well as vengeful former fiancée. Scenes from the myth have clever analogues, as when the Bureau of Missing Persons in Rio takes the place of the underworld. It’s not all about the Ancient Greeks, as the backdrop and the climactic Brazilian (via the African diaspora) Candomblé ritual make clear. The film has been wildly influential, both as a piece of filmmaking and for introducing Brazilian bossa nova to a receptive global audience. It’s a French film from a white director based on a play from a white writer, so its depiction of Black Brazilians isn’t entirely uncontroversial, but it’s nevertheless an ecstatic update to a very old story.

Under the Shadow (2016)

Inspired by: Stories of Jinn, spirits who first appear in pre-Islamic indigenous Arabian religions.

Though set in a very particular time and place, writer/director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow invokes the Jinn as a way to talk about the strife and turmoil of war and political conflict, as well as about the anxieties of women in oppressive societies. So: broadly relatable. In Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, a woman estranged from her husband is forced to protect her child from mysterious supernatural forces as the bombs continue to fall. Jinn are ambiguous figures in religion and folklore, neither necessarily good nor evil, but potentially deeply threatening. What we see of them here is a far reach from common depictions in western media.

La Llorona (2019)

Inspired by: The “Weeping Woman”of Mexican folklore, dating from at least the 15th century.

Don’t confuse it with the fine-but-forgettable Conjuring-related Curse of La Llorona from the same year; Mexico’s weeping woman was having a moment in 2019. This Guatemalan films does more interesting (and stylish) things with the mythology, blending it in with the utterly horrific genocide of the country’s native Mayans in the early 1980s. Shortly after a (fictional) general who helped orchestrate the massacre is found non-culpable, his family takes on a new indigenous servant (other native Mayans being understandably unwilling to work for them). Naturally, this woman isn’t quite what she appears to be.

Trollhunter (2010)

Inspired by: Trolls, which appear in written sources around the 13th century, but likely predate that by at least several hundred years.

We’ve never been shy about spicing up our pop culture with trolls, from children’s stories to Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons. Trollhunter succeeds first by bringing the creatures back to their Nordic roots, setting the story in the filmmakers’ native Norway, and then excels further by making them truly scary. Even when the found footage rockumentary style eschews self-seriousness, these trolls are aren’t nearly the loveable oafs of other interpretations.

Excalibur (1981)

Inspired by: Stories of the legendary British King Arthur (dating roughly from the 5th century CE), particularly Thomas Mallory’s 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur.

The King Arthur legendarily has been endlessly flexible over the course of its long lifespan, the corpus reinventing itself with impressive regularity. We tend to imagine Arthur and company squarely in the European Middle Ages, but the once and future king was already pushing a millennium by the time of Thomas Mallory’s grand summing-up. As a cinematic presence, though, it’s been pretty rough going for the king, who has inspired an awful lot of forgettable movies. John Boorman’s Excalibur is a rare exception, with an all-star cast bringing loads of style and a bit of substance to the fantasy.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Inspired by: The classical Greek myths of Perseus.

The late, great animator Ray Harryhausen tacked any number of mythological projects over the course of his long career, but never with quite as much style as in his final project, a relatively straightforward take on the story of Perseus (Harry Hamlin), tamer of Pegasus, lover of Andromeda, and slayer of Medusa (who deserved better, but I digress). CGI would soon supplant Harryhausen’s style of stop-motion animation, but not always for the better.

Kuroneko (1968)

Inspired by: The vengeful Onryō ghosts of Japanese folklore.

Japanese folklore tells us that spirits can become untethered from their bodies when forced out of balance, as when dying an untimely, violent, or unjust death. The idea became the basis for cross-cultural ghost stories, but received one of its finest treatments in this Japanese thriller about a woman and her daughter-in-law who are raped and murdered by a group of samurai. With the help of a black cat, they return and sow revenge on any samurai they meet — until the woman’s son arrives among the samurai sent to destroy them.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Inspired by: Classical Cypriot King and sculptor Pygmalion (best known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses), and his impressive statue Galatea.

My Fair Lady reimagines the myth of sculptor Pygmalion (via George Bernard Shaw) as the story of Professor Henry Higgins, who hopes to fashion cockney urchin Eliza Doolittle into the model of a refined English lady. It’s a variation that Ovid could doubtless not have imagined, but it’s helpful to remember that all classical myths exist in various forms, and were being reworked and re-sculpted long (long) before modern playwrights and filmmakers got their hands on them.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Inspired by: Homer’s The Odyssey.

Perhaps not the strictest interpretation of the epic attributed to Homer, the poet’s inspiration is nonetheless all over the Coen brothers’ film — sometimes right on the surface. O Brother’s crew of convicts — Ulysses Everett, Pete, and Delmar — all encounter near-mythic obstacles, including three corn-whiskey and sirens, and come home to find Everett’s wife Penny engaged to another man. Even the soundtrack’s unexpected hit “Man of Constant Sorrow” references the Greek etymology of Odysseus’s name.

The Golem (2018)

Inspired by: The animated creature of Jewish folklore, referenced at least as far back as the first written Talmud manuscripts.

The smart Israeli period thriller, set in 1673 Lithuania, manages a degree of faithfulness to golem-related folklore while still bringing in new ideas. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) lives in a shtetl that’s managed to escape a nearby plague; that in itself has made them targets of gentiles in neighbouring villages who see something devious in their survival. An outcast among her own people, Hanna has been studying kabbalah secretly for years, learning what she needs to fashion a golem to defend the village. Instead of the more traditional monster of clay and mud, the creature takes the form of a child.

Leviathan (2014)

Inspired by: The giant sea creature of the Hebrew Bible (and likely earlier), particularly as referenced in the Book of Job.

The giant whale carcass encountered in co-writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film isn’t merely set dressing; the film takes inspiration from the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible, in which the titular pious character becomes a magnet for misfortune after Satan teases God with the idea that Job wouldn’t be nearly so righteous without his many blessings. Though its allegory isn’t so on-the-nose, the Russian film involves a mechanic who comes up against a corrupt local mayor with an eye on Kolya’s property. The film’s bold critique of corruption in Putin’s Russia made it a subject of controversy upon its initial release.

Iphigenia (1977)

Inspired by: the Greek myth of Iphigenia, and particularly the play by Euripides.

As with all the best Greek tragedy, there aren’t easily identifiable heroes and villains here, just tough moral questions. And there are certainly victims: in this case, the title character, Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, the King of Argos. In retaliation for a perceived slight, Artemis demands Iphigenia as a sacrifice, lest she doom the entire Trojan expedition. Director Michael Cacoyannis beings a sweaty, gritty realism to the story.

Beowulf (2007)

Inspired by: Beowulf, an old English epic poem rooted in much older Germanic legend.

Robert Zemeckis’ journeyed into the past of western European literature and deep into the uncanny valley in his 3D computer-animated fantasy. It’s probably the best adaptation of Beowulf on film, which is admittedly faint praise, but it’s impressively entertaining. Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) flesh out the story in interesting ways, playing with Freudian interpretations and beefing up the pre-Christian elements amidst the all the blood and smattering of CG nudity.

His House

Inspired by: The apeths (night witches) of South Sudanese Dinka religion and mythology.

A refugee couple from South Sudan struggle with their new lives in a quiet English village, eventually coming to realise that they can’t entirely escape their history. The plot mixes in elements of Dinka diasporic religion and folklore, particularly with regard to the very hungry night witch that threatens their futures.

Orpheus (1950)

Inspired by: The Greek tales of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Jean Cocteau’s classic, which places the story of Orheus and Eurydice in contemporary Paris, has proven nearly as influential as the original myths — or at least breathed new life into them. It has inspired generations of poets, painters, and filmmakers with its interrogation of the artists’ journey int he context of the doomed love that, here, ends in the mirror of a Rolls-Royce.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Inspired by: The Greek mythological leader Jason and his crew of Argonauts, searching for the Golden Fleece.

This masterpiece from animator Ray Harryhausen brings to life the hunt for the Golden Fleece, recruiting any number of gods, goddesses, monarchs, and mythical creatures to block their path. Most impressive are the skeleton warriors, or the battle with the giant automaton Talos.

Song of the Sea (2014)

Inspired by: Celtic mythology related to selkies, fairies, and Macha, a goddess primarily associated with Ulster.

Tomm Moore’s gorgeously animated film follows 10-year-old Ben, who blames his sister Saoirse for the apparent death of their mother just after her birth. Eventually discovering that his sister is in fact a part-human, part-seal selkie, he sets off with her on a quest to free fairies from the goddess Macha. This one is the middle chapter of director Moore’s trilogy of films that deal with Irish folklore, and they’re each worth a watch.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

Inspired by: The 10th century Japanese prose narrative The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

Taking its story fairly directly from a 1,000-year-old tale, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is slightly less well known than many of Studio Ghibli’s classics, but nevertheless sits with the best of them. A bamboo cutter discovers a small girl within a shoot who he and his wife decide to raise as their own child. Kaguya’s beauty, and her father’s desire that she be treated always as a princess, are in many ways as limiting as her mother’s more traditionally submissive role. Kaguya is encouraged to endure an array of suitors before her true origins are revealed.

Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998)

Inspired by: Several Senegalese folktales.

Inspired by several West African folk stories, Kirikou and the Sorceress involves the title boy, who’s forced to defend his village from an evil witch who isn’t quite what she appears to be. As with much of the world’s folklore, the stories represented here come to us secondhand, in this case via an early 1900s colonial administrator named François Equilbecq. The movie is also directed by a white French director. That being said, the material is approached with respect and what feels like a genuine love of the lore. The film inspired two sequels.

Achoura (2018)

Inspired by: Stories of Jinn.

Among the very few monster movies produced in Morocco, Achoura is a confident, impressive debut (even given some dodgy CGI). With shades of It, the film involves four childhood who reunite when a friend who’d gone missing twenty years earlier reappears, forcing them to face the repressed memories of decades past.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Inspired by: The 13th century Scandinavian and Swedish ballad Töres döttrar i Wänge.

Ingmar Bergman’s revenge epic (later remade, after a fashion, as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left) was inspired by the medieval ballad that told of a local legend of Kärna, Sweden, sharing the origin of the nearby church. The film, involving the rape and murder of a young girl on her way to church, is among director Ingmar Bergman’s most challenging, but still manages to find some light in the dark ages.

Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Inspired by: The blending of West African religious traditions, Haitian Voodou, and Roman Catholic practices that form the basis of Louisiana Voodoo.

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou is a rich and rewarding Southern Gothic drama with strong hints of magical realism. Diahann Carroll plays Elzora, a Voodoo practitioner with shades of Marie Laveau; Laveau was a very real historical figure, a religious leader and community leader, but her hazy biography places her on the line where fact and folklore meet.

The Green Knight (2021)

Inspired by: The 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and related Arthurian stories.

There’s nothing of history here, but David Lowery’s phantasmagoric take on Arthurian legend captures the weird, almost entirely alien feel of Middle English literature as none ever has before.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Inspired by: The heroic outlaw of English folklore, dating back to at least the 14th century.

There’s no single, definitive Robin Hood story, and though variations of the character have been around for centuries, many of the elements we take for granted come from right here. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland are clearly having a lot of fun in this bright, colourful, and zippy film. It’s pure joy.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Inspired by: The various Grail legends surrounding legendary British King Arthur.

A stunningly faithful take on the corpus of King Arthur literature, and an entirely accurate look at life in the middle ages.

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