With Oscar night fast approaching, the usual questions fill the air as film junkies scramble to fill out their mock ballots. Will Boy(hood) or Bird(man) triumph on Sunday? The real votes are already cast so only the Academy (and those people with the steel briefcases from Price Waterhouse Cooper) know for sure. But sometimes it’s fun to look back at Oscar history to try to gauge trends, particularly for people who, when they’re not watching movies, can usually be found reading books.
Since the Oscars began in 1927, 36 Best Picture winners have been adapted from novels, short stories, or novellas. Now, before you start arguing about specifics, here’s how that count was determined: plays (sorry, Shakespeare), musicals, and any nonfiction source (biographies, memoirs, newspaper or magazine articles) were not included. Arbitrary? Sure. But what list isn’t? This is a peek at how fiction on the page is translated to fiction on the big screen.
Here are four fascinating tidbits you might not know about some of the greatest books to make it to the silver screen.
If you rank the decades by the number of book adaptations (this term is used loosely to describe novels, short stories, and novellas) that won Best Picture, the 1940s is the clear winner with seven entries. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca kicked it off in 1940 and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men closed out the decade in 1949. Coming in second with six is the 1950s, which saw such classics as All About Eve (1950), From Here to Eternity (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959). Somewhat surprisingly, the 1990s holds down third place with five book adaptations, including The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The English Patient (1996). The 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and the 2000s all tie for fourth place with four adaptations each. The 1920s, getting the short end of the stick seeing as the Oscars didn’t start until 1927, saw one adaptation (1929/1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front), while the 2010s comes in last with a whopping zero book adaptations to date.
The longest uninterrupted streak of book adaptations winning Best Picture is four. This has happened twice. The first time began in 1939 with Gone with the Wind, followed by Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley and ending with 1942’s Mrs. Miniver. In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days started another four-picture run, followed by The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gigi, and ending with 1959’s Ben-Hur. The second-longest streak—1967’s In the Heat of the Night, 1968’s Oliver! and 1969’s Midnight Cowboy—was broken by Patton‘s win in 1970. If either Airplane or M*A*S*H had won, the steak would have continued, since both films are based on novels.
Both times that Martin Scorsese’s much-deserving films (1980’s Raging Bull and 1990’s Good Fellas) shockingly lost Best Picture, they lost to book adaptations. And both times, Scorsese lost his corresponding Best Director Oscars to actors-turned-directors: Robert Redford, who directed 1980’s Ordinary People; and Kevin Costner, who directed 1990’s Dances with Wolves. In 2011, Scorsese’s Hugo, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Artist.
Since 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, there have been no Best Picture winners adapted from novels, short stories, or novellas. And regardless of whose name is called when the golden envelope is opened on Oscar night, that statistic won’t change. Out of the eight nominated films—The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, American Sniper, Birdman, and Boyhood—none are based on novels, short stories, or novellas. Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are based on biographies of their subjects (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, respectively) and American Sniper, is based on sniper Chris Kyle’s memoir. But under the rules of this list, they’re not eligible. Perhaps next year there will be a surge of adapted fiction on the big screen.