The English Patient
The Return of the King
No Country for Old Men
Wild (Movie Tie-in Edition)
The Danish Girl
It’s Oscar weekend! Since its inception, the Academy Awards has honored movie adaptations with Best Adapted Screenplay, highlighting the filmmakers who take a short story, novel or play and translate it to the silver screen. While there are countless adaptations that have been nominated or won in the last 88 years, we’ve picked 14 that demonstrate the range of source material: Pulitzer Prize winners, doorstopper romantic epics, fantasy classics, whimsical children’s stories, pulpy thrillers, and nearly every genre you can imagine.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1940 Academy Awards
Won: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Outstanding Production
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Visual Effects, Best Score, Best Sound Editing
Considered one of the greatest films of all time, this adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s behemoth novel (weighing in at over a thousand pages) went to great lengths to find its Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. But Vivien Leigh was worth the wait, especially for her portrayal of Scarlett in her radiant moment of promising to save Tara and those she holds dear. And who can forget how the movie elevated the book’s quote to the famous brush-off, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1963 Academy Awards
Won: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress, Best Score
On the heels of its Pulitzer Prize win, Harper Lee’s beloved novel was adapted into a film that became equally vital in shaping audiences’ childhoods. While a faithful adaptation, arguably the movie’s greatest strength was Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning embodiment of Atticus Finch. Lee’s words coming out of Peck’s mouth made for movie history, in a performance that is still examined and parodied today.
Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
1965 Academy Awards
Won: Best Actress, Best Original Song, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Adaptation or Treatment Score
While the score and songs from Walt Disney’s movie adaptation made Mary Poppins everyone’s favorite fictional nanny, there’s no discounting that this vision belongs to P. L. Travers. Her series of children’s books laid out all of the delightful details, from Poppins’ ease with an umbrella to her endless carpetbag to visits with the Bird Woman. It’s also the rare movie whose making-of inspired subsequent films, like 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks and 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns.
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The Color Purple by Alice Walker
1986 Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Song, Best Score
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation is the rare case where the movie hardly resembles the book, yet it still finds some nugget to translate and win audiences over. According to the New York Times review, Spielberg transforms the “realism and grit” of Alice Walker’s novel into a more upbeat tale which emphasizes the importance of family loyalty in even the most dire of circumstances, as Celie is separated from her sister, endures an abusive marriage, and falls in love with another woman.
Misery by Stephen King
1991 Academy Awards
Won: Best Actress
Stephen King’s horror novel, about a novelist taken captive by his psychotic number-one fan, found an unusual set of collaborators in director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride). But after their respective work with comedies, the duo dug into Paul Sheldon’s story, as the insane Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, winning an Oscar for the role) becomes enraged at him killing her favorite character, forces him to bring her back to life, and—in one of literature and cinema’s most brutal scenes—hobbles his feet to keep him from escaping.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
1992 Academy Awards
Won: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress
Nominated: Best Sound, Best Film Editing
Jonathan Demme’s adaptation swept the 64th Oscars, becoming only the third film at the time to win the Big Five Academy Awards. This is especially interesting considering that while the novel was a success and garnered fans such as David Foster Wallace, the movie was a sleeper hit. Clearly, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins sold Claire Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalistic cat-and-mouse dynamic, which Ted Tally’s screenplay translated from the novel. And Demme’s direction was masterful, from the interrogation scenes to the most heart-pounding five minutes spent looking through night-vision goggles.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
1997 Academy Awards
Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress
In other hands, Michael Ondaatje’s novel might not have translated well to the big screen—set at a bombed Italian monastery during World War II, it examines the interconnected lives of a French-Canadian nurse, a burned man who speaks English but doesn’t know his name, a Sikh bomb defuser, and a Canadian Intelligence Corps operative. But director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella produces a fine adaptation, in which the group’s attempts to jog the English patient’s memory reveals a story of love, revenge, and misunderstanding that resonates with all of them.
The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
2004 Academy Awards
Won: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects
While the first two movies in Peter Jackson’s ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy seemed destined to be recognized more for the visual effects than the “Big Five” Academy Awards, The Return of the King made for the perfect closure to the kind of cinematic adventure that was as thrilling off-screen as on-. Like Gandalf swooping in on eagles to save the day, the final installment swept all 11 awards for which it was nominated.
“Brokeback Mountain” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
2006 Academy Awards
Won: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Original Score
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography
Annie Proulx’s short story spooked several of the producers, directors, and actors who tried to bring it to the big screen, and many were surprised when Ang Lee (known for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Hulk) finally took the reins. But he made this “gay cowboy movie” amazingly tender, prompting Proulx to praise that “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.”
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
2008 Academy Awards
Won: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor
Nominated: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
While Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies are known for their distinct style, when the brothers decided to try for an adaptation, they said, “Why not start with Cormac? Why not start with the best?” Furthermore, they elected not to change much of the novel, aside from removing a few subplots and broadening Sheriff Bell’s perspective to instead look through the eyes of the many people who encounter the utterly terrifying Anton Chigurh.
Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking
2015 Academy Awards
Won: Best Actor
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Original Score
The celebrated biopic The Theory of Everything (which earned Eddie Redmayne a Best Actor Oscar) took certain dramatic liberties with Jane Hawking’s memoir about her marriage to Stephen Hawking: The physicist is portrayed as more sensitive than he was depicted in Jane’s memory, and the movie intertwines their relationship with Hawking’s ALS, from meet-cute to diagnosis to their eventual separation (amicable in the film, bitter in real life). It’s standard Hollywood-ization of a true story and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
2014 Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress
While Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern received Oscar nods for their performances in the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s moving memoir, her words survived the jump to the silver screen as well: The New York Times praised screenwriter Nick Hornby for “how fully [the film] respects Ms. Strayed’s free-associative, memory-driven narrative.” The studio could have made more commercial choices, but its commitment to presenting her story—which captivated readers well on its own—gained it respect, in turn.
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
2016 Academy Awards
Won: Best Supporting Actress
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design
With his 2000 novel, David Ebershoff presented a very fictionalized account of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. As he followed his own imaginings in fabricating characters, especially Lili’s wife Greta (named Gerda in real life), it should come as no surprise that the film adaptation took similar liberties. Some of these run counter to the book, including more of an emphasis on Lili and Gerda’s relationship, and a different ending.
Room by Emma Donoghue
2015 Academy Awards
Won: Best Actress
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director
In adapting her 2010 novel, Emma Donoghue first referred to a screenplay draft she had written between submission and publication. But as the process went on, Donoghue employed a number of techniques she wouldn’t have tried in prose: writing long, open-ended scenes “like a wildlife documentary,” she says; allowing the actors to improvise; etc. These creative choices led to a more naturalistic story that hammered home the horrors of her original idea, about a young woman and her son held captive in Room, which makes up the boy’s entire world.
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