Wednesday 19 June 2019

How adaptations of best-selling novels have come to dominate the Oscars

My Fair Lady
My Fair Lady
Brokeback Mountain
Schindler's List
Silence of the Lambs
The Godfather
Nicole Kidman

Edel Coffey

When 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar for best film at last year's ceremony, much was made of the original text upon which it was based, the memoir by Solomon Northup chronicling his experiences as a slave.

The adaptation of a book to the big screen is never a smooth one, not least because of fans' protective feelings towards their favourite novels, but also because you're taking a non-visual form and trying to retell it with moving pictures.

Some books in particular are notoriously difficult to transfer to film and those who dare to take the risk can reap huge rewards - or alternatively flop catastrophically.

This year's Oscar nominees have plenty of book adaptations among them: American Sniper is based on a novel of the same name; The Theory Of Everything is based on Jane Hawking's memoir Travelling to Infinity; and Alan Turing's biography The Enigma was the source material for The Imitation Game. Meanwhile David Fincher's Gone Girl started life as the phenomenal global bestseller and Reese Witherspoon's Wild is a direct adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her pilgrimage up the west coast of America after the death of her mother.

Some of the best Oscar-winners in the past have had their origins in books, and when filmmakers get them right, they really work. The Godfather stands out as one of the most remarkable transitions from a brilliant book to an equally brilliant film that changed the face of filmmaking. The 1972 film by Francis Ford Coppola won three Oscars.

There have been a few Irish winners amongst the adaptations, too. My Left Foot was probably one of the most successful ones, based on Christy Brown's 1954 autobiography of the same name. Jim Sheridan's screenplay, matched with the talents of Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker, made for a searing account of one man's struggle with cerebral palsy, but also an evocative rendering of a particular time in Dublin. Carlow girl Saoirse Ronan was barely in her teens when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award for Atonement, a superb adaptation of the critically acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, in 2008. But she missed out.

Dubliner George Bernard Shaw won an Oscar for the adaptation of his play Pygmalion. That play went on to be adapted again as My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn and won eight Oscars in 1965. Also starring Hepburn, another adaptation that worked well but failed to clinch the Oscar nomination was Breakfast At Tiffany's, a slightly sanitised version of Truman Capote's novel.

The 1993 film Schindler's List is probably one of the most remarkable adaptations of a book ever to have won an Oscar and it's no surprise that master director Steven Spielberg was behind this one. This was adapted from Thomas Keneally's book, Schindler's Ark. Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse failed to pick up the best film award it was nominated for in 2012.

Often a film will inspire a new readership. Take The Descendants, for example. The book, written by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, was not a bestseller until George Clooney lent his face to the story. Likewise, the film of The Godfather made the book a huge global success.

Thomas Harris's book The Silence Of The Lambs became one of the defining thrillers of the 1990s and won the Best Picture Oscar in 1990, with stand-out performances from Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling.

One of the most popular films of all time, Gone With The Wind, won the Best Film Oscar in 1939 and was based on the novel of the same name written by Margaret Mitchell.

Classic fiction has provided the springboard to Oscar victory for many an adaptation, from Emma Thompson's screenplay for Ang Lee's version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility to the 1940 Best Picture win for Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Taking on classics can be risky but it paid off for Peter Jackson with his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, which went on to be one of the the biggest-grossing film franchises of all time. The Return Of The King, the third film in the franchise, won 11 Oscars, a feat that hadn't been achieved by any other film apart from Titanic and Ben-Hur.

Other classics have not been as successful. F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century and has been adapted numerous times, with most directors failing to capture the elusive point of Fitzgerald's novel about lost innocence and lost love. Baz Lurhman was the most recent director to take a punt and while I loved this glitzy adaptation, many thought it was an inappropriate ritzy remake of the classy novel.

Sometimes even the slightest story can be enough to spiral out into a film. Annie Proulx's short story became Brokeback Mountain, which won best picture in 2005.

It doesn't have to be a lot of words... just the right ones.

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