Monday, January 31, 2011

Oscar Films and The Books That Inspired Them

It's pretty common literary cliché that the book is always better than the movie. But, unless Eric Bana's starring, that certainly doesn't mean all movies based on books are inherently bad, does it? After I saw True Grit a few weeks ago — a movie marketed not as a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, but as a film the Coens based on the 1968 novel (a small but important distinction) — I started wondering just how many really good films are based on books. Let's say we use the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture as our definition of "really good films" and take a look at the last five years of Best Picture noms. 

This year, for instance, four of the 10 Best Picture nods are based on books: Two on novels — Winter's Bone (Daniel Woodrell) and True Grit (Charles Portis) and two on non-fiction books — The Social Network (Ben Mezrich, The Accidental Billionaires) and 127 Hours (Aron Ralston, Between A Rock and A Hard Place).

Last year, also four of the 10 were based on books: Two on novels — Up In The Air (Walter Kirn), and Precious (Push, by Sapphire), and two on non-fiction — The Blind Side (Michael Lewis) and An Education (memoir by Lynn Barber).

In 2009, four of the five Best Picture films were based on books (I'll loosely interpret "books" to include plays so we can count Frost/Nixon): The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Slumdog Millionaire (the winner) is based on the novel Q&A by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. The Reader is based on a novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlaik and Frost/Nixon is based on a play by Peter Morgan. The only Oscar-nominated Best Picture film not based on a book in 2009 is Milk.

In 2008, three of the five are based on novels: Atonement (Ian McEwan), the winner No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy) and There Will Be Blood ("loosely based" [whatever that means] on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!). Juno and Michael Clayton were original screenplays.

Finally, in 2007, only one Best Picture nom is book-based — Letters From Iwo Jima (based on the books titled Picture Letters From the Commander In Chief, by General Tadamichi Kuribayasi). The Queen, Babel, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine were all originals. 

So, in the last five years, 16 of the 35 — about 45 percent — Best Picture nominated films were adapted from books. What conclusions can we draw from this number? Well, for one, just under half of the Best Picture noms were based on books. I'm nothing if not a precise data analyst.

Anyway, to be frank, that number's a lot lower than I assumed it'd be when I sat down to write this post. Also, only twice in the last five years, has the winning film been based on a book — Slumdog Millionaire and No Country For Old Men. Another perceived truism these days is that, given the glut of remakes and sequels, Hollywood is out of ideas. But many, many good films are still being made from Original Screenplays.

As a final note, one of my favorite movies of all time — Wonder Boys — is based on a Michael Chabon novel, so you can definitely not count me among those literary snobs who won't watch any film based on a movie "because it can't possibly live up to the book."

How about you? What are some of your favorite book-based films?


  1. Veronika Decides to Die is actually a movie I prefer to the book, as is the recent release Twelve. There is the occasional book where I think both the film and book are really good, like Fight Club. Sometimes I prefer the book even if the film has some acclaim, like A Single Man I think the book is much better. In general I try to read the book before I see the movie.

  2. You know I've been curious to read American Psycho. I won't say I loved the movie, but I definitely felt I need a better understanding. The only problem is that I've heard the novel is super graphic, so I've been hesitant.

    Also just watched Trainspotting and again, I'm very curious to read the novel because in this case, I've heard very good things about it.

    Great post!

  3. After finishing a book I'll go out of my way to watch a film adaptation. Two that immediately come to mind that I enjoyed are "Tristram Shandy, a Cock and Bull Story" and "Heart of a Dog". The joke with Tristram Shandy is the repeated discussions on the impossibility of filming the novel, all done while you watch the filming of the novel. "Heart of a Dog" is for those that don't mind foreign films and reading subtitles, but it was one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I've seen.

  4. I agree with Dwight, I always want to see the film adaptation after reading the book. But I don't like doing it the other way around - the characters in the movie get in my head and then I can't picture things for myself as I read.

    The only adaptation that I think is better as a film is Lord of the Rings, and that's only because I'm not a fan of Tolkein's style. I know I'm in a minority!

  5. On a somewhat similar note, there was a fascinating editorial in The Guardian about the trend of films based on real people last week. I find myself minding less that films are based on real people than when they're based on novels. I do think there's a dearth of original storytelling in Hollywood, but I also think the Best Picture nominees are better this year than they were last year (although I'm upset Blue Valentine was snubbed.) It's also interesting to note all 5 best actor nominees played real people. I often like movies based on books. The only example I can ever think of when the film is better than the book: Under the Tuscan Sun. I found the book unbelievably dull, but the film took immense dramatic license and was all the better.

  6. @Zoe - I also try to read a book first, and like you, there are definitely a few movies I prefer to the book - Wonder Boys being one example.

    @Noe and Suz - You mean, as opposed to the super graphic-ness of the movie?! ;) I haven't read that book either, but love the movie! I've also heard very good things about Trainspotting, but only seen the movie.

    @Dwight - I definitely do the same - just finished The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and watched the Swedish version of the movie soon after. Both were really entertaining. That's one I liked - one I didn't was Atonement. Even with its Oscar nom, I thought the movie was over-wrought and terribly dull. Thanks for the recommendations, too - I'll definitely look into those!

    @Sam - I don't like doing it the other way around, either. That's why I resisted seeing any of the Millennium Series movies until I've finished the books.

    @nomareader - Could not agree more that the noms this year are better than last. Avatar getting a Best Picture nom was just a joke. And maybe it's not so much that there is a perceived lack of ideas or good storytelling in Hollywood, it's more that studio execs aren't nearly as willing to take chances on non-comic book, non-franchise movies with good stories. Here's to hoping Inception changed that a little. Interesting point about all best actor noms playing real people - hadn't realized that. And thanks for the Guardian article. I'm off to check it out.

  7. this has been a topic on my mind a lot recently. check out: or

    And here's some brilliant adaptions -- Cock and Bull Story (Tristram Shandy); Bright Young Things (Vile Bodies); Slaughterhouse Five; Fantastic Mr Fox. All very good. Oh, and I much prefer the Lord of The Rings films.

    I'm usually pretty cautious about seeing the film if I loved the book. But if I hear a film is based on an author I like the sound of or have wanted to read for a while, I might start with the film as an easy way in.

    I'm very much against the literary snobbishness gainst films, though I'm probabaly guilty of it a fair amount.

    PS i'm loving Chabon these days, so Wonder Boys (film and book) have been on my list for a while.

  8. @nomareader - Wait, I don't think Jeff Bridges's Rooster Cogburn is a real person. And I'm not sure about Bardem's character in Biutiful (haven't seen it)...

    @Ben - I've enjoyed your take on the book/movie dichotomy. I'm sure watching and reading A Single Man in the same day shed some light onto what I thought was an absolutely bizarre movie for which I didn't understand the hype at all (except that Colin Firth was in it)...Chabon is the man! Hope you enjoy Wonder Boys. It won't blow you away aesthetically or intellectually by any means, but just a fun movie.

  9. Veronika decided to die was made into a movie? Hahahahaha! There are a few nice scenes thought I admit, like when the patient (whatever his name is) plays piano and attracts Veronika to him. But yeah, it's garbage.

    I took a cinema class in college and my teacher was saying that the majority of movies were adaptation from novels that were more or less known Rambo, for example is an adaptation from a David Morrell novel. Die Hard is adapted from a Roderick Thorpe story. And people call me superficial for liking them.

  10. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and A Clockwork Orange are two of my personal favorites. The former because it maintains the (perhaps) insane premise of the "memoir" and the latter because it captures the dystopian, restless nature of Burgess' book so well (also, it's fricking Kubrick). Oh, and I also agree re: The Lord of the Rings. The Director's Cut nailed it.

  11. I have no problem watching a movie based on a book but I do find I usually like the book better, if only because I get to decide what things look like, sounds like, etc.

    That being said I prefer the movie versions of Lord of the Rings and American Psycho to the books. I couldn't make it through reading the full LotR trilogy (I quit during RotK) but love the movies. And the book American Psycho is FAR more graphic than the movie.

  12. I'm glad you mentioned Wonder Boys. I had some serious anxiety about that being adapted for film, but I ended up loving it almost as much as I love the book.

  13. I remember reading that after the Writer's Strike in 2007 (or The Writer's Guild of America Strike) Hollywood began to produce a lot of movies based on books since the writers refused to write original screenplays. I think even after the strike ended there were still more movies based on books than there had been before. It would be interesting to see the statistics, but I can't help but think it helped to perpetuate the "books to movies" genre we still see today.

  14. Great post! I thought that the adaptation of Lord of the Rings was my fave book to movie adaptation as it pretty much looked exactly like I imagined it. I think you're right, good movies are made from good books. The problem I have with a much-loved book being made into a movie isn't if it can live up to it. It's kind of a more personal thing, like I have this cherished imagined world in my head and sometimes I don't want that disturbed by anyone else's imaginings. It's not a matter of good or bad, just personal preference. If that makes any sense...?

  15. I recently watched an episode of the tuesday book club who's topic was 'books to film', where a director was discussing the fact that some things that work in a literary sense don't translate to film, and the job of the filmmaker is to take the audience on the same emotional journey, if not that actual same journey of events. I thought that was interesting. I've read Q&A and actually thought Slumdog Millionaire was better. I loved the film of Let the Right One In (the scandinavian version), a fantastic movie which still pales in comparison to the novel. I was just reading that the director of the US version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo changed the ending from the original, because...wait for it....his ending is 'better and more interesting than Steig Laarssons'. Cue sarcastic tone 'can't wait to see that one'.

  16. I think it's interesting to note the many movies which have turned out better than the books. Think of Jaws (a mediocre book, at best), Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris is kind of a bore), The Exorcist (not nearly as creepy on the page). My favorite example is Wag the Dog. The book it was based on, American Hero by Larry Beinhart wasn't terrible but the movie was just pure satirical brilliance. And DeNiro's scruffy-dog political hack was genius. Great post!

  17. Count me in for The Wonder Boys,too-read the book after I saw the movie and wound up liking both(which doesn't always happen).

    One of the few films that I like better than the book it's based is Witches of Eastwick. Updike's novel was pretty dreary and snarky about women,altho the movie was very over the top there at times.

    Movies based on books on my favorites list include One True Thing,In Her Shoes,House of Mirth(Gillian Anderson is brilliantly sad and beautiful),Age of Innocence and The Jane Austen Book Club.

    I also have to mention Master and Commander:The Far Side of the World;while I still haven't gotten far in reading Patrick O'Brien's series(it was based on two of the books),a major part of the charm of that film was the feeling that you were truly living in a novel.

  18. @Ben - Interesting about Rambo and Die Hard. I did not know that. I'm not sure I'd agree, especially after my little research project, that MOST movies are adapted from novels, though. Maybe more than we think, certainly.

    @Paul - Good suggestions! Never read A Clockwork Orange, but the movie is positively chilling.

    @Red - Yep, I agree: the notion of making your own decisions about what a character's voice sounds like, etc., is why I'll always like books more too. And, again, it's shocking to me that the book American Psycho is MORE violent than the movie (which I love!)...

    @Florinda - Okay, I have a confession. I love Chabon, and I love the movie version of Wonder Boys. But I've never read the book. I think that the movie holds a special place for, that I don't want to try to one-up it with the "better" novel. At least I'm going to keep telling myself that... ;)

    @Brenna - Not sure I buy that theory - as some screenwriters would argue it's harder to adapt a novel than to write something original. But maybe it's not a coincidence that the year (2009) with the highest number of Oscar Best Picture nominees based on books was about in that sweet spot of the aftermath of the Writer's Strike. Who knows?

  19. @Kathmeista - That makes a lot of sense. The images, voices, etc. become your own interpretation - a part of your reaction to and understanding of the art. And seeing those portrayed differently than you imagine lessens the experience. Well, that and movies usually change key plot points and leave a lot out! ;)

    @mummazappa - That IS an interesting point the director makes, and an incredible challenge. That's why, I think, most novels prefer not to adapt their own novels to the screen - it's impossible to bring the same emotion and creativity to the text as they'd originally designed for the novel form. I haven't read Q&A, but Slumdog Millionaire is brilliant! And I've also heard the English Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is going to be very different. No thanks, jerks!

    @Pete - You're right, of course. That idea of better movie than books is a whole different can of worms it'd be hard to tackle in a 500-word post. And I couldn't agree more about the genius of the movie Wag the Dog. What a great cast!

    @lady T - Again, I'm terrified to read the book Wonder Boys 'cause I love the movie so much, but if you still like the movie after reading the book, maybe I'll give it a shot. Updike, dreary? Naaah! ;)

  20. The adaptation of The Orchid Thief called Adaptation. Never read the book, but that movie is one of my favorites. That's all I can think of. I'm hungover. Great post.

  21. A rare example of a wonderful movie based on a wonderful book: Nobody's Fool, the movie, which stars Paul Newman is a perfect distillation of Richard Russo's complex, funny novel.

  22. Atonement is one of my favorite book to movie adaptations, but I have to say there was something extra special about the film version. No Country for Old Men was an amazing film, I think mainly because of Javier Bardem, who was so good playing that crazy role.

    I haven't read The Winter's Bone, but loved the movie. I thought it was understated though, so I don't think people pay much attention to it.

  23. I just wrote a similar blog post about this years nominees, check it out:

  24. @Ken - Get some Gatorade, fella. Adaptation is a great, great movie.

    @Rebecca - I'm glad you brought up Nobody's Fool - such an underrated movie from such an underrated book. Love Paul Newman as Sully - that's inspired casting!

    @Jillian - Couldn't disagree more about Atonement. That's one movie that wreaked compared to the novel, in my view. But I'm in the minority in that opinion, I think. Also, I'm not sure I'd say Winter's Bone is understated (did you mean underrated?), since it got an Oscar nod!

    @Ursula - Thanks for the link. I enjoyed your take on the books.

  25. Great post, Greg! Most people don't realize how many of the best ideas for movies come, not from Hollywood, but book AUTHORS!!

    That being said, I really really really enjoyed True Grit.