These days, Oscar Wilde’s literary legacy is often reduced to the bevy of pithy witticisms the Irish hero of the page left behind—the poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist penned such memorable lines as “One can survive everything nowadays except death” and “There is no sin except stupidity”—but Wilde’s larger works continue to inspire plenty of cinematic endeavors, even if that’s not always obvious from the outset. Arguably Wilde’s most famous and well-known work, the play The Importance of Being Earnest, has spawned plenty of big screen adaptations (and more than a few versions have gone the radio, television, and opera route), but it’s far from the only Wilde work going wide.
1. The Selfish Giant
Arriving in limited theaters this week and available online now, Clio Barnard’s new film The Selfish Giant is loosely based on the Wilde short story of the same name. Barnard is a skilled filmmaker who excels at adapting things with her own unique bent—her previous feature, The Arbor, mixed up documentary information and fictional-feeling performances to startling effect—and she has admirably and thoroughly modernized the old Wilde story for her own aims (read: this thing is deeply, deeply sad, whereas Wilde’s story had at least a smidge of a happy ending). Wilde’s story first appeared in The Happy Prince and Other Stories, published back in 1888. The story was more faithfully adapted in a 1972 animated film, one that bears little resemblance to Barnard’s dark drama.
2. Velvet Goldmine
Todd Haynes’ glam rock masterpiece sure doesn’t look like a Wilde work, even if does scan as a wild work. But the 1998 drama was strongly influenced by the life and writings of the author. Despite being populated by characters directly patterned after glam rockers David Bowie and Marc Bolan, Wilde’s ideas and writings are ever-present, and he’s quoted frequently throughout the film.
3. The Canterville Ghost
Wilde’s short story of the same name has been adapted many times over (Patrick Stewart even starred in a TV version back in 1996), but the 1944 movie is often viewed as the definitive version. A film populated with both fantasy and realism, comedy and horror, Jules Dassin’s feature is a prime example of the wacky wit of Wilde, and just how sharply tried and true tropes (a ghost haunts a castle!) can be turned on their head when put into Wilde and company’s capable hands.
4. A Good Woman
For all the fun and faithful takes on Wilde’s work, there are plenty of duds out there. Mike Barker’s 2004 drama A Good Woman is based on Wilde’s 1892 play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and may have an all-star cast to recommend it—Scarlett Johansson! Helen Hunt! Tom Wilkinson!—but critics hated it and few people turned out to see it. The film was devoid of the bite and balance of Wilde’s work, instead reading as flaccid, cheesy, and over the top, like a bad high school production instead of a full-bodied Hollywood production.
5. Wilde Salome
Al Pacino’s very amusing 2011 documentary about the making of his take on Wilde’s play Salome is sprightly, smart, and more than a bit insane. Not content to just star in a theatrical production of the play, Pacino did a deep dive into the life and world of Wilde, resulting in a doc that enchanted both old and new fans of the playwright and was a big win at the Venice International Film Festival for Pacino. The play and documentary eventually spawned a feature film based on Wilde’s original work, featuring a long buzzed-about performance by Jessica Chastain.
6. Three Shadows
Wilde’s sole novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, has spawned plenty of big screen takes, with most of them focusing on the more terrifying elements of the eponymous man who never ages, while a portrait of him in his original youth continues to suffer disfigurements and ailments. One such example of that bizarre twisting of Wilde’s work is Ansel Faraj’s 2010 film Three Shadows, which stars Kevin Shayer as Gray, Nosferatu, and Abner Whateley (as inspired by an H.P. Lovecraft tale) in three related stories. Yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.
7. Belonging to Laura
Yet another spin on Lady Windermere’s Fan, Karl Golden’s 2009 Belonging to Laura modernizes the classic tale and sticks it into 21st century Dublin. While it’s not nearly as funny as other Wilde works, Golden’s take on the play works strangely well in its current-day setting, proving that Wilde’s canny ability to explore people and emotions doesn’t know any bounds when it comes to time period.
8. Pact With the Devil, aka Dorian
The shoddy horror film treatment of Dorian Gray doesn’t stop with Three Shadows. Back in 2004, someone else had the idea to cast the character as a horrifying baddie. Set in the world of high fashion, the film might boast a well-known actor like Malcolm McDowell, and it might also aim to put a bawdy spin on things, but shoddy special effects and horrific acting make Pact With the Devil one of the worst products of Wilde wannabes imaginable. At least there are some highly dated cell phones to enjoy?
9. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Finally! Some respect for old Dorian Gray (who, yes, might not be a great guy, but certainly deserves more respect than being cast as a commonplace horror film villain)! The 2003 film from Stephen Norrington has double literary roots—it’s based on Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill comic books, which were in turn inspired by some of the great (fine, extraordinary) characters of classic storytelling. Think Tom Sawyer, Captain Nemo, Dr. Henry Jekyll (and Mr. Edward Hyde) and, yes, old Dorian Gray himself. Horror bad guy no more, now Gray is just a gentleman.