Great novels inspire the Oscars’ best films

This Sunday marks the 85th Academy Awards, which means that the annual race for best picture will finally come to an end.

All things considered, it’s been a pretty good year for film. The artsy Beasts of the Southern Wild holds rank with the conservative Lincoln. The awkwardly funny Silver Linings Playbook is keeping up the visually stunning Life of Pi. And with foreign film Amour vying for the same title as musical Les Misérables, this Oscar season is a hodgepodge of premier cinema.

But as viewers tune in Sunday night, crossing their fingers and waiting to see if their favorites will take home that coveted award, it’s important to remember where several of these films have drawn their inspiration — namely, from original novels.

Admittedly, some films, such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, were taken from plays or other art forms, but a wide majority of the films nominated for best picture have roots in the literary world.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a direct adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel of the same name. Steven Spielberg merged historical reimaginings with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables inspired the successful musical which led, in turn, to a film that dominated the Golden Globes. And though Ben Affleck certainly brought his own directorial vision to Argo, the film was based on former CIA Agent Antonio Mendez’s recollections in The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA as well as an article in WIRED magazine.

Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine Hollywood without the book industry.

With this in mind, movie-lovers should take the time to read through a film’s source material. Though there might not always be time to read the original novel before the film’s release — reading Leo Tolstoy’s 800-page Anna Karenina would prove challenging for anyone — even catching up on a text after you’ve seen the movie proves rewarding.

For some cinephiles, exploring a story through an alternate art form offers a way to re-experience an on-screen narrative. As characters take new life on the blank page, readers ultimately deepen their understandings of the events portrayed on screen.

Lovers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series explore the intricacies of Lisbeth Salander after Rooney Mara’s 2011 Oscar-worthy performance, and Potterheads continually fluctuate between J.K. Rowling’s original characters and the Warner Bros. adaptations. Undoubtedly, reading provides a continuation of a cinematic story that’s just aching to be re-explored.

Then, of course, reading the original source material also offers explanations for some of Hollywood’s biggest on-screen departures. That is, movies that seem only rough translations of their literary counterparts.

Silver Linings Playbook, for example, might be up for eight Academy Awards, including best original adapted screenplay, but it bears little resemblance to Matthew Quick’s text. Bradley Cooper’s Pat is nearly identical to Quick’s original vision, but Jennifer Lawrence adds a certain feistiness to Tiffany that’s not as present on the page. Quick’s Tiffany is a firecracker to be sure, but she’s also a bit more vulnerable, allowing herself to openly confess her love to Pat in the book’s final chapters. (In the film, Pat reasons out Tiffany’s affections by deducing that she forged a letter from Nikki.)

But these changes seem minor when compared to some of the film’s other alterations. In the original novel, Pat’s father is hardly Robert De Niro’s superstitious nutcase. He rarely speaks to his son and doesn’t even make it to Pat and Tiffany’s final dance-off. There’s also no final parlay based on the outcomes of the dance competition and the Eagles game. There’s no public explosion between Pat and Tiffany on their “date” at the diner. And, as an unexpected change, Pat never holds another conversation with Nikki.

That’s not to say that the film’s changes ruin Quick’s novel. The inclusion of Chris Tucker, for example, represents a sharp improvement from Quick’s rather shallow and stereotypical depiction of Danny. Whereas Pat in the novel repeatedly refers to Danny as “[his] black friend,” a term which implies a problematic racial categorization, Cooper’s Pat views Danny as more of an equal — one who remains in his life long after they leave the mental hospital. Tucker’s Danny is ultimately more fleshed out with his addictive personality and determination to make the best of his illness. The best Quick can come up with, it seems, is to link Danny’s mental breakdown to a failed career as a rap artist.

Still, it’s not hard to see why writer-director David O. Russell might have made some serious changes in his interpretation of Quick’s novel. After all, the original Silver Linings Playbook sets itself up so nicely for cinematic adaptation. In addition to a chapter of the novel where Quick breaks Pat’s thoughts into a series of filmic montages, Silver Linings Playbook remains obsessed with the formulaic happy ending of a typical Hollywood comedy. Indeed, as he struggles to win over Nikki, Pat lives by the philosophy that “life is like a series of movies.”

“… My own life is the movie I will watch, and well, it’s always on,” Pat tells his therapist, Dr. Patel. “Plus I know it’s almost time for the happy ending, when Nikki will come back, because I have improved myself so very much through physical fitness and medication and therapy.”

Pat’s vision of the happy conclusion to his trials only adds another element to his “silver lining” ideology, one enhanced by a cinematic adaptation of his story. This extra layer, however, would be lost on anyone who hadn’t read Quick’s original novel.

So before — or perhaps, after — Sunday’s award ceremony, take the time to get lost on a lifeboat at sea with Martel, perform in a dance competition with Quick or raft through a New Orleans Bayou with Lucy Alibar.

As you probe the deeper meaning of these stories and uncover more details about these cherished characters, you might just be glad you did.


Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.

1 reply
  1. Brandi
    Brandi says:

    I completely agree that the nominees are all over the place, but I didn’t know that so many of the nominated films are based on books. I’ve been spending so much time at my office at DISH that I haven’t had any free time to go see any of these films in theater. Reading the book versions sounds nice, but I think I’m going to stick with just adding them to my Blockbuster @Home queue that I have set up through DISH. They have all the nominated films like Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook available to add now so I don’t have to remember to add them later when they’re finally released on disc.

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