Book Buzz: The Oscars, Reading vs. Viewing

Every January, buzz about the Academy Awards starts to build in anticipation of the big event in March. And every year, I make a resolution to see more of the nominated films before the winners are announced. 

For me, there’s always a dilemma; if the movie is based on a book, should I wait to read the book first, then see the film? Here are four of last year’s Oscar contenders, all based on books, with time-saving suggestions about reading vs. viewing.  

Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove centers around a cranky Swedish widower so lonely and lost without his wife that he’s intent on ending his life. When a boisterous young family moves in to the house next door, Ove finds unexpected friendship and purpose. Though the book starts slowly and takes awhile to build, it delivers a story that is heartwarming, but not saccharine. The movie has a similar effect, with the added bonus of subtitles and hearing how to pronounce Ove’s name. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. 

In the Best Picture category, Lion is an adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home. It chronicles Saroo’s amazing experience as a five-year-old boy from a rural Indian village who gets trapped on a decommissioned train and wakes up in Calcutta, more than 1,500 miles from home. Too young to know his last name or the name of his village, Saroo is truly lost, and eventually lands in an orphanage. Despite a comfortable upbringing and a loving adoptive family who raise him in Tasmania, Saroo becomes obsessed with finding the mother and siblings he lost. Although the memoir is in itself a gripping and inspirational story, the edge here goes to the film version, with its gorgeous, lush filmography and charismatic actors. Sunny Pawar plays young Saroo and Dev Patel is the adult version. Both have soulful eyes that show their pain as well as their unquenchable hope. 

If you only have time for one version of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, stick with the film, which wisely focuses on the experiences of three of the African-American female mathematicians who played key roles in NASA’s quest to put a man on the moon. The book delivers extensive historical detail, but jumps back and forth in time and from character to character in a way that becomes confusing and repetitious. The movie adaptation is more successful, building a narrative arc and showing what it was like for these trailblazing women during an oppressive but exhilarating time in history.

Another of last year’s Best Picture contenders, Arrival, is based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life.” In this case, both the story and the film are excellent in their own way, with twists and a nonlinear approach to time. Louise Banks is a linguistics professor charged with learning how to communicate with extraterrestrial creatures who have landed at 12 locations on Earth. Why are they here? Are they friends or foes? The short story is able to get into more detail about the linguistics, while the movie adds a side plot involving the Chinese military. Both leave plenty of unanswered questions and much for discussion.

For those who’d like to get a jump on the 2018 Oscar contenders, Whatcom County Library System is already circulating copies of Dunkirk and Get Out, and will add other nominated films as they are released on DVD. WCLS also offers the book versions of Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman, and The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 17, 2018.)