This Year’s Oscars Will Be One of the “Least Literary” in History

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The 2017 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and of the nine films up for the Academy Award for Best Picture, three are based on books:

That’s a sharp drop from last year’s Academy Awards, where five out of eight (63%) were based on books. In fact, I looked at every single Academy Awards ceremony over the past 88 years and found a pretty clear pattern. Without books, the Oscars would be virtually unrecognizable.

To keep the data manageable, I only looked at Best Picture winners and nominees. Since the first Oscar ceremony, 537 films have been nominated for Best Picture. Of those films, a whopping 284 were based on books—novels, short story collections, creative nonfiction, biographies, etc.

That’s 53%. When you run the numbers for Best Picture winners (47 out of 88), you get an identical result: 53%.

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Which makes 2017’s crop one of the least literary in history. The last time the percentage dipped below 35% was more than a decade ago in 2006. Out of 88 ceremonies, only 13 have had fewer Best Picture nominees based on books than this year’s. And on six separate occasions, 100% of the Best Picture nominees were based on books (1956, 1959, 1972, 1980, 1991, and 1995).

As you can see from the chart below, book adaptations were rare in the first few Oscar ceremonies of the 1920s, when plays formed the basis for most nominated films. Then, beginning with In Old Airzona in 1929 (based on an O’Henry short story) and All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, book adaptations became more and more popular until they peaked in the 1950s at 62% of Best Picture nominations.

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After that, despite a six-year streak of Best Picture winners from 1965 to 1970, book adaptation nominations steadily decreased in popularity until a trough in the 1980s of 46%. And in recent decades, the numbers have started to climb back up.

In case you’re interested, here are all 47 Best Picture winners based on books.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Cimarron
  • Grand Hotel
  • It Happened One Night
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • The Life of Emile Zola
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Rebecca
  • How Green Was My Valley
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • The Lost Weekend
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Gentleman’s Agreement
  • All the King’s Men
  • All About Eve
  • From Here to Eternity
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • The Bridge Over the River Kwai
  • Gigi
  • Ben-Hur
  • Tom Jones
  • The Sound of Music
  • In the Heat of the Night
  • Oliver!
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Patton
  • The French Connection
  • The Godfather
  • The Godfather Part II
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Ordinary People
  • Terms of Endearment
  • Out of Africa
  • The Last Emperor
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Schindler’s List
  • Braveheart
  • The English Patient
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • The Return of the King
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • No Country For Old Men
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Argo
  • 12 Years a Slave

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