25 great movies inspired by folk tales

Written by:
July 27, 2021
Frenesy Film Company

25 great movies inspired by folk tales

The folk tale tradition—from fairy tales to ghost stories—has origins stretching back to the start of human speech. The art of oral storytelling predates the written word, and has been used for time immemorial for recording information, teaching morality, and untangling some of life's greatest mysteries.

Stacker surveyed film history and compiled a list of movies across decades, countries, and genres that drew their inspiration from the folk tale tradition, with accompanying IMDb and Metacritic data. The 25 films chosen are organized alphabetically. To qualify, the film had to be inspired by a folk or fairy tale (or tales) and have at least 2,500 votes. Some that made the list are direct reimaginings of classic tales, such as "Beauty and the Beast," while others are newer inventions with inspiration that draws on elements of several different stories or simply utilizes fairy-tale-like constructions to tell a new story.

In American culture, our folk heroes—from Br'er Rabbit to Johnny Appleseed—serve to explain nature's mysteries (Paul Bunyan forming the Grand Canyon, for example) or exalt real people's accomplishments to mythological status (Molly Pitcher, John Henry). Many folk tales with U.S. roots center around the rugged individualism and patriotism at the heart of American mythology. Globally, we find stories that similarly reflect back on the culture in which they were born; from "Hansel and Gretel" to tales of the legendary King Arthur. Some are cautionary tales, others heartwarming. No matter the lesson or inspiration, the folk-tale tradition has been passed down from generation to generation and transcended every language and cultural barrier.

Oftentimes, these beloved tales—or the tradition they come from—work their ways into the hearts and minds of creative filmmakers, who translate the legends into their own vision. From revisiting the surrealism of "Alice in Wonderland" to visualizing the "Lord of the Rings," retelling ancient parables or conceiving of contemporary masterpieces, filmmakers have been adapting folk tales and translating—or creating—them for the silver screen for decades.

Keep reading to learn more about 25 great movies inspired by folk tales.

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1 / 25
Channel Four Films

Alice (1988)

- Director: Jan Svankmajer
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 86 minutes

The surrealist ’80s film, “Alice,” is loosely based on the iconic tale from Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland.” According to Screen Rant, Svankmajer's version is "the most twisted depiction of the story for years." It mixes a live actor (Alice) with a cast of stop-motion animated characters, who all come together in a bizarre world that is not necessarily meant for children.

2 / 25
Warner Bros.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

- Director: Andrew Dominik
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 68
- Runtime: 160 minutes

"Jesse James" is a 19th-century folk song about the real-life outlaw by the same name, and recorded in the 20th century by equally legendary artists like Woody Guthrie, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen. From the lyrics of the song, this epic revisionist Western was born. The film tells the story of the murder of Jesse James by one of his gang members, Robert Ford. Like previous epic films depicting the American West, this particular film was shot in the wide open spaces of western...Canada.

3 / 25
Les Films André Paulvé

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

- Directors: Jean Cocteau, René Clément
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 92
- Runtime: 93 minutes

One of Disney's most beloved re-imaginations actually started on the screen with director Jean Cocteau. Well, technically it started on the pages with the 18th-century tale told by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It's widely held that Villeneuve's story was inspired in part by actual, historical events. This type of a tale is classified as "The Search for the Lost Husband," a popular trope in fairy tales utilized in the Romanian story "The Enchanted Pig" or the Irish tale of "The Brown Bear of Norway."

Cocteau's film adaptation was the precursor to many subsequent “Beauty and the Beast” iterations and even borrows, perhaps unintentionally, from certain elements in the 1931 film "Frankenstein," based on Mary Shelley's book of the same name.

4 / 25
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Black Swan (2010)

- Director: Darren Aronofsky
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 79
- Runtime: 108 minutes

Darren Aronofsky brings to life a twisted take on Tchaikovsky's “Swan Lake,” heavily influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “The Double.” “The Double” is a novella about doppelgängers, and “Black Swan” takes that idea and applies it to a ballerina and her understudy.

“Swan Lake” drew inspiration from German folk tales by Johann Karl August Musäus, "The White Duck" and "The Stolen Veil." Swan princesses can be found throughout German and Slavic literature.

5 / 25
Constellation

The City of Lost Children (1995)

- Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 73
- Runtime: 112 minutes

This science fantasy film from Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet tells the story of a dystopian society where the children are going missing. An evolved being, known as Krank, is the culprit, who is taking the children to harvest their dreams. According to Roger Ebert, the $14-million, modern-day fairy tale used more special effects at the time than any other French film in history.

Throughout the film, mindful viewers may recognize inspiration from sources as far-reaching as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Frankenstein."

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6 / 25
Geechee Girls

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

- Director: Julie Dash
- IMDb user rating: 6.6
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 113 minutes

The story of South Carolina's folklore-rich Gullah culture is told in the film, "Daughters of the Dust." The movie focuses on the psychic and spiritual conflicts among the women of one family in 1902 as the strong ties to this African culture struggle to survive in America. "Daughters of the Dust" draws on history and a variety of folk tales to weave its powerful narrative.

7 / 25
Marianne Productions

Donkey Skin (1970)

- Director: Jacques Demy
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: 70
- Runtime: 91 minutes

Based on the Charles Perrault fairytale about a king who wants to marry his daughter, “Donkey Skin” follows the story of a princess who is forced into hiding so she can avoid a marriage proposal from her father. The Criterion Collection describes it as "perched on the border between the earnest and the satiric." Catherine Deneuve plays the role of both the dying queen and the princess.

8 / 25
Cinema '84

Excalibur (1981)

- Director: John Boorman
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 56
- Runtime: 140 minutes

The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has been told time and time again, based on the 15th-century story, “Le Morte d'Arthur,” by Thomas Malory. This iteration follows Merlin the wizard, who helps Arthur Pendragon excise Excalibur from the stone it is buried in and unite England. According to IMDb, actors Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson were hesitant to work with each other after a difficult time on the set of “Macbeth.”

9 / 25
Liberty International Entertainment, Inc.

The Juniper Tree (1990)

- Director: Nietzchka Keene
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Metascore: 86
- Runtime: 78 minutes

Originally a tale from The Brothers Grimm, “The Juniper Tree” is an Icelandic film that follows two sisters who are forced from their homeland following the murder of their witchcraft-practicing mother. Icelandic native and worldwide music sensation, Björk, stars as the younger sister, making her feature film debut.

10 / 25
Les Armateurs

Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998)

- Directors: Michel Ocelot, Raymond Burlet
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 71 minutes

Based on an African folk tale, “Kirikou and the Sorceress” is about a young boy, Kirikou, who was born in an African village cursed by a sorceress. Kirikou embarks on a mission to dispel the evil sorceress from the village, which takes him across Africa to discover many secrets. It was reluctantly released in the United Kingdom and the United States because of nudity.

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11 / 25
New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

- Director: Peter Jackson
- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 201 minutes

The final volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is told in this third installment of the film series by the same name. The final movie shows the remaining members of The Fellowship as they tie together their individual adventures, destroy the cursed ring, and save Middle Earth from destruction. The Hollywood Reporter writes that Peter Jackson sticks marvelously to the plot where he can, but that certain points like the ending, which took Tolkien 100 pages to wrap up, is handled by Jackson in a mere 20 minutes.

Lord of the Rings is fantasy. Unlike fairy tales, Lord of the Rings was written primarily for an adult audience.

12 / 25
Python Pictures

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

- Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 91
- Runtime: 91 minutes

Yet another rendition of the King Arthur legend, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” takes a thoroughly silly approach, as only a Monty Python spoof could. Starring John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin (among many others in the British comedy troupe), this rendition pokes fun at one of Britain's greatest legends of all time. The group ran out of money for the opening credits, which is why we only see simple white text title cards over a black background, according to Mental Floss.

13 / 25
Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal

Nosferatu (1922)

- Director: F.W. Murnau
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 94 minutes

One of the earliest film versions to ever take on the “Dracula" folk tale, “Nosferatu” tells the story of Count Orlok, and is often credited as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. The aesthetic of the movie was inspired by artist Hugo Steiner-Prag, who illustrated the novel “The Golem,” written by Gustav Meyrink.

The original “Dracula” story comes from Irish folk tales.

14 / 25
Kindai Eiga Kyokai

Onibaba (1964)

- Director: Kaneto Shindô
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 103 minutes

“Onibaba” is an eerie, haunting Japanese film that is based on a Buddhist parable about an old woman who is fed up with her daughter-in-law who shirks her domestic duties in exchange for going to the temple to pray. The old woman is punished for impiety and is made to wear a horrible mask. Director Kaneto Shindô reimagines the story into an erotic psychological horror set in 14th-century Japan.

15 / 25
Société générale des films

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

- Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 114 minutes

It was the only movie that Renée Maria Falconetti ever made, but her performance is often praised as one of the best to ever be captured on film. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” tells the legend of the martyr herself. Director Carl Theodore Dreyer wrote the screenplay based on the transcripts from the actual 29 cross-examinations of the real Joan of Arc back in the 15th century.

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16 / 25
Walt Disney Animation Studios

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

- Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Metascore: 73
- Runtime: 97 minutes

Disney's “The Princess and the Frog” tells the familiar tale of a prince-turned-frog who needs a kiss to set the spell right. Unfortunately, when our heroine, Tiana, kisses him, she turns into a frog herself. This was the first Disney animated movie with a Black heroine at its center, but The Village Voice reviewed it as a feeble attempt to bring a sense of equality to its animation empire.

17 / 25
Act III Communications

The Princess Bride (1987)

- Director: Rob Reiner
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 77
- Runtime: 98 minutes

You likely haven't made it this far in life without hearing one of the many memorable quotes from “The Princess Bride”. This film adaptation, which combines elements of old-fashioned films and legendary fairy tale elements, is based on the 1973 novel of the same name by William Goldman who first told it as a story to his young daughters. The book was given to Rob Reiner when he was in his 20s and became his favorite book of all time, according to Mental Floss.

18 / 25
The Archers

The Red Shoes (1948)

- Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 135 minutes

Originally written by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Red Shoes” is based on the tale of a girl who puts on a pair of red slippers and can't stop dancing. The originally tale was supposedly inspired by an incident from Andersen's own life when his shoemaker father cut up a pair of red silk and leather dancing slippers he made for a client after she complained.

The film follows the love triangle between a ballerina, her lover, and her craft. The film was expected to be a flop due to its high budget, but it has turned out to be one of the highest-producing films in British cinematic history.

19 / 25
Backup Media

Song of the Sea (2014)

- Director: Tomm Moore
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: 85
- Runtime: 93 minutes

“Song of the Sea” is the second chapter to director Tomm Moore's "The Secret of Kells." The animated film follows the journey of Saoirse, a child who can transform into a seal. Along the way, she meets a young boy, Ben, and the two have adventures together. IMDb writes that much of the film is based on Moore's childhood, including the windy, rainy weather of his Northern Ireland upbringing, and memories of his family and pets.

The film is based on the Irish legend of the selkie, or seal people: half-fish, have human creatures who functioned must like the mermaids of other cultures.

20 / 25
Frenesy Film Company

Suspiria (1977)

- Director: Dario Argento
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 79
- Runtime: 92 minutes

The Italian film, “Suspiria,” is a story about witches that hide undercover in a boarding school. According to Mental Floss, the story is less based on a fairy tale and more based on a memory of co-writer Daria Nicolodi, whose grandmother was sent to a boarding school where Black Magic was allegedly practiced. Other influences include “Alice in Wonderland,” “Bluebeard,” and “Pinocchio.”

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21 / 25
Studio Ghibli

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

- Director: Isao Takahata
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 89
- Runtime: 137 minutes

Based on the 10th-century Japanese folk tale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” this film tells the story of a young girl discovered in a stalk of bamboo. As she ages, she is taken into high society, but the question of whether this is her true path rings loud and clear. The film's budget was estimated at $49.3 million.

22 / 25
Daiei Studios

Ugetsu (1953)

- Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 96 minutes

Based on the supernatural tales in Ueda Akinari's 1776 book of the same name, “Ugetsu” is about family, connection, and war during the Japanese Civil Wars of the 16th century. The film instantly became a classic not only for its storyline but for its cinematography. Helmed by Kazuo Miyagawa of "Seven Samurai," the long-take scenes and camera movement made this one of the most beautifully shot films of all time.

23 / 25
Filmové studio Barrandov

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

- Director: Jaromil Jires
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 77 minutes

This surrealist film is primarily based on a novel by Vitizslav Nezval written in 1935 and published a decade later. But it is also a film based on “Alice in Wonderland” that weaves in themes from “Little Red Riding Hood” and underlays it with adult content and religion. Thirteen-year-old Valerie wears a pair of magic earrings and starts to see the world in a new light for this twist on a coming-of-age story.

24 / 25
Svensk Filmindustri

The Virgin Spring (1960)

- Director: Ingmar Bergman
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 89 minutes

This Academy Award-winning movie for Best Foreign Language Film is based on the 13th-century Swedish ballad, "Töres döttrar i Wänge," which translates to "Per Tyrsson's Daughters in Vänge." That ballad is a retelling of a local legend that explains the back story of a 12th-century church in Kärna (in Östergötland, Sweden).

The story follows two sisters who are sent to deliver candles to a church and encounter a brutal journey along the way—and the revenge that follows. The New York Times reviewed it as being unabashedly straightforward in its themes of good versus evil, but that it was still a very difficult movie to watch because of the brutality it depicts.

25 / 25
Luch

Viy (1967)

- Directors: Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 77 minutes

The story of “Viy” is based on Nikolai Gogol's horror story of the same name. The film follows seminary students who end up on the wrong end of a murder and now must sit with the body for three days to protect it from evil spirits. This was supposedly the first horror film made in Soviet Russia.

Despite an author's note alluding to folklore, the title character is generally conceded to be wholly Gogol's invention.

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