Wrapped in controversy, the Nobel Prize is the most prestigious award related with literature. The prize always gave primacy to European writers and, maybe because of that, many say the award is conditioned by political views and idealistic behaviors instead of talent or contributions to humanity.
It is a fact that the Nobel Prize Academy doesn’t appreciate predictable and popular winners and they don’t make efforts to hide it: Arthur Miller and Milan Kundera were neglected because of this and recently Haruki Murakami was a victim of the same phenomenon, losing to Alice Munro first and then to Patrick Modiano.
Some writers were not awarded because they were connected with frowned upon governs or unfriendly countries of the occidental world (Tolstói, Chekhov or Borges), others like Fernando Pessoa or Franz Kafka didn’t won because their works were published after they die. This proves sometimes the best ones are not those who win the major prizes. We see that happening on Cinema every year.
Since the Nobel Prize winners are, in theory, the best writers, it is obvious their works resulted in great films, right? Wrong. Truth to be told, it is not easy to find Cinema classics based on works by a Nobel Prize winner. This could be explained due to the difficulties in adapting complex, dense and prosaic writing into something visual as a film.
That’s why adaptations from extremely well written books are a very hard task to achieve. Nevertheless, there are some amazing examples of what happens when literature and cinema cross hands. This list contains some of them.
10. Away from Her (2006)
Nobel Winner: Alice Munro
Director: Sarah Polley
Even if comparisons with Chekhov and Melville may seem a little flattering, Alice Munro is currently one waving flag in short stories genre. The Canadian shocked the literary world by winning the Nobel Prize instead of the big contender, Haruki Murakami, in 2013.
But, before that in 2006, her short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” gave rise to an interesting film that went relatively unnoticed. The short story, originally published in 1999, talks about a trite couple’s sufferings related with infidelity and Alzheimer’s disease. Throughout lacks of memory, twists and an exceptional performance by Julie Christie, the story flows very well without dragging moments.
“Away from Her” brings lots of other films to memory. The relation between love and memory has some “The Notebook” similarities, but this is mostly a “family film”, comparable with “Big Fish” or “The Kids are All Right” on the familiar spirit.
In terms of representing the disease deterioration and the way human beings filter what they want to recall, “Away from Her” is a winner, it’s much deep than the praised “Still Alice”, for instance. The directing by Sarah Polley is another surprise to have in mind, as this was her first experience in directing.
9. Disgrace (2008)
Nobel Winner: J.M. Coetzee
Director: Steve Jacobs
This is an essential book by an essential writer. Coetzee is known for his rigorous style of narration, absent of moralism and ornaments, and that’s what “Disgrace” has to offer: a straight story about loss and, of course, disgrace. David Lurie, a university professor, is expelled from Cape Town University after an affair with a student. The 52-year old teacher decides to move to his daughter’s house, which is in Eastern Cape.
This is when the suffering starts. Caught in an apartheid politics trap, David sees his life falling apart and he has to struggle to survive. For many, the book is like a (bad) omen of Zimbabwe’s situation under Robert Mugabe administration, as some episodes described in the book are have some similarities.
This isn’t a universally acclaimed film. Some accuse it of being just a John Malkovich one man show. It’s true he gives a stupendous performance, but the film isn’t just about Malkovich’s performance. “Disgrace” achieves to get into the spirit of the novel and that’s why its reception was not so unanimous by the general public.
Those motion pictures that don’t strive to teach a moral lesson or to show some emotions usually aren’t so appreciated by mainstream audiences. Those who are looking for happy endings or redemption tales will get bleakness. And some don’t deal well with bleakness.
8. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Nobel Winner: John Steinbeck
Director: John Ford
Nowadays, the name of John Steinbeck collects unanimity on readers’ taste, but, back in 1962, his win was highly criticized by everybody, even some Americans. Steinbeck was dubbed as “one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes”, the New York Times said he was talentless and even Steinbeck admitted he didn’t deserved the award.
The American was always seen as a frozen in time writer, once his general works are typical of the 20’s and 30’s. The criticisms were also due to political incentives. “The Grapes of Wrath” was one of Steinbeck’s achievements. It can be described as a novel about human dignity in harsh conditions.
If compared, for instance, with other American writers like Faulkner or Hemingway, John Steinbeck’s limitations are obvious, but his masterpiece served as springboard for a cinema classic. The film by John Ford doesn’t strictly follow the book, particularly in the second half. It glorifies American resilience and sacrifice spirit, and it was an instant success. Even Steinbeck was impressed with the final result, mainly because of the casting of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
“The Grapes of Wrath” stands today as a great hymn about the great depression and a milestone about inequality between rich and poor. After more than 75 years, both book and film are classics in their areas and so they will continue passing Steinbeck’s legacy for many years.
7. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Nobel Winner: Boris Pasternak
Director: David Lean
This epic novel was the major reason for Boris Pasternak’s win of Nobel Prize in 1958 and it is an excellent example of a book as famous as the film. “Doctor Zhivago” has its background on the Russian Revolution and tells the story of a man, Yuri Zhivago, and his romantic triangle with two women.
Pasternak’s masterpiece was not well received in Soviet Russia, as there’s an implicit rejection of socialism in it and because of the obvious criticism of Stalinism, Gulag and collectivization. In terms of subliminal messages, this book can be compared with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another Russian Nobel Prize winner (1970).
The book was eternalized through David Lean’s adaptation and won five Oscars in 1966. However, critics were not impressed and destroyed the film completely. Despite all the success achieved on audiences, David Lean was so devastated that he promised not to do another film during his life. As we know, that was not fulfilled and the British signed “Ryan’s Daughter” and “A Passage to India”, winners of two Oscars each.
The three hours epic is still one of the most profitable films ever made and is also a deserved tribute to Boris Pasternak magic novel.
6. Death in Venice (1971)
Novel Winner: Thomas Mann
Director: Luchino Visconti
The complex and deep writing of Thomas Mann makes everything dubious in “Death in Venice”. Each paragraph can offer two meanings, proposing a reflection conflict and almost forgetting a real plot. As this is a novella full of thoughts and aphorisms, making a film about it wasn’t an easy work to do.
Nevertheless, Luchino Visconti did a wonderful job, putting the essential spirit of the book right on the screen and adding a strong visual style that helps a lot to achieve the true magnitude of Mann’s work. Dirk Bogarde also helps a lot, as we are watching a soul struggle or a one man show, if you prefer.
The film tells the story of a middle-aged man who travels to Venice and falls violently in love with an attractive boy. No, the story doesn’t deal with homosexuality, as Gustav’s passion is more spiritual than a carnal/sexual one. The thought struggle of the protagonist is quite reminiscent of Goethe’s first novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Goethe and Mann were both German and this cold and tragic type of narrative is befitting of European novelists mainly from Russians, Germans and Swedish.