While awards like the Oscar, Golden Globe and Palm D’or might be among the most treasured honors in cinema the Pulitzer Prize has stood as one of the highest achievements of literary work since long before the first Academy Award was ever even handed out. Numerous novels and books have managed to earn this illustrious honor over the decades, and, in many cases, those books have gone on to also serve as the inspiration for some of the greatest films in history showing their amazing potential beyond the written page. This weekend yet another Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Goldfinch”, will earn its own cinematic interpretation but before this film compliments (or stains) its source material I decided to revisit some of the most notable movies that were directly interpreted from other winners of this prestigious prize. These are my picks for the Top 10 Movies Based on Pulitzer Prize Winning Novels.
For today’s list I only focused on movies that were based on BOOKS AND NOVELS that earned the Pulitzer Prize. Other works of fiction or nonfiction, such as plays or news reports, that inspired movies of their own were not included here today. This purpose of this list is not just to discuss the best book-to-film adaptations in this category but also look at those films that complimented their literary counterpart and added to the legacy of the prize-winning source material. In some cases, these films even became more notable than the books they were based on.
Do you have a favorite movie adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning book? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “The Goldfinch” coming soon. OH and a SPOILER ALERT as I will be discussing the lots of many of these films.
10. “The Road”
Let’s start this list with the newest entry, “The Road”. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, this critically lauded post-apocalyptic feature from 2009 took all the best elements of the relatively simple story and adapted them perfectly to the big screen. The narrative focuses on a father guiding his young son over a destroyed Earth and the roadblocks, both literally and figuratively, they have to endure. Driven by awesome performances from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Road” has become a modern classic and was praised for its commitment to capturing the dark atmosphere and vision that helped McCarthy earn the Pulitzer with his novel.
9. “The Hours”
“The Hours” is a 2002 psychological drama based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham that earned the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. Focusing on three women from three different generations who are all affected by the classic novel “Mrs. Dalloway”, both the book and the film famously present the personal struggles that each of these women face in different eras, one in the 20s, another in the 50s, and the third in 2001, with a bleak sense of realism. Critically loved. the film adaptation served as a celebrated introduction to the book for many and earned nine Academy Award nominations with a win for Nicole Kidman for Best Actress and notable bods for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay while also earning a win for Kidman and for Best Drama Film at the Golden Globes.
8. “The Yearling”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling” was the highest selling novel of 1938 and went on to become the 1939 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In 1946 it was adapted into a family drama film and tackled similar themes to the more well known “Old Yeller” which was released over ten years later. As the title implies, that pet is a young deer which becomes the missing piece in a young boy’s life. “The Yearling” went on to add to the story’s legacy earning two Academy Awards (for Art Direction and Cinematography for a color film) and was nominated for five other honorss including Best Picture and both lead acting categories. Eventually it was remade as a 1994 television production, but the cinematic version of “The Yearling” remains a classic piece of 40’s nostalgia and a respectable presentation of the famous novel.
7. “The Caine Mutiny”
Based on Herman Wouk’s World War II book of the same name that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951, “The Caine Mutiny” from 1954 brought a expert cast led by Humphrey Bogart into the midst of and internal battle on a World War II Navy destroyer minesweeper. Sticking closely to the novel’s narrative, which itself was based on Wouk’s own experiences in the war, and tackling the events on the ship and subsequent court-martial for mutiny, “The Caine Mutiny” became a massive cinematic hit as the second highest grossing movie from 1954 and earning seven Oscar nods including Best Picture which it lost to “On The Waterfront”. While the crew walked away empty handed, that didn’t stop the film adaptations from earning a legacy as one of the greatest court room dramas of all time and a Grade-A book-to-screen adaptation.
6. “All the King’s Men” (1949)
While it was also adapted in 2006, the 1949 cinematic take on the 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren is by far the superior film and the first on this list to earn a Best Picture Oscar as well as the most recent adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel to earn that honor. Depicting the rise of politician Willie Stark and seen as a thinly veiled representation of the rise of real-life politician Huey Long, “All the King’s Men” went on to take two other Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge respectively. In total it earned seven Oscar nods and in 2001 was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, further cementing its own legacy and the legacy of its source material.
5. “The Age of Innocence” (1993)
There have been three cinematic interpretations of Edith Wharton’s legendary 1920 novel “Age of Innocence” which made her the first women to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. While the first two adaptations from 1924 and 1934 have their place in cinema history, the third film was the charm as the Martin Scorsese picture perfectly captures the book’s take on a love triangle in Gilded-Age New York City. Featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder in leading roles “The Age of Innocence” received critical acclaim and earned five Academy Awards nods eventually winning for Best Costume Design and earned four Golden Globes with a win for Ryder’s performance. The 1993 version is a unique case in which a newer remake is seen to be the superior adaptation of famous material and has become a classic piece in Scorsese’s filmography.
4. “The Magnificent Ambersons”
While it is often considered among the greatest films ever made, “The Magnificent Ambersons” lands at number four on this list due to its lack of mainstream popularity compared to those yet to come. Still, this 1942 adaptation of the 1918 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington is very much a masterpiece worth checking out. The sophomore directorial effort by Orson Welles, it is often paired with Welles’ first movie “Citizen Kane” as possibly the greatest U.S. movies of all time and earned four Academy Award nominations well before it was added to the National Film Registry in 1991. Containing commentary on the growth of society through the eyes of a family that loses their fortunes with the growing age of cities and automobiles, “The Magnificent Ambersons” has superseded the popularity of its source material in nearly every way. But the next three films have become even more famous in eyes of the general public.
3. “The Grapes of Wrath”
Set in the Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 the same year the celebrated cinematic version was released on the big screen. “The Grapes of Wrath’s” movie has become inseparable from the novel with both often featured in English Literature classes across the United States to this day. Focusing on a national crisis in the wake of said crisis (The Great Depression lasted most of the 30s) made it a timely snapshot of hardships still fresh in the memories of many and today both the movie and book provide an honest peak into the hardships of the past. Taking home two Oscar wins and a further five nods and later being among the first 25 movies entered into the National Film Registry in 1989, “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the only entries on this list that serves as a legitimate compliment to its source material rather than simply overshadowing it.
2. “Gone with the Wind”
When you talk about movies that superseded their source material you need look no further than this certified classic. While the 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel that won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize is certainly a classic read, the 1939 film adaptation is legendary bringing iconic characters and an astounding story to the big screen on route to ten Oscar wins (including two honorary) including making Hattie McDaniel the first African American to win an Academy Award. When adjusted for inflation “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest grossing movie ever and is often sighted as one of the greatest movies ever made earning it a place in the National Film Registry in 1989. Many of its elements and characters remain staples of pop culture and while the book has quite the legacy, it’s the film that has made this story a true American classic.
1. “To Kill a Mockingbird”
While researching for this list I kept coming back to one movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The classic story of Atticus Finch defending a black man in court and educating his daughter Scout on tolerance in the 1930s earns its spot at the top of this list because both the multi-Oscar winning film and Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer prize winning novel are truly inseparable. They complement each other so well that neither has ever really overshadowed the other. Instead each has helped build on their united legacy as forms of entertainment and significant storytelling. Entered in the National Film Registry in 1995 and another film considered among the greatest ever in American cinema, it’s not too much to call “To Kill a Mockingbird” one of the greatest and most respected book-to-film adaptations of all time.