Oscars 2014: How Adaptations Continue to Shape the Conversation

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years a Slave/Photo © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Well, the Oscars are nearly upon us, and the predictions are flying around like satellite wreckage in “Gravity.” Rather than add to the deluge, we’re going to take a look at how films based on written source material have fared in the Best Picture competition and let you draw your own conclusions.

Generally speaking, they've done very well. Many films based on classics (“All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Oliver!,” “From Here to Eternity”); genre bestsellers (“The Return of the King,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Godfather”); successful plays (“Cavalcade,” “My Fair Lady,” “Amadeus”); short stories (“It Happened One Night,” “Million Dollar Baby”); journalism (“On the Waterfront,” “The Life of Emile Zola”); and memoirs and biographies (“The Sound of Music,” “Out of Africa,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Patton”) have collected the big prize. Over the eighty-five years that the awards have been given (since 1929), fifty-four Best Picture winners officially have been derived from novels, nonfiction books, newspaper articles, or stage dramas. For you numbers-crunchers, that’s 63.5%. Since comic books and pop fiction also now account for half of the highest-grossing films of all time, the literary world clearly has a major impact on both the box office and the awards circuit.

For example, four of the top ten hits of 2008 were inspired by written material, while all but one of the Best Picture nominees — “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Reader,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won — were similarly sourced. “Atonement,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “No Country for Old Men” (the winner) dominated the nominees from 2007, while six of the top grossers that year were book-derived. When the Academy expanded the nominees beyond five for the 2010 awards, literature-based pictures grew to fill the space, with 2012 and 2013 being especially strong years. Of the nine Best Picture candidates last year, six were based on existing source material, including “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which sprang from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious. The big winner, “Argo,” which is based on a portion of Antonio J. Mendez’s The Master of Disguise and Joshuah Bearman’s Wired article “The Great Escape,” also won the Academy Award for Chris Terrio’s adapted screenplay. Six of the 2012 nominees were equally book-based, though none took Best Picture (Michel Hazanavicius’s original comedy “The Artist” did).

So how does 2014 shape up? Just four of the nine Best Picture options are officially book-based — “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Captain Phillips,” “Philomena,” and “12 Years a Slave” — while other 2013 releases drawn from written material, such as “The Invisible Woman,” “The Book Thief,” “Lone Survivor,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and “The Great Gatsby,” were passed over. Throw in Meryl Streep’s and Julia Roberts’s acting nominations for “August: Osage County,” based on Tracy Letts’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and book-based movies account for nineteen of the forty-four nominations in the big eight categories this year. While Alfonso Cuaron’s blockbuster “Gravity,” developed from an original idea, is certainly exerting a strong pull on voters, “12 Years” is a more comprehensive powerhouse. Given the film’s social/historical significance, its racially mixed cast, its artistic (read: non-commercial) pedigree and its six nominations in major categories (out of nine total), Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s compelling statement makes an excellent case for collecting a bunch of statuettes, including the big one, when the envelopes are opened March 2.

Oh, and it has one other major advantage: it’s based on a book.