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Since the first Academy Awards in 1928, thirty-three Best Picture winners were based on novels.

All told, that accounts for almost half of all Academy Award winning films! That’s quite a track record attesting to the critical success of “book to screen.” But do literary characters fare equally well?

An old Hollywood cliche depicts Best Actress/Best Actor nods going strictly to real people who triumph over some form of adversity. “Want an Oscar? You have to play a real person!” National Geographic explored the phenomenon before last’s years ceremony.

 

 

In fact, of EW’s top performances, only two are real women (Hilary Swank as Brendan Terra in Boys Don’t Cry and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose).

We couldn’t help but wonder how the rest shake out. Where do the finest performances in cinema history come from? Despite the old adage, novels fair well in Hollywood. Of the 176 lead acting performances awarded Oscars since 1927, a whopping 67% originated as characters from novels.

Here is the definitive list of Academy Awards bestowed upon lead actors who portrayed fictional characters from novels and novellas (sorry Mr. Shakespeare). This does not include plays, musicals, or any other medium written for the stage or screen. It also does not include non-fiction works of biography or memoir.

 

Note: For those of you who think the novel is dead (long live the novel!), more novel characters have won Oscars this decade than in the 1980s...that’s before the internet was on computers!

 

Fear not, however, fond novel lover. In Hollywood, characters created by novelists are still alive and well. Take EW’s ranking of the “50 Greatest ‘Best Actress’ and ‘Best Actor’ Performances Of All Time,” for example.

Of the 50 ranked performances, 18 of them were based on literary characters, while only 13 came from portrayals of real-life. The men were 80% more likely to be recognized for playing real people than women were (or, maybe there are 80% more movies being made about notable men than there are about notable woman...run a Google search for “biopic” and you’ll get a list of the 60 most popular. Only six of them are about women. Better make that 90%.).

 

 

 
YEAR OF FILM CHARACTER(S) ACTOR(S) FILM ORIGINAL WORK
1931 Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Fredric March

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of...

Novella by Robert Louis Stevenson

1934 Ellen Andrews Claudette Colbert It Happened One Night

The Night Bus

Novella by Samuel Hopkins Adams

1934 Peter Warne Clarke Gable It Happened One Night

The Night Bus

Novella by Samuel Hopkins Adams

1936

 

Gypo Nolan Victor McLaglen The Informer Novel by Liam O’Flaherty

1937

 

Manuel Spencer Tracy Captain Courageous Novel by Rudyard Kipling

1937

 

O-Lan Luise Rainer The Good Earth Novel by Pearl S. Buck

1939

 

Mr. Chips Robert Donat Good-bye Mr. Chips Novella by James Hilton

1939

 

Scarlett O’Hara Vivien Leigh Gone With the Wind Novel by Margaret Mitchell

1940

 

Kitty Foyle Ginger Rogers Kitty Foyle Novel by Christopher Morley

1941

 

Alvin York Gary Cooper Sergeant York Novel by Tom Skeyhill

1942

 

Kay Miniver Greer Garson Mrs. Miniver Novel by Jan Struther

1943

 

Bernadette Soubirous Jennifer Jones Song of Bernadette Novel by Franz Werfel

1945

 

Don Birnam Ray Milland The Lost Weekend Novel by Charles Jackson

1945

 

Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford Mildred Pierce Novel by James Cain

1946

 

Al Stephenson Fredric March The Best Years of Our Lives Novella by MacKinlay Kantor

1949

 

Willie Stark Broderick Crawford All the King’s Men Novel by Robert Penn Warren

1951

 

Charlie Allnut Humphrey Bogart The African Queen Novel by C.S. Forester

1957

 

Colonel Nicholson Alec Guinness Bridge on the River Kwai Novel by Pierre Boulle

1959

 

Alice Aisgill Simone Signoret

Room at the Top

Novel by John Braine

1960

 

Elmer Gantry Burt Lancaster Elmer Gantry Novel by Sinclair Lewis

1960

 

Gloria Wandrous Elizabeth Taylor Butterfield 8 Novel by John Michael Hayes

1961

 

Cesira Sophia Loren Two Women Novel by Alberto Moravia (La Ciociara)

1962

 

Atticus Finch Gregory Peck To Kill A Mockingbird Novel by Harper Lee

1964

 

Mary Poppins Julie Andrews Mary Poppins Novel by P.L. Travers

1965

 

Kid Shelleen Lee Marvin Cat Ballou Novel by Roy Chanslor (The Ballad of Cat Ballou)

1967

 

Chief Gillespie Rod Steiger In the Heat of the Night Novel by John Ball

1968

 

Charly Cliff Robertson Charly Novel by Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon)

1969

 

Rooster Cogburn John Wayne

True Grit

Novel by Charles Portis

1969

 

Miss Jean Brodie Maggie Smith The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Novel by Muriel Spark

1970

 

Gundrun Brangwen Glenda Jackson Women in Love Novel by DH Lawrence

1972

 

Vito Corelone Marlon Brando The Godfather Novel by Mario Puzzo

1975

 

Randle Patrick McMurphy Jack Nicholson One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Novel by Ken Kesey

1975

 

Nurse Ratchett Louise Fletcher One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Novel by Ken Kesey

1982

 

Sophie Zawistowski Meryll Streep Sophie’s Choice Novel by William Styron

1983

 

Aurora Greenway Shirley Maclaine Terms of Endearment Novel by Larry McMurty

1986

 

Eddie Fellson Paul Newman The Color of Money Novel by Walter Tevis

1990

 

Annie Wilkes Kathy Bates Misery Novel by Stephen King
1991

Clarice Starling,

Hannibal Lector

Jodi Foster,

Anthony Hopkins

Silence of the Lambs Novel by Thomas Harris

1992

 

Margaret Schlegel Emma Thompson Howard’s End Novel by E.M. Forrester

1994

 

Forrest Gump Tom Hanks Forrest Gump Novel by Winston Groom

1995

 

Ben Sanderson Nicholas Cage Leaving Las Vegas Novel by John O’Brien

2002

 

Virginia Woolf Nicole Kidman The Hours Novel by Michael Cunningham

2003

 

Jimmy Markum Sean Penn Mystic River Novel by Dennis Lehane

2004

 

Idi Amin Forrest Whitaker The Last King of Scotland Novel by Giles Foden

2007

 

Daniel Plainview Daniel Day-Lewis There Will Be Blood Novella by Upton Sinclair (Oil; original character name was James Arnold Ross)

2008

 

Hanna Scmitz Kate Winslet The Reader Novel by Bernard Schlink

2009

 

Bad Blake Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart Novel by Thomas Cobb

2012

 

Tiffany Jennifer Lawrence Silver Linings Playbook Novel by Matthew Quick

2014

 

Alice Howland Julianne Moore Still Alice Novel by Lisa Genova

2015

 

Hugh Glass Leonardo Dicaprio The Revenant Novel by Michael Punke

 

 

More Random “Novel to Screen” Facts:

 

• In 1931, the first literary character to win an Oscar was actually two characters: Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

 

• Holy duality, Batman. Fredric March is also the only actor to win two leading role Oscars for portraying two different characters who originated from novels. He won again in 1946 for playing Al Stephenson from The Best Years of Our Lives.

 

• Only four of the novels listed above won the Pulitzer Prize. Can you pick them out? They are Gone with the Wind, All the King’s Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Hours.

 

• Only three literary pairs (two characters from the same work) won Oscars together. Can you guess the characters and/or the works? They are Night Bus (It Happened One Night), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Silence of the Lambs.

 

• It’s a popular misconception that BOTH leads from Gone With the Wind won Oscars. Only one of the lead characters won: Scarlett.  

 

• Another Gone With the Wind misconception: Margaret Mitchell was not the first female author to write an Academy Award winning character. Nobel winner Pearl S. Buck beat her to it, two years earlier, for The Good Earth. Women authors account for less than 20% of the novels listed above. None are authors of color.

 

• There’s only one other Nobel Laureate on the list above: Sinclair Lewis.

 

• Twice in Oscars history, a lead acting award was given for the portrayal of a REAL person from a completely fictionalized account of that person (i.e. a novel). They were given just two years apart, in 2002 and 2004: Idi Amin from The King of Scotland and Virginia Woolf from The Hours.

 

• Novelist John O’Brien (Leaving Las Vegas) killed himself upon learning that his novel was to be turned into a movie.


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Joe Costal

Joe Costal writes about everything, from movies and books to amusement parks and politics. For his latest blog, “Daddy Film School,” Joe subjects his children to old movies and records the ensuing hilarity (or unmitigated confusion). His writing has also appeared (or is forthcoming) in Pif Magazine, The Maine Review, Educational Viewpoints Journal and elsewhere. Joe teaches writing at Stockton University and has a recurring guest spot on The Jersey Ghouls horror movie podcast. Visit him online at joecostal.com.