The Books Behind the Oscars


Now that we’ve all recovered from Sunday’s Academy Awards, replete with boring acceptance speeches and Seth MacFarlane’s [honestly guys, not that earth-shattering] sexism, we can all settle comfortably into that post-Oscars glow of temporarily highbrow taste, i.e. “Maybe I will rent Argo instead of marathon-watching old episodes of Wife Swap…” It’s a lovely thing, how a few pretty gowns and well-edited clips can rouse one’s interest in subjects as varied as the emancipation of slaves and, well, the emancipation of slaves. (Big movie year for slavery, no?)

But while last night’s winners paid a lot of lip service to their agents, managers, producers and spouses, not quite as many shout-outs were given to the brains behind the concepts behind the screenplays behind the movies, i.e. the authors whose books, plays or essays were ultimately adopted for the silver screen. (Except Ang Lee, who constantly thanks Life of Pi author Yann Martel. Kudos Ang; you win this round).

So just in case you don’t feel like Googling them (fair enough; it takes some dedication), here are the titles behind this year’s Oscar nominees.


The Sessions
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress
Won for: n/a
Based on: On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien

Mark O’Brien contracted polio in 1955 (at age six) and spent the rest of his life paralyzed and requiring an iron lung. Joining a long list of people with more drive and enthusiasm for life than I can even muster on Christmas morning, O’Brien spent his iron-lung time writing stories and poetry, attending UC Berkeley and becoming an advocate for people with disabilities. He also founded a small publishing house, Lemonade Factory, dedicated to poetry written by the disabled. In 1990, he wrote an article for the Sun magazine, in which he documented his experience using a sex surrogate (because no man should die a virgin).


Beasts of the Southern Wild
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress
Won for: n/a
Based on: Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar

Set in a fictional Louisiana bayou community called the “Bathtub,” Juicy and Delicious revolves around five-year-old Hushpuppy and his (or in the movie, her) father, Wink. As a storm/flood approaches—caused by the melting ice caps—and Bathtub’s residents begin to flee, Hushpuppy must grapple with the possibility of becoming an orphan. Together with Miss Bathsheba—the local schoolteacher—Wink works to prepare Hushpuppy and his schoolmates for a world without grown-ups, where the survivors must learn to take care of one another.


Silver Linings Playbook
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Won for: Best Actress
Based on: The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick

Pat Peoples is a little, well, unwell. He thinks his life is a movie produced by God, and that his constructive participation in said movie (accomplished via physical fitness, emotional growth, etc.) will result in the return of Nikki, his estranged wife. But having come home to Philly after spending time in a mental health facility, Pat has more immediate problems, like his unsolicited friendship with neighborhood oddball Tiffany, and the fact that the Eagles keep losing.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Nominated for: Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Won for: n/a
Based on: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bringing the total time commitment needed for Lord of the Rings movies to approximately 47 hours, The Hobbit is the fourth installment (and first prequel) in Peter Jackson’s sprawling tribute to the famous Tolkien series. Centered on Bilbo Baggins, a routine-oriented hermit whose sitting/eating/chilling out lifestyle I can totally get behind, the novel gets going when Bilbo is called upon by the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves for help with an adventure. Although this adventure involves the highly unappealing task of stealing treasure from a dragon, Bilbo agrees to go along, which makes it sort of karmically acceptable that he gets caught up in a perilous and magical journey involving golden rings and a certain river-creature-thing with an infamous obsession.


Life of Pi
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Original Song
Won for: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score
Based on: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

After a cargo ship sinks in the Pacific, 16-year-old Pi finds himself alive on the only lifeboat that survived, which would be a moderately fortuitous turn of events if said lifeboat were not also occupied by a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a 450-pound royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. What follows is a story of survival on the high seas, mixed in with the kind of magical realism that makes it seem completely sane for a teenage boy to negotiate a tepid symbiotic relationship with an undomesticated murderous cat while dealing with sharks, storms, hunger and his own overactive imagination.


Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score
Won for: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Based on: “The Great Escape,” by Joshua Bearman; The Master of Disguise, by Antonio Mendez

Militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, in retaliation for CIA involvements in Iran. More than 50 of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, but six escape and hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador. With the escapees kept a secret, the State Department begins to explore options for getting them out of Iran. Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” specialist—sweet job title, btw—is brought in for consultation, and after much back-and-forth devises a batshit plan: a cover story claiming the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting locations for a science-fiction movie. Although primarily based on “The Great Escape,” Joshua Bearman’s April 2007 article in Wired magazine, Argo also takes cues from The Master of Disguise, Mendez’s 2000 memoir.


Les Miserables
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Song, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design
Won for: Best Supporting Actress, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing
Based on: Les Miserables, 1980 stage musical; Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

Clocking in as the 14th cinematic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s seminal novel, Les Miserables 2012 proves that we have an apparently limitless capacity for watching poor French people sing about being poor. The movie/musical/novel centers on a rotating cast of characters, including mascot-of-sorts Jean Valjean, a criminal-turned-altruist whose struggles with poverty, priesthood and the law parallel larger thematic changes in the political and cultural environment of France. The first word that comes to mind when one discusses Les Mis is “sweeping.” The second, at least if we’re talking about the [admittedly very good] book, is “really really, like definitely buy the e-book, long.”


Anna Karenina
Nominated for: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design
Won for: Best Costume Design
Based onAnna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Set in 19th century Russian high society, Anna Karenina is the story of married aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina (obvi), whose life is upended as she embarks on an affair with the wealthy Count Vronsky, (to the detriment of her current marriage and ultimately her social standing). The novel also tells the story of Konstantin Levin, country landowner and hopeful husband of Kitty, sister-in-law to Anna’s older brother. Another tome of a book—approaching 1,000 pages—Anna Karenina is the kind of story to which Keira Knightley appears to be drawn like a magnet (see: Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, King Arthur, Silk.) Have they made a post-2000 version of Madame Bovary yet? Because when they do, $100 says it’ll star Keira Knightley.


Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing
Won for: Best Actor, Best Production Design
Based on: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

While Lincoln the movie focuses on the final four months of the president’s life—and specifically his January 1865 efforts to do away with that pesky thing called slavery—Team of Rivals is slightly broader in scope. Goodwin makes her case for Lincoln’s genius by exploring his relationships with three men in his cabinet—Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Attorney General Edward Bates. Team of Rivals reportedly took Goodwin ten years to write, which doesn’t surprise me: It also approaches a whopping 1,000 pages. Spoiler: The slaves get freed.

One thought on “The Books Behind the Oscars”

  1. great idea to research these… I think I’ll take a stab at a few. Not sure if I ever read Les Mis or Anna Karenina, but I’ll have to pick one. My tolerance for length depends on how great the writing is.

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