Long before Hollywood became obsessed with superheroes, the studios looked to the publishing world for content and inspiration. That turned out to be the case this year when a number of books — novels and nonfiction — got turned into prestige films.
Here are eight awards contenders that are based on books, some of which spent years on the bestseller lists while others flew under the cultural radar. We look at the key similarities and differences between the book and screen versions. Warning: spoilers ahead!
The book: A 2012 memoir by Chris Kyle, with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice.A nonfiction bestseller.
The scenario: A Navy SEAL marksman becomes the deadliest shooter in U.S. military history during four tours of duty in Iraq.
The movie: Adapted by Jason Hall; directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.
Key similarities/differences: The book is more procedural and technical in tone, while the film foregrounds and dramatizes key battle sequences. As in the book, the film opens in 2003 when Kyle (Cooper) makes his first kill as a sniper. However, the decision to shoot is his, not an order from a superior, and the initial target is a woman, not a boy. Following Kyle’s death in 2013 at a Texas shooting range, screenwriter Hall added more emotional context based on conversations with Kyle’s wife, Taya ( Miller).
The film implies Kyle was 30 when he became a SEAL, but in reality, he was two months shy of his 25th birthday when he started basic training in 1999. The film omits that the Navy initially rejected Kyle in 1996 due to pins in his arm from a rodeo injury. An expanded coda in the film sets up Kyle’s death and includes a memorial service at Cowboys Stadium.
The book: A 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn that was on bestseller lists for more than a year.
The scenario: After a young woman mysteriously disappears from her home, suspicion falls on her husband during the police investigation and media frenzy.
The movie: Adapted by Flynn; directed by David Fincher. Starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck.
Key similarities/differences: The film shares the book’s rapid pace and most of its major twists, and despite rumors of a new ending, the puzzle pieces ultimately fall in the same places. The couple’s courtship is accelerated in the movie, and Flynn added a scene in which Nick (Affleck) proposes to Amy (Pike).
In the film there is less detail of Amy’s bizarre upbringing. A trip to Hannibal, Mo., is eliminated, and there is no ugly breakup scene between Nick and his student-lover Andie (Emily Ratajkowski). Nick’s father, a major character in the book, has a much smaller role, and Amy’s parents are mostly relegated to the background. Some other characters — Amy’s alleged stalker, Hilary Handy, Desi’s mom, and Rebecca the blogger — are eliminated entirely. Nick’s violent tendencies, misogyny and obsessions are underplayed in the movie. The couple pen dueling memoirs in the book, not in the film.
‘The Imitation Game’
The book: “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” a 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges. Hodges revised the book in 2000, adding more than 200 pages after classified information was released in the 1990s.
The scenario: British mathematician Alan Turing and a team of cryptologists race to break the Nazi Enigma code during World War II.
The movie: Adapted by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.
Key similarities/differences: The film primarily focuses on the work of Turing (Cumberbatch) during the war, framed by his 1952 arrest and conviction for “gross indecency” based on a homosexual relationship, along with several flashbacks to his school days. Hodges’ cradle-to-the-grave tome actually opens with a Sir John Turing in 1638 and includes more about Alan’s life before and after the war.
Moore takes considerable dramatic license, portraying Turing as more closeted and less socially nimble than in the book. The movie omits Turing’s primary collaborator in breaking the Nazi code, Gordon Welchman, and adds conflict to his relationships with other colleagues. Joan Clarke (Knightley) did not join the team by solving puzzles, as she does in the film, but she and Turing did form a close bond and were briefly engaged. Turing did fall in love with a schoolmate named Christopher Morcom, who died as a teen, but he did not refer to the code-breaking device as “Christopher,” as he does in the movie.
Two historical figures with pivotal roles in the film — Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) and John Cairncross (Allen Leech) — are not mentioned in Hodges’ book. Detective Nock, who arrests Turing in the film, is an invented character.
The book: A 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon.
The scenario: In 1970 L.A., South Bay detective Doc Sportello searches for his ex-flame Shasta’s married boyfriend, a billionaire real estate mogul.
The movie: Adapted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Key similarities/differences: The goofy psychedelic stylings of stoner deluxe Sportello (Phoenix) survive the transition from page to screen. Plot being somewhat beside the point, Anderson remains remarkably faithful to Pynchon’s tone and characters, reportedly first typing the novel’s dialogue in screenplay form, and much of that makes it into the movie. Anderson maintains the Manhattan Beach-like locale of “Gordita Beach,” promotes a minor character named Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) to narrator, and eliminates a trip to Las Vegas. The character of Tariq Khalil is downsized, while others, including Fabian Fazzo, Fritz Drybeam, and Doc’s parents, are cut from the film. Most notably, Anderson creates a new ending.
The book: A 2007 novel by Lisa Genova.
The scenario: A 50-year-old Harvard professor learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and determines to face the deterioration of her memory with dignity.
The movie: Adapted and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.
Key similarities/differences: The film is set in New York, not Boston, and professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) teaches at Columbia. Her husband John’s (Alec Baldwin) new job opportunity is at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, rather than New York. In the book, Alice writes her future self a letter on her laptop. In the film, it’s a video. The key relationship between Alice and her children remains with Lydia (Kristen Stewart), a rebellious actor living in Los Angeles. A patient support group is cut from the film, as is the graduation ceremony of one of Alice’s students.
‘The Theory of Everything’
The book: “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” a 2008 memoir by Jane Hawking. (The first Mrs. Hawking wrote a longer, harsher version of their story in 1999 as “Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen.”
The scenario: A young literature student and brilliant physicist marry and raise a family after he is diagnosed with ALS and given two years to live.
The movie: Adapted by Anthony McCarten; directed by James Marsh. Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Key similarities/differences: The courtship of Stephen (Redmayne) and Jane (Jones) is streamlined in the film. The two actually began dating after his ALS diagnosis, but in the movie they are already engaged. Stephen’s personality is less abrasive in the film, and the couple’s different views on religion are played as banter. In the book, the differences became an increasing source of friction. The role of the second Mrs. Hawking, one of his nurses, is reduced in the film, and the circumstances of Stephen’s life-threatening tracheotomy are made more dramatic. The Hawkings’ breakup in the movie is bittersweet and less acrimonious than in the book.
The book: “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” a 2010 biography by Laura Hillenbrand. A bestseller for more than three years.
The scenario: Italian immigrant Louie Zamperini leaves behind a troubled childhood in Torrance to become an Olympian and World War II bombardier and uses his fortitude to survive as a Japanese prisoner of war.
The movie: Adapted by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson; directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring Jack O’Connell.
Key similarities/differences: The movie focuses on Zamperini’s wartime service, including 47 days adrift at sea in a raft, almost two years in Japanese POW camps, and a running conflict with a sadistic commandant nicknamed the Bird (Takamasa Ishihara, a.k.a. Miyavi). Flashbacks to his delinquent youth and rise to world-class runner while still a teenager demonstrate the source of Zamperini’s grit. As in the book, Zamperini (O’Connell) competes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the film omits his brief meeting with Adolf Hitler. The film ends with Zamperini’s release following the war, and an onscreen postscript highlights his later attempts at reconciliation and forgiveness with his captors. The book, however, goes on to detail his failure to qualify for the 1948 Olympics, battles to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and redemption as a born-again Christian.
The book: “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” a 2012 memoir by Cheryl Strayed that was on bestseller lists for more than a year.
The scenario: Undone by grief, drugs and sex, a young woman hikes 1,100 miles solo through California and Oregon.
The movie: “Wild” adapted by Nick Hornby; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring Reese Witherspoon.
Key similarities/differences: The film’s opening and closing scenes are virtually identical to the book. Aside from some consolidation of events and people Strayed (Witherspoon) meets, the movie sticks to the trail, so to speak. Strayed spends more time hiking with others in the book. The film limits these interactions to respites along the way. The most significant change is the paring down of Strayed’s family to include only Cheryl, her mom Bobbie (Laura Dern), and younger brother Leif (Keene McRae), eliminating her stepfather Eddie and older sister Karen. Unlike in the movie, Strayed didn’t sex with two men in an alley.