Literary Characters & The Oscars (By the Numbers)

Posted by Joe Costal

[Movie still from True Grit 1969, Paramount Pictures]

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.


[Movie still from Misery, Castle Rock Entertainment and Columbia Picutres]


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%.).



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



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



Manuel Spencer Tracy Captain Courageous Novel by Rudyard Kipling



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



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



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



Kitty Foyle Ginger Rogers Kitty Foyle Novel by Christopher Morley



Alvin York Gary Cooper Sergeant York Novel by Tom Skeyhill



Kay Miniver Greer Garson Mrs. Miniver Novel by Jan Struther



Bernadette Soubirous Jennifer Jones Song of Bernadette Novel by Franz Werfel



Don Birnam Ray Milland The Lost Weekend Novel by Charles Jackson



Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford Mildred Pierce Novel by James Cain



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



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



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



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



Alice Aisgill Simone Signoret

Room at the Top

Novel by John Braine



Elmer Gantry Burt Lancaster Elmer Gantry Novel by Sinclair Lewis



Gloria Wandrous Elizabeth Taylor Butterfield 8 Novel by John Michael Hayes



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



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



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



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



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



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



Rooster Cogburn John Wayne

True Grit

Novel by Charles Portis



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



Gundrun Brangwen Glenda Jackson Women in Love Novel by DH Lawrence



Vito Corelone Marlon Brando The Godfather Novel by Mario Puzzo



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



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



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



Aurora Greenway Shirley Maclaine Terms of Endearment Novel by Larry McMurty



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



Annie Wilkes Kathy Bates Misery Novel by Stephen King

Clarice Starling,

Hannibal Lector

Jodi Foster,

Anthony Hopkins

Silence of the Lambs Novel by Thomas Harris



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



Forrest Gump Tom Hanks Forrest Gump Novel by Winston Groom



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



Virginia Woolf Nicole Kidman The Hours Novel by Michael Cunningham



Jimmy Markum Sean Penn Mystic River Novel by Dennis Lehane



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



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



Hanna Scmitz Kate Winslet The Reader Novel by Bernard Schlink



Bad Blake Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart Novel by Thomas Cobb



Tiffany Jennifer Lawrence Silver Linings Playbook Novel by Matthew Quick



Alice Howland Julianne Moore Still Alice Novel by Lisa Genova



Hugh Glass Leonardo Dicaprio The Revenant Novel by Michael Punke



[Movie still from Gone with the Wind, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]

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.

Joe Costal

Joe Costal

Joe Costal knows too much about stupid Halloween songs. His writing has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, most recently Philadelphia Stories and The Maine Review. His poetry is included in Challenges for the Delusional II by Diode Editions. An excerpt from his novel is forthcoming in Painted Bride. Joe teaches writing at Stockton University. Visit him online at