Best Adapted Screenplay: From the printed page to the silver screen

Oscar may be all about the movies, but he’s got a soft spot for writers as well.

Every year, as Hollywood’s favorite statuettes are handed out, there’s a moment when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the writers upon whom the entire film industry depends. After all, every movie starts with a writer tapping out a screenplay, without which the screens in your local theater would remain forever blank.

Some of these scripts are written directly for the big screen. Many films, however, have their roots in other sources, including books. Some of the most important books ever written by some of the greatest writers of all time have been adapted into films. In fact, the minds and pens of writers from Jane Austen to Jules Verne to J.R.R. Tolkien to John Irving have been the wellsprings of films that have won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay—and some of the best writers of their generations have received Academy Awards for adapting the works of others.

The first movie based on a book to win a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar was 1931’s Cimmaron, which was based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. Since then, 59 of the 83 Academy Awards handed out for adapted screenplays have come from previously published books or short stories (the rest originated from plays, teleplays, short films, and other sources).

The first writer to win the award twice was renowned filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who adapted 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives (from the novel Letter to Five Wives by John Klempner) and 1950’s All About Eve (from the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr). Mankiewicz also won Best Director Oscars for both films.

Screenwriter Michael Wilson also won the award twice, for A Place in the Sun (1951), and 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. When he won the second time, however, he had been blacklisted by Hollywood, and his award was given to a “front,” Pierre Boulle (who wrote the novel upon which River Kwai was based). Wilson was recognized and given his award posthumously in 1984.

 

Multiple Oscar nominee and winner Francis Ford Coppola won the Best Adapted Screenplay award for both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). Each time, he shared the award with Mario Puzo, the author of the novel upon which the films were based. Other writers who have won Oscars for adapting their own novels include Michael Blake (Dances with Wolves, 1990) and international best-selling author John Irving (The Cider House Rules, 1999).

Irving isn’t the only writing heavyweight whose work has been adapted into Oscar-winning films. Among the great writers whose works have inspired scripts that went on to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award are:

  • Louisa May Alcott (Little Women, 1933)
  • Jules Verne (Around the World in Eighty Days 1956)
  • Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry, 1960)
  • Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962)
  • Boris Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago, 1965)
  • Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975)
  • E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, 1986; and Howard’s End, 1992)
  • Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, 1995)
  • James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, 1997)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003)

Oscar knows how to keep it in the family: three pairs of siblings have won Oscars for writing screenplays based on previously published works. The Epstein brothers, Phillip and Julius, shared the award with Howard Koch for adapting the novel Everybody Comes to Rick’s into the legendary film, Casablanca (1943). James Goldman won an Oscar in 1968 for A Lion in Winter, while his brother William Goldman took home awards in 1969 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and in 1976 for All the President’s Men. Finally, Joel and Ethan Coen won Oscars in 2007 for No Country for Old Men.

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And one last Oscar oddity: Larry McMurtry is the only writer whose work has been adapted into an Oscar-winning screenplay (Terms of Endearment, 1983), and who himself has won an Academy Award for adapting another writer’s work (Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, 2005).

This year, four films based on previously published material have been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay: American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice and The Theory of Everything. (A fifth nominated film, Whiplash, was based on a short film of the same name.) Those four films may have wound up with the big screen treatment, but they all began the same way: in the pages of a well-crafted, eagerly anticipated and voraciously read book.

 

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Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.