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And the Oscar Goes To...

The Books Behind Academy Award-Nominated Films

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 30, 2021

This year's Academy Awards happened last weekend and, as with many of this year's awards shows, it was a bit different than usual. As always, there were a few upsets when it came to the awards. And maybe it left you intrigued about the source materials and back stories behind some of the nominated films. Here we tell you about the books, plays, and movies that inspired seven of the nominated films.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Four years ago, Viola Davis won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Fences, the film based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 play. And she scored another nomination for her performance in a film based on another one of Wilson's celebrated plays, this one about Ma Rainey, a renowned 1920s blues singer. The film, streaming on Netflix, was nominated for several Academy Awards, including: Best Actor (Chadwick Boseman), Best Actress (Davis), and Production Design. It won two Oscars for Hair & Makeup and Costume Design.


This movie is based not on a book, but on the inception of a different movie, considered by many critics to be the best film of all time. Citizen Kane was itself nominated for nine Academy Awards—going on to win only one for Best Original Screenplay. The story in the new film focuses on Herman J. Mankiewicz, the charismatic, but often inebriated, writer behind the 1941 Orson Welles vehicle. To learn more about Herman Mankiewicz and his brother Joseph, also a Hollywood writer, you can read The Brothers Mankiewicz.

Mank (available on Netflix) bested its predecessor with ten Oscar noms, including Best Picture, Actor (Gary Oldman), Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried), and Director (David Fincher). In the end, it took home only two for Cinematography and Production Design. For more information about the story behind the original film, check out this book.

News of the World

The multilayered novel by Paulette Jiles has been adapted into a film starring Tom Hanks as the elderly captain enlisted to transport a young girl, a newly recovered Kiowa captive, back to her surviving relatives. As the unlikely pair travel across a perilous Texas landscape still recovering from the recent Civil War, they form a deep and unshakeable bond. The stirring, lyrical Western (available for purchase on YouTube and Amazon) was directed by Paul Greengrass and received nominations for Cinematography, Music, Production Design, and Sound.

The United States Vs. Billie Holiday

This biographical film (streaming on Hulu) about the legendary jazz singer is based loosely on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. Andra Day, who depicts Holiday in the film, received a nomination for Best Actress for her performance. The story traces the events behind Holiday's arrest and prosecution for drug use and the widely held belief that she was specifically targeted by law enforcement because of her race and civil rights activism.

Hillbilly Elegy

This film (streaming on Netflix), directed by Ron Howard, was based on the memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance. The story follows Vance's experiences as a youth growing up in a family besieged by poverty, addiction, and blue-collar employment. Years later, as a Yale Law student, Vance reflects on the root causes of his family's misfortunes and the social system that supports dysfunctional behavior. Glenn Close was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Vance's grandmother.


It's not the first and probably not the last, but the newest film based on Jane Austen's classic tale of matchmaking mishaps is vibrant and lavish with a near-perfect performance by Anya Taylor-Joy in the titular role. Rereading this Regency-era comedy of errors never feels like a chore. And while you're at it, you may want to compare it to previous cinematic versions, like the 1996 film and (perhaps our favorite) 1995's updated version, Clueless. This year's film (available on HBO Max) was nominated for Costume Design, as well as Makeup and Hairstyling.

The White Tiger

Available on Netflix, this adaptation of Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize-winning 2008 debut was executive produced by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Prem Akkaraju, and Ava DuVernay. Director Ramin Bahrani received the Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay. The crime drama tells the story of Balram, a poor Indian villager who uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty.

In Case You Missed It

Here are some of the great books that have inspired Best Picture winners during the last quarter century.

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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