What Sort of Book Wins an Oscar?

Posted by Patrick Brown on January 27, 2011
This past Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posted its nominations for its annual awards. The Oscars aren't for another few months, but the debate has already begun. Will The Social Network win Best Picture? Can anyone stop Colin Firth from taking home the Best Actor award? Why was Hailee Steinfeld nominated for Supporting Actress when she was clearly the lead in True Grit? And will Christopher Nolan show up and crash the podium -- Kanye West-style -- to claim Best Director? Only time will tell.

Unsurprisingly, several of the Best Picture nominees were adapted from books. Adaptations have historically done well at the Academy Awards, with over 25 winners coming from the world of literature. Unforgettable movies like Gone with the Wind, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs won over fans on shelves before they dazzled on the screen. But it isn't always wildly popular best-sellers that win big on Oscar night. Lesser-known titles often prevail over their blockbuster counterparts. In fact, it's a good rule of thumb that if you want to win an Oscar, don't adapt the most popular book of the era. Obscure titles are often a better bet to win.

With that in mind, we thought it might be fun to use Goodreads data to look at some of the books that inspired past Oscar winners. Have the films' glory impacted the popularity of the books? Are the movies that win Best Picture mostly adapted from popular best-sellers or do obscure books sometimes carry the day? Let's take a look.

Here are the most notable adaptations to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with the total number of ratings (that's how many times someone has added it to their shelves) as well as the average rating on Goodreads:

Book # of Ratings Average Rating
All Quiet on the Western Front 28,541 3.73
Gone with the Wind 156,441 4.14
Rebecca 37,088 4.07
How Green Was My Valley 2,100 4.09
The Lost Weekend 108 4.05
Hamlet 73,925 4.03
All the King's Men 7,007 4.06
Ben-Hur 1,193 4.06
The Godfather 18,053 4.21
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 45,806 4.13
Ordinary People 3,956 3.75
Out of Africa 4,104 3.91
Dances with Wolves 1,030 3.78
The Silence of the Lambs 103,639 3.84
Schindler's List 5,702 4.16
Braveheart 294 3.64
The English Patient 15,049 3.78
A Beautiful Mind 3,020 3.75
The Return of the King (LoTR) 81,1147 4.40
Million Dollar Baby (Originally titled Rope Burns) 265 3.83
No Country for Old Men 19,409 3.97
Slumdog Millionaire (adapted from Q&A) 4,445 3.87

As you can see, there's a mix of very popular titles like Gone with the Wind and Silence of the Lambs, as well as some titles that have remained more obscure despite the Oscar win. Can it be that fewer than 300 people have rated The Lost Weekend on Goodreads? Apparently, it is.

The average number of ratings for past Best Picture winners is 27,833. The average rating for those books is 3.956. One other interesting note: The only Goodreads Author to have a book adapted into a Best Picture winner? Michael Blake, whose Dances with Wolves won the Academy Award in 1991.

This year, there are four Best Picture nominees that have been adapted from books:

The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. This was adapted into the Golden Globe-winning The Social Network. Goodreads members seem pretty split on this book. David Sawyer says: "I haven't been this glued to a book in a while. The extra short chapters made the book feel fast-paced, a perfect device for telling the story of the meteoric rise of Facebook. I've always been a huge fan of Facebook, even when it was "thefacebook," so it was great to read about its genesis. Or, should I say, alleged genesis?" But Alexandra says: "The book disappoints me. There is an extreme deficiency of literary value. There is little description and real development of the characters. You don't get a glimpse into their thought processes, minds, feelings... This book is as cold as a circuit board."

Stats: 1,958 ratings, 3.22 average rating

True Grit by Charles Portis. This is actually the second adaptation of True Grit. The first brought John Wayne his only Oscar for Best Actor (despite, as I mentioned in the opening, his character playing a more supporting role). Most Goodreads users liked this book a lot. Mike Ingram says: "Not usually a Tracking Bad Guys Through The Indian Territories kinda reader, but read this because of how much I like Portis' other work. And it's great -- lively, often laugh-out-loud funny, with some action sequences toward the end that are riveting in that Hardy Boys final-chase-scene way (except better written, and funnier). And the last chapter almost -- almost! -- made me weepy."

Stats: 1,696 ratings, 4.11 average rating

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Rolston. This was adapted into 127 Hours, starring dreamboat Oscar host (and author!) James Franco. Goodreads reviews were pretty mixed for this one, which is, of course, the well-known true story of the hiker who cut off his own arm to survive. Michael Buozis says: "There is only one character in this book, and that character is, you guessed it, Aron Ralston. Between a Rock and a Hard Place is Ralston's account of his ordeal pinned to a canyon wall by a half-ton chockstone in Blue John Canyon. He alternates between chapters telling of the delirium of those five days and the choices he must make, and a sort of "how I came to be the way I am" recounting of his life story. The irony of the book reveals itself to the reading pretty early on. A seemingly random accident, with a one-in-a-million rescue, has been fated for this kid his whole damn life. I call Ralston a "kid" (even though he was my age when he had this accident) because he shows time and time again that he has learned very few lessons from his great experience of the world."

Stats: 1,539 ratings, 3.70 average rating

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. This is probably the dark horse in this year's race, but everyone has been raving about the film, so who knows. Many Goodreads members connected with the story of Ree, a 16-year-old girl tasked with bringing her father to a high-stakes court date. Goodreads member Karen says: "this is no morality tale, it is just a slice of a life that is happening, unsung, in america. it's too short a book for me to say much about without rooning [sic] it for everyone, but i loved it like crazy, and will have to get all his other, out of print, books into my hands..."

Stats: 1,577 ratings, 3.93 average rating

And Winter's Bone might be the only of these three titles to experience a real surge in readership due to its nomination. As you can see, a fair number of people have added the book to their to-read shelves since its nomination on Tuesday:

It's worth noting that all four books have found roughly the same size audience, despite being about radically different subjects. True Grit has the highest average rating, but as we saw from the list of previous winners, that doesn't guarantee success. The Accidental Billionaires has the most ratings, but opinions on it are quite mixed. And mass appeal doesn't seem to be what wins Oscars, at least not for adaptations. The three most popular books that were adapted this year -- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Eclipse (Twilight 3), and Eat, Pray, Love -- failed to win nominations for Best Picture (shockingly).

So who will win? I think the Goodreads numbers suggest True Grit will take home the award. But I could be wrong? Who are you pulling for this year?

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Wasn't The Town in there too?

I'm waiting for The Book Thief adaptation.

message 2: by Laura Jane (new)

Laura Jane There's also The King's Speech though the movie isn't directly based on this book I don't think. I've added this book to my "To Read" list.

message 3: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown Yeah, The Town, which is an adaptation of Prince of Thieves, didn't get a Best Picture nomination, though I liked it a lot. Side note: I wonder if they decided to call it The Town because that Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie already burned itself onto our collective consciousness as Prince of Thieves. Remember that movie? Christian Slater was in it.

I didn't realize The King's Speech was a book, since it's nominated for Original Screenplay. I guess it's a similar situation to Syriana from a few years ago, a movie that was "inspired" by the book.

message 4: by Sabelmouse (new)

Sabelmouse winter's bone is a travesty. a good book turned into a dumped down, deminished, disneyfied bore.
and that book is so suited for moviemaking

message 5: by Pam (new)

Pam Jones Love seeing the impact of the nominations on Goodreads users' book lists! It is so interesting to see visually the result of current events.

message 6: by Neil (new)

Neil George Does anyone out there have any advice regarding the selling of film rights? I've been approached and don't know what to do, or who to talk to about it as my novel was published on Amazon Kindle and I don't have an agent. Any ideas would be much appreciated1

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