These days, it’s hard to find a wholly original movie. Books, video games, comics, old TV shows, other movies — all of these things are frequent fodder for films. Reboots, sequels, and re-imaginings have become ubiquitous, with at least one of them coming out almost every week in some format. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. People love familiarity, so it’s always nice to revisit a cherished character or property. And if the familiar thing is redone well, it can be incredibly satisfying.
Once in a while, though, movies emerge from very unlikely sources. Sources you wouldn’t expect to be tapped. Sources that make you think, “They’re making a movie out of that?” In some ways, these are the most interesting ones, because you just know that they’re going to yield either brilliance or unspeakable awfulness. Below are fifteen examples of films that sprang from places you would never anticipate that filmmakers would find inspiration. We’ll look at why they work, or don’t work. Keep in mind, this trend is still going strong. The Emoji Movie, a film based on cell phone emojis, comes out later this year, and a movie based on the Pez candy dispensers is in development. Inspiration is everywhere, folks.
Here are 15 Movies With Bizarre Source Material.
15. Mars Attacks – trading cards
In 1962, Topps unveiled a line of trading cards called Mars Attacks. Playing on popular science-fiction themes of the day, the cards featured artwork by Norman Saunders and comic book artist Wallace Wood. When the entire set was looked at sequentially, it told a story about a Martian invasion of Earth, during which a lot of people were slaughtered by the aliens, whose heads looked like giant brains encased in glass helmets. The cards were controversial because some parents objected to their children seeing somewhat frightening depictions of carnage, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it may have been.
When the opportunity to make a movie based on the cards arose, director Tim Burton felt it would be a great way to pay tribute to the sci-fi movies he grew up with, so in 1996, he delivered Mars Attacks! The story was largely true to its inspiration, right down to the distinctive look of the aliens, although Burton pushed the humor to the max. The film arrived with high expectations, only to tank at the American box office with a total haul of just $37 million, thanks to mixed reviews and a competitive December release date. Over the years, though, appreciation for the movie has grown somewhat. Mars Attacks! isn’t Burton’s best work, but its off-kilter comedy has found an appreciative cult audience.
14. Pirates of the Caribbean – theme park ride
When Pirates of the Caribbean was first announced, it was the subject of great ridicule. A movie based on a theme park ride? Ridiculous! The log flume ride had long been a popular attraction at Disneyland, but it didn’t seem to possess enough raw material to support a feature-length motion picture. Riders got in a boat and sailed through a little adventure, during which there were songs, skeletal pirates, and a few steep plunges. It was not an obvious choice for the big screen, needless to say.
The Gore Verbinski-directed movie kept the pirate theme and a few of the character names, but mostly chose to go its own route. It was a ride, too, albeit a cinematic one, full of high-seas adventure, swashbuckling action, and a dash of romance. Audiences went wild for it, especially the gonzo performance from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Three sequels followed, with a fourth on the way this summer. Most agree that the quality level of the film series has steadily decreased over the years. Still, you have to give the POTC franchise credit for taking unlikely source material and finding a way to translate it to film in a manner that people have enjoyed (to the tune of $3.7 billion worldwide).
13. Dumbo – Roll-A-book
You’ve probably seen Disney’s Dumbo, but do you know where the story comes from? It wasn’t a fairy tale, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderlla, or Sleeping Beauty. No, the story comes from an old, now extinct reading device known as the Roll-A-Book. The product was a small box that contained a scroll inside, on which was printed about eight to twelve illustrations and a small bit of text. Readers turned a knob on the side of the box, and the pictures would roll from one to the next. It didn’t take long to fip through, but the Roll-A-Book was meant for kids who were just learning to read.
Helen Aberson wrote the Dumbo tale and Harold Pearl illustrated it. Their touching story made its way into the hands of Walt Disney when one of his staffers brought him a Roll-A-Book prototype. He liked what he saw, hired writers to expand it to feature length, and the rest, as they say, is history. As for the Roll-A-Book devices themselves, they didn’t exactly take off. In fact, it is said that no copies of Dumbo in this format exist anymore — not even in a museum somewhere.
12. From Justin to Kelly – American Idol
From the time it debuted in 2002, American Idol was a sensation. The reality show, which sought to turn an unknown singer into a world-class pop star, sucked audiences in and launched a slew of copycats, including The Voice and The X Factor. To the program’s great credit, it succeeded in its goal. Inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson, who beat out second-place finisher Justin Guarini, has indeed gone on to become a Grammy winner with nearly two dozen hit songs to her name.
Seeking to capitalize on the show’s runaway success, the FOX network contractually obligated Clarkson and Guarini to star in a feature film, despite the fact that neither of them were actors. From Justin to Kelly is a spring break musical comedy that finds the stars falling in love while intermittently breaking into song. Filmed quickly and cheaply – one musical number finds the leads standing still on a boat – the movie was poorly-received by everyone. That includes Clarkson, who has publicly asserted that she cried the first time she saw it. The truly bizarre part is that a soundtrack CD was never released, despite the movie’s entire reason for existence being to promote two singers.
11. Battleship – board game
There probably isn’t a kid anywhere in the world who hasn’t played Battleship. The board game has been around for decades. It’s pretty simple; you guess random coordinates and hope that your opponent has placed one of their ships there. Hit them enough times and you get to hear the trademark phrase, “You sank my battleship!” It’s a great game, but of course, it has no story and no characters, which would make it seem like a poor choice to inspire a movie.
Yet that’s just what it did. The 2012 Liam Neeson/Rhianna-starring Battleship ironically attempted to craft a plot around the plotless game. In the film, a fleet of Navy ships is forced to rid our planet of some nasty alien creatures who kind of resemble something out of a Transformers picture. (Because aliens are a big part of the board game, right?) Battleship was widely mocked for even daring to try adapting the game for the screen. Understandably, it was both a critical and commercial failure. There was ultimately nothing cinema-worthy about the source material.
10. The Angry Birds Movie – cell phone app
The Finnish company Rovio hit the jackpot when they created Angry Birds. The cell phone app is one of the most popular ever made. In this addictive game, players use a virtual slingshot to hurl birds with various powers toward structures in the hopes of toppling them and vanquishing an army of evil green pigs. The birds come in different colors. The yellow one has the gift of speed, the round black one blows up when it hits something, and so on. It’s incredibly fun, if occasionally a bit frustrating at the harder levels.
Because the game was so ubiquitous and beloved, Sony put out an animated feature, The Angry Birds Movie. They at least had a little bit to work with, as the various birds came with some recognizable features that could be recreated. The first two-thirds of the picture offer pretty generic kiddie mayhem, but the final third hits the nail on the head. Our bird heroes fight back against the pigs by — you guessed it — flinging themselves at their enemies’ houses and using their individual abilities to destroy Piggy Island. No one will mistake The Angry Birds Movie for a Pixar masterpiece, but it undeniably captures the element that makes the app so enjoyable.
9. The Fast and the Furious – magazine article
Okay, we’ll admit that a lot of movies have been based on magazine articles, so it doesn’t necessarily sound all that bizarre. The difference, in this case, is that The Fast and the Furious took only the shell of an idea, as opposed to staying true to what the article was about. “Racer X” was a piece by Ken Li that appeared in the May 1998 issue of Vibe. It documented how a New York street racer named Rafael Estevez transitioned from illegal races to structured, sponsored ones.
Producer Rob Cohen bought the rights to that story, but the movie he made from it only bears a passing resemblance. It, too, is about illegal street racing, except it takes place in Los Angeles, has zero to do with Estevez, and added an entire crime element involving a cop going undercover to catch a racer and his crew who have supposedly been hijacking trucks. There have been multiple sequels, each one getting further and further away from Li’s original piece. Even though the Fast and Furious movies are extremely popular, one has to wonder why they even bothered to acquire the rights to the article, only to leave out its primary figure.
8. Lambada / The Forbidden Dance – dance craze
The sexy Brazilian dance known as the Lambada was a major fad for a brief time in the very late 1980s and early ’90s, spurred by a hit song of the same name from musical artist Kaoma. People were doing the dance in clubs all across the country. Hollywood, never one to pass up the chance to make a buck off anything that’s even momentarily popular, made not one, but two Lambada-themed movies. Only Lambada got permission to use the official name, however, while the other was dubbed The Forbidden Dance.
Here’s the crazy part: both movies were rushed into production to capitalize on the craze, and both opened on the exact same day, March 16, 1990. Critics didn’t like either of them, and the box office returns were dreadful. Lambada fared slightly better, earning $4 million, as opposed to The Forbidden Dance‘s $1.8 million. Lack of quality and direct competition for the target audience undoubtedly hurt these films. The bigger enemy, though, was time. The Lambada fad flamed out as quickly as it started, meaning that the movies were halfway irrelevant when they hit theaters, despite being quickly produced.
7. The Gong Show Movie – TV game show
Kind of hard to believe now, but The Gong Show was once decried as the end of television in the 1970s. The program — a talent show designed to showcase people with unusual, bizarre, or pointless abilities — never missed an opportunity to go for lowbrow hijinks. (Here’s an example of what we mean.) Creator/host Chuck Barris found himself in an unusual predicament. His show was a huge ratings success that nevertheless brought heaps of angry criticism upon him.
His therapy for this conundrum was to write, direct, and star in 1980’s The Gong Show Movie, a semi-autobiographical tale. In the film, Barris has a nervous breakdown because of his TV sensation, so he runs off and hides in the desert. Scattered throughout the sloppily-constructed story are uncensored outtakes from The Gong Show. Despite using them as a selling point, the film failed to pull in audiences and it made a hasty exit from cinemas. Upon screening The Gong Show Movie, the legendary George Burns famously quipped, “For the first time in 65 years, I wanted to get out of show business.”
6. The LEGO Movie – plastic building bricks
Some toys at least make sense as fodder for movies. Action figures, dolls, Transformers…these things have some obvious potential. But LEGO bricks? Sure, they’re incredibly fun to build with, but how do you make a movie from them? When it was first announced, The LEGO Movie invited a substantial amount of skepticism online. Most people who commented on it were sure it was going to bomb. Let’s be honest, it sounded like a terrible idea.
The writing/directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had the last laugh, though. They devised a smart, funny story where LEGO sets come to life. It celebrated the very qualities that make children of all ages love those little bricks: invention, creativity, and imagination. The visual style of the film was especially enthralling, because it looked like you could recreate everything onscreen at home (provided you had access to millions of LEGO pieces). The LEGO Movie turned out to be quite wonderful. Same goes for the spinoff, The LEGO Batman Movie.
5. Ouija / Ouija: Origin of Evil – spirit board
Ouija boards, also known as spirit boards, have been around since at least the late 1800s. Using a wooden board with letters, the words “yes” and “no,” and a special pointer, people can allegedly interact with spirits by asking questions. The devices really took off once Parker Brothers started mass marketing them in the 1960s. These days, Hasbro produces them. (Still no word on how these companies cut a deal with denizens of the afterlife to exclusively communicate with the living via their product.) Two different movies have been directly inspired by the gizmos: Ouija and its sequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil.
The first movie, released in 2014, is a pretty lame horror flick in which a group of teens uses one of those boards, inadvertently unleashing a malevolent spirit that proceeds to torment and kill them. The 2016 sequel, on the other hand, is…surprisingly good. In it, a little girl whose widow mother conducts fake seances uses the board to reach out to her late father. She, too, lets something evil cross over to our side. Still, the film uses the Ouija board not as a gimmick, but as the basis for a story about handling grief. You wouldn’t think a piece of wood and a plastic pointer could inspire something this poignant.
4. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – old photos
Okay, yes, technically Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is based on a best-selling novel. But that novel was based on some very weird old photographs, so it should be said that the film was also inspired by them. The book’s author, the awesomely-named Ransom Riggs, was a collector of vintage pictures, especially ones that were creepy or strange. In an essay he penned for The Huffington Post, he described them as “photos that seem wrong in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, so unusual they make you look at them a second and then a third time, then reward you with uneasy dreams.”
His initial intention was to take photos he purchased at flea markets and turn them into a picture book. A shrewd editor eventually suggested that he weave a fictional narrative around them. You know what happened next. All of this eerie, old-timey picture stuff appealed to Tim Burton, who stepped up to direct the film version of Riggs’ book. Reaction to the movie was mixed at best, but there’s no denying that those ancient pics had an influence far beyond what their subjects ever could have imagined.
3. The Country Bears – animatronic theme park attraction
The Country Bear Jamboree was an animatronic theme park attraction at Disneyland. It had mechanical hillbilly bear figures performing country music on homemade instruments. (Here’s a picture of what it looked like.) Animal heads mounted to the walls would interact with the “band” in between songs, to the intended delight of the human audience. That’s pretty much all there was to it.
Because the exhibit was popular with kids, and because they always like to find a way to make a little more money off everything they own, Disney turned it into a 2002 comedy called The Country Bears. The movie, which starred Haley Joel Osment and Christopher Walken, tells the story of a young bear named (ugh) Beary who was raised by humans. Beary goes in search of his real family, encountering a group of bear musicians along the way. He then helps them put on a concert to save their performance hall. All things considered, it’s an acceptable story given the source material. But what worked onstage didn’t entice many people when it was put onscreen. The Country Bears came and went with a whisper.
2. Mac and Me – McDonald’s restaurants
The ’80s really marked the point at which the concept of “corporate synergy” took off. Companies realized that they could work together to sell their respective wares. “Product placement” also became more prevalent. Characters in movies started using specific items, and the films often went out of their way to spotlight that fact. For a prime example of all this, look no further than Mac and Me, a pathetic E.T. ripoff that brought together a Hollywood studio and McDonald’s restaurants.
The whole idea was for Mac and Me to prominently feature McDonald’s, and for McDonald’s to promote Mac and Me in turn. A goofy-looking alien is named Mac in honor of the fast food joint, Ronald McDonald himself makes a cameo, and there’s an elaborate dance sequence set inside a McDonald’s restaurant. But wait, there’s more! Ronald McDonald personally introduced the movie’s theatrical trailer, and a portion of ticket sale proceeds were donated to Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Charities. If the idea of crafting a movie around the shameless promotion of a fast food joint sounds like a terrible idea to you, you’re right. Mac and Me is universally considered one of the worst pictures ever made.
1. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie – stickers
Cabbage Patch Kids were one of the biggest crazes of the 1980s. The cute, chubby little dolls were such a hot ticket that, come Christmastime, parents literally fought each other in toy stores to get their hands on one. Anything that popular automatically invites parody, and the Topps company was all over it. They released Garbage Pail Kids – packs of sticker cards designed to mock the Cabbage Patch dolls. While there were some intentional physical similarities, the Garbage Pail Kids were like mutant versions, engaging in rude behavior such as passing gas, picking their noses, and puking. They had names along the lines of Ugh Lee and Valerie Vomit.
The stickers were so popular that, in 1987, a feature film based on them was released. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie had little people in fancy costumes portraying the titular characters. The movie, which depicts the Kids’ efforts to help a bullied teen (Mackenzie Astin) win the heart of his dream girl, attempts to stay true to what made the stickers successful. The problem is that ninety minutes of jokes about ugly-looking children puking, farting, and peeing themselves gets old rather quickly, despite the admittedly impressive costume work. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie was a huge bomb, earning just $1.5 million at the box office. It rightfully holds a 0% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. What was funny on a sticker simply didn’t translate to the screen.
Do you know of any other movies with bizarre source material? Where will the next movie craze come from? Give us your thoughts in the comments.
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