Oscar Winning Movies
Literary Adaptations and Academy Awards
The 81st Oscars and “Slumdog Millionaire,” a film based on the book of the same name reiterated the love Oscars had for movies based on novels. A glance at the coveted trophies reveals that, most literary adaptations have been hugely successful.
Of course, these victories are often surrounded by countless debates. Book lovers complain that their favorite author’s works on the celluloid is not a faithful adaptation; while movie buffs say the adaptation is “incredibly better than its novel counterpart.” This endless struggle to meet the readers’ expectations does not dampen the spirit of filmmakers, and the proof lies in the books that have seen unparalleled success when transformed into celluloid dreams.
There is one thing I want to point out, that the adaptations listed here have been successful in terms of winning the Academy Awards. They are listed in order of the number of Oscars they received.
Check out the list! If nothing else, these are great films worth watching, if you haven’t already. The books make great reading too.
Ben-Hur (1959), 11 Oscars
Director: William Wyler
Book: “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace published in 1880
The novel was a phenomenal best-seller, and when Gone with the Wind was published in 1936, the sales plummeted. But the release of this hugely successful adaptation led to a dramatic increase in sales.
William Wyler’s Technicolor blockbuster was made with the largest budget in movie history in its day. “Ben-Hur” won eleven Oscars; William Wyler, the director, received an Oscar for the Best Film and Charlton Heston walked away with the Best Actor award. Judah Ben-Hur, a rich Jewish nobleman, devoted to his faith and people, is separated from his family and sent to the galleys by his Roman tribunal friend Messala, accused of attempted murder. Ben-Hur, who is innocent, returns to seek revenge in a chariot race, which took three months to film and is considered to be one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. There are other brilliant scenes that make sure the viewer’s attention does not flat, such as the battle of the galleys and the crucifixion of Christ.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), 11 Oscars
Director: Peter Jackson
Book: “The Return of the King” being the third part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein published in 1955
Tolkien’s books have attracted millions of teenage boys around the globe. “Lord of the Rings” became the most popular work in 20th century literature and has influenced music and popular video games.
But it was Peter Jackson’s fantasy-adventure film trilogy that brought Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life. The film was one of the greatest box-office successes of all time. “The Return of the King” won eleven Oscars and swept the Oscars in 2004. Winning the Best Picture award was a record for a fantasy film. Amazing cinematography, great actors, exciting battles, mesmerizing magic and brilliant music combined to offer us the world of Hobbits as we’d never imagined it.
Gone with the Wind (1939), 10 Oscars
Director: Victor Fleming
Book: “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell published in 1936
“Gone with the Wind,” the book, would rate right on top for me. It is the most popular novel of its time and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. For those of you who have not read the book, this is one book I strongly recommend; and I promise, it will hold your interest till the end.
Victor Fleming’s rendition of “Gone with the Wind” won ten Oscars (8 in the main categories, such as Best Direction and Best Actress and two special awards). Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard excelled in their characters. The story is about the American Civil War and Scarlett O’Hara who survives the hardships of the war and takes charge when the chips are down. The film’s depiction of the romance between Scarlett and Rhett, and Scarlet’s unfulfilled love for Ashley Wikes won over audiences. Although, the Hollywood version was splendid and won many awards, many felt that it still did not do justice to Margaret Mitchell’s best seller.
Out of Africa (1985), 7 Oscars
Director: Sydney Pollack
Book: “Out of Africa” by Isac Dinesen (Karen Blixen) published in 1938
When Isac Dinesen authored “Seven Gothic Tales,” her first publication, she was a mystery and people thought she was a man. With “Out of Africa,” her memoirs, readers were fascinated to learn that she was a Danish baroness, named Karen Blixen. They were attracted to her mysterious life as nobody knew much about her.
Biographies attract filmmakers and audiences alike. Sydney Pollack’s immensely popular version starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and is more of a love story rather than a direct adaptation. “Out of Africa” won seven Oscars and Meryl Streep’s amazing performance won her an Oscar, along with awards for the Best Director, Picture and Cinematography. This fascinating film traces the life of Danish writer Karen Blixen who is better known as Isak Dinesen. She travels to Kenya to be with her husband but falls in love with an English adventurer. The film revolves around their stormy relationship at a coffee plantation, in early twentieth century Africa. The film is a feast for the eyes, and is unforgettable for its depiction of the breathtaking beauty of Africa. This is a great example of a film being more famous than the book that inspired it.
Schindler’s List (1993), 7 Oscars
Director: Steven Spielberg
Book: “Schindler’s List” (Schindler’s Ark) by Thomas Keneally published in 1982
Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist, won the Booker Prize for Schindler’s List, but the main recognition came in the form of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation. This is a true story and is the result of Keneally’s chance encounter with a Jewish worker saved by Schindler, who related the story and helped Keneally interview other survivors.
Audiences from around the world were stunned by the mastery displayed by Spielberg, and the film was lauded as one of the best about the Holocaust. A box office success, “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. The film, starring Ben Kingsley, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, is based on a true story of a German, Oskar Schindler, who saves thousands of Jews from concentration camps in Nazi Germany, during the holocaust. Spielberg’s brilliant decision to film it in black and white was applauded as the right move.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), 7 Oscars
Director: David Lean
Book: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle published (English version) in 1954
The story goes that French writer Pierre Boulle’s book incorrectly mentioned that the bridge was on River Kwai when in reality it was on Mae Khlung river. When David Lean’s film came out, thousands of tourists were said to have gone to see the bridge over the River Kwai. To resolve this issue, the river Mae Khlung had to be renamed Kwae Yai for several miles.
This stands testimony to how David Lean’s epic World War II adventure, captured the imagination of the public and brought Peter Boulle’s remarkable but lesser known novel to life. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” won seven Oscars in all major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music and Best Actor. Its theme song, “Colonel Bogey March,” is an old World War II whistling tune that became a huge hit. The movie deals with a company of British soldiers headed by Colonel Nicholson (portrayed by Alec Guiness), who were taken prisoners by the Japanese in World War II. Alec Guiness shot to fame for his brilliant acting! Filmed in the breathtaking locales of Ceylon, it is considered as one of the best cinematic experiences of all time.
Dances with Wolves (1990), 7 Oscars
Director: Kevin Costner
Book: “Dances with Wolves” by Michael Blake published in 1988
Michael Blake, author and screen writer also won the Golden Globe and the Silver Spur awards for “Dances with Wolves,” which is his first. Prior to that, Blake was stuck with unproduced screenplays and worked as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. Costner, who he first met in 1981, called him to write the screenplay for a film based on this novel, and the rest is history.
This film made Kevin Costner, who produced, directed and acted in it, famous worldwide. “Dances with wolves” won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film was lauded for the positive portrayal of Native American life and the engrossing story of a white soldier that mans a post singlehandedly, and becomes a part of the Lakota Sioux community. Unfortunately, Costner did not experience this sort of directorial success after this.
Forrest Gump (1994), 6 Oscars
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Book: “Forrest Gump” by Winston Groom published in 1986
Winston Groom’s novel sold a decent 40,000 copies by itself. But his life changed forever when Paramount bought the rights in 1994. A re-release of the novel sold more than 1.7 million copies.
Director Robert Zemeckis seems to have fallen in love with the Forrest Gump character and gave it his all, turning the novel into a most memorable work. Winner of 6 Oscars, including Best Actor (Hanks) and Best Picture, “Forrest Gump” is the story of a slow-witted Southern man, who hilariously navigates through a life filled with adventure and achieves success. Forrest’s assertion, “life is like a bowl of chocolates,” has become part of the American language.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), 5 Oscars
Director: Milos Forman
Book: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey published in 1962
Ken Kesey worked as a night attendant on the psychiatric ward of a hospital to earn extra money. He was convinced that the patients were locked into a system that was opposite to therapeutic, and this provided the key to this novel, which is one of the best-known American novels of the 60s.
“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the first to win all five major Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, since 1934. The story is about Randal McMurphy portrayed by Jack Nicholson, a petty criminal who feigns insanity to shift to a mental institution from prison. He instigates the other patients to stand up against the oppressive Nurse Ratched. This soul-wrenching movie is ranked as the best film of the 70s by many.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991), 5 Oscars
Director: Jonathan Demme
Book: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris published in 1988
This extremely popular bestseller is Thomas Harris’ second that features Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist and a serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies. The character of “Buffalo Bill” is said to be based on five real-life serial killers: Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Edmund Kemper and Gary Heidnik.
Jonathan Demme weaved his magic for this dark psychological thriller in such a way that you will not forget it for a long time. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins won great praise for their excellent portrayals of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. “The Silence of the Lambs” swept all major Oscar categories but the Academy was criticized for this. Seven nominations translated into five wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. To date, this is the third film to win in all top five. This is certainly no mean feat considering the film featured a cannibal!
Movie-makers continue to search their bookshelves for material. For one thing, the books already have an audience of their own, and these fans are easily transformed into movie viewers, eager to see how their favorite book was interpreted by the filmmaker. This ensures the film is not a disaster. Filmmakers opine that it is difficult to find top-quality screenplays, and the best stories are often found between the covers of a novel.