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Book-to-film adaptation is a complex, and often misunderstood, art form. On the surface, it might seem like making a movie based on a story that already exists is somehow easier than starting from scratch. But taking someone else’s work of art, which already stands on its own, and making it into something new is a daunting task. For those who are up for the challenge though, it can also be exhilarating. In addition to cinematography, music, acting, and production design, filmmakers get to use text itself as a tool for expression when working on an adaptation. They have to respect the spirit of the original work (or make a very conscious choice not to), while also contributing something that could not be achieved in the original medium. Each adaptation is under pressure to justify its own existence, a task that becomes all the more difficult when working with excellent source material. That was certainly the case for the books that inspired 2020’s best movies, as filmmakers took on formidable tasks that ranged from adapting Jane Austen to telling the stories of real, living people. But their production teams rose to the occasion and walked away with Oscar nominations to show for it. There is no better way to appreciate the magnitude of what they all pulled off then by reading the books that inspired these films.
The sheer variety of books that inspired filmmakers is incredibly striking. Four of these films were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (the other nominee, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” was adapted from preexisting film characters), while others dominated acting and design categories. This list contains three theatrical plays, a 19th-century romance novel, a journalistic memoir about forgotten Americans, a debut novel about economic inequality in India, and a contemporary American western novel. What they all have in common is storytelling powerful enough to inspire a cinematic adaptation.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but reading the source material for your favorite movies provides a unique perspective on the creative process. All seven of these films started with a filmmaker reading these books and seeing potential beyond what’s expressed on the page. Diving into the original text sheds light on the brilliance of each author’s vision, but also emphasizes the unique contributions made by each screenwriter and director. And you’ll want to reread them all, so don’t be shy about buying a book, or two. You’ll thank yourself later.
In a year dominated by theatrical adaptations, it only makes sense to start with a stage play. This French piece, titled “Le Père,” was written by Florian Zeller, who also adapted it for the screen and also directed the film of the same title. It tells the story of an aging patriarch battling dementia and the toll that the illness takes on his entire family. The play was previously made into the French film “Floride,” directed by Phillippe Le Guay, which Zeller was not involved in. If you were moved by “The Father” and want to go deeper, it’s definitely worth experiencing all three.
This 2017 memoir by journalist Jessica Bruder chronicles the lives of aging Americans who are living through economic desperation, and forced to travel the country in vans and RVs in search of temporary work. Bruder spent over three years talking to members of this tragic subculture and told their stories in this incredibly moving work of nonfiction. Chloe Zhao’s film adaptation blends fact and fiction, inserting a made-up protagonist (played by Francis McDormand) into the world of real people found in the book. She famously cast many of these real-life nomads to play themselves in the film, engaging in a rich dialogue with the text. Fern (the film’s main character) is nowhere to be found, but the book is a must-read for those wishing to learn more about the world seen on screen.
Kemp Powers is having a moment, to put it mildly. His script for “Soul” earned him rave reviews this year, and he holds the honor of being the first Black filmmaker to co-direct a Pixar movie. And that’s on top of the success that “One Night In Miami,” adapted from his debut play, has enjoyed. The script follows Malcom X, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali (back when he was known as Cassius Clay), and Jim Brown over the course of one night the four African-American icons spent together in 1964. None of the men had achieved icon status yet, and the one-act play uses their fictionalized conversation to tell an incredibly human story while foreshadowing the highs and crushing lows that were to come. The original script is an essential read, both for its striking historical story, and the fact that it launched the career of one of the most exciting writers working today.
Like “One Night In Miami,” this novel was the work of a first-time writer and went on to inspire an Oscar-nominated film. The story of a struggling entrepreneur is a detailed indictment of classism in India, a country haunted by the lingering effects of its caste system. Aravind Adiga strikes a delicate balance, using just the amount of dark humor as he tells the story of a young Indian man who is driven to crime after languishing as a poor driver, but ultimately becomes the owner of his own business. The writer asks more questions than he answers in this powerful novel, but the complex portrait of a country in transition proved to be ripe cinematic inspiration for director Ramin Bahrani. After finishing the book, you’ll be left with no doubt as to why Adiga’s novel took home the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the third entry in Wilson’s Century Cycle, a series of 10 plays that each tell stories of African-American life in the 20th century. Each entry took place in a different decade, and taken together, they paint a tragically elegant portrait. The Century Cycle is no stranger to the Oscars, with Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Wilson’s “Fences” scoring three nominations, and a Best Supporting Actress win for Viola Davis, in 2017. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” set in the 1920s, is the only play in the series not to be set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and tells the story of Black musicians struggling in an often-exploitative recording industry. All 10 plays are excellent and can each be read on their own, so feel free to dive in at any point.
This western novel follows a traveling storyteller charged with protecting an orphan girl on a dangerous journey through post-Civil War America. The movie is excellent, but the world that author Paulette Jiles constructed is every bit as rich, perhaps more impressive given that she could not rely on images. Characters from this book also appear in multiple other novels written by Jiles, which is sure to be welcome news for anyone who finishes the book, but may not be ready to leave that world just yet.
Jane Austen’s quintessential comedy of manners is dwarfed only by “Pride and Prejudice” in the author’s canon. The story of Emma Woodhouse, an often-unsuccessful matchmaker in the village of Highbury, remains fresh to this day. The classic novel has inspired multiple films, including Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation and, of course, “Clueless.” The 2020 film, anchored by an excellent performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, stays very true to the spirit of the novel. Which means that if you enjoyed the film, you are almost certain to like the book.