A Reader’s Guide to the Oscars

As anyone who’s seen a beloved book butchered on the big screen can attest, film adaptations are a dangerous game. Which is why it’s such a relief to see a story brought to life with respect for the source material, accompanied by all the magic and artistry of film. With the 89th Academy Awards taking place this weekend, we’re celebrating the books — funny and tragic, fiction and non- — that inspired the Oscar-nominated films of 2016.

A Man Called Ove

David: A Man Called Ove is, unsurprisingly, the story of a small-town curmudgeon named Ove. He is a man of staunch principles, strict routines, and terrible anger. In the book, he’s even described as “the neighbor from hell.” But, of course, beneath Ove’s rough and unfriendly exterior lies a story of true sorrow and loss.

The story, more than following one man’s obsession with being the worst, explores the comical and heartwarming relationship between Ove and is ill-fated new neighbors. The book was adapted for film and has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. If the movie is half as good as the book, then I hope it wins. 

Also available as an audiobook.

The Jungle Book

Karyne: When someone says The Jungle Book, what probably comes to mind is the 1967 Disney film. But the book that inspired that film, as well as the 2016 live-action version (which is nominated for a Visual Effects Academy Award), is Rudyard Kipling’s collection of 14 short fables using animals to teach moral lessons. The tales revolve around a boy named Mowgli, who was raised in the Indian jungle by wild animals, and teach lessons of helping others, adapting to surroundings, and facing fears.

This isn’t the first time The Jungle Book has gotten an Oscar nod: “The Bare Necessities” was nominated for Best Original Song in 1967.

Also available as an audiobook.

Highest Duty

Karyne (again!): In 2009, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landed a plane on the Hudson River in an emergency situation, saving the lives of the 155 people onboard.

His memoir, which inspired the film Sully (nominated for Sound Editing), describes the events of the day. But, perhaps more importantly, the book gives an inside look at his training — including his time in the military — that made his heroic landing possible. 

Stories of Your Life and Others

Niree: Ted Chiang is a sci-fi master capable of making the alien feel entirely human. Take, for example, this anthology’s titular story, “The Story of Your Life,” which is also the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film, Arrival. A linguistics expert recounts tender and painful memories with her deceased daughter while working with the U.S. government after unidentified foreign heptapods make contact via mysterious two-way looking glasses. Informed by his background as a software technical writer, Chiang incorporates physics and language with musings on free will and destiny in attempting to understand that greatest of unknowns: death. 

Fixing his lens on such concepts as heaven and such ideas as self-perception and posthumanism, Chiang develops characters and worlds that read like fantasy but feel like truth. His first published story, the Nebula Award-winning “The Tower of Babel,” sets the tone for the collection, with characters clamoring ever upwards, motivated by curiosity. The pursuit of knowledge within the framework of technological advances impacts each remaining story, all of which land so heavily, they beg a momentary meditation on the meaning of life before going on.

Hidden Figures

Ashley: When Octavia Spencer (nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award) first read the script for Hidden Figures (nominated for Best Picture), she assumed it was a work of fiction. A story about black female mathematicians working for NASA in heavily segregated Virginia in the early 1960s? And these women were integral to the success of the space program? It goes against the common retellings of history and stereotypes we have based on both racial and gender lines. 

But the story is true, and Margot Lee Shetterly was inspired to write about these women precisely to challenge our preconceived notions of history. Shetterly’s father also worked at NASA at the time, so for her, the reality of a community of black scientists and engineers was simply the norm. While Hidden Figures the book and Hidden Figures the movie are both great on their own, they are still shockingly different from one another. I’d really recommend both reading the book and watching the movie, as the differences only make each version stronger. (Find out more about the differences here.)

Life, Animated

Alex: If the internet is any indication, Disney movies and characters hold a special place in many people’s hearts, even after they’ve otherwise grown out of cartoon movies. This is especially — and poignantly — true in the case of Owen Suskind, a young man diagnosed with autism at age 3. Life, Animated, the true story of how his family managed to reach him and communicate with him through the Disney movies he loved so much, is an incredibly beautiful tale that shows the resilience and love of family, and the true and enduring power of cinema. It makes sense, then, that the documentary is a really special experience; it won awards at Sundance and is now up for the Oscar for Best Documentary. Life, Animated is a beautiful and inspiring story, and it’s well worth a listen, and a watch. 

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