Dibya’s colloquy: Spotlight on printed words at the Oscars

A large number of movies celebrated at this year’s Oscars started their lives as books. It is good news for us in the printing community. Now that these movies are popular, there would be demand for the printed books, and this is business for book printers.

09 Mar 2016 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

The 2016 edition of the Oscars was organised on 28 February, and though it was all about Hollywood (and controversy!), for us print-obsessive viewers, there was much to cheer about.

The Academy Award for Best Picture went to a film with a newspaper at its heart – Spotlight. This is the first time a film with the newsprint newspaper (yes, this is how the western media describes printed newspapers these days!) in the centre has taken home the coveted trophy. Both Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), loosely based on the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), based on the investigation by two Washington Post journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which would become the infamous Watergate scandal, were nominated for the award but failed to win. Another film in the same category is Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), about an American reporter who tries to expose enemy spies in Britain.

Spotlight is more down-to-earth, retelling a long investigation by a group of journalists from Boston Globe, the Spotlight team, to uncover the systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church. For the American audience, it was a throwback to another era, where newsprint newspapers were a real thing, where one could wait for months before ‘breaking’ a story, where people trusted newspaper stories.

For us, it was a kick to see those large web offset machines chugging on the big screen, churning out prints.

Aside from Spotlight, a number of Oscar winners this year started out as humble books. This is, of course, great news for us. As these movies are now popular, the publishers would reissue the books, with new covers, and moviegoers will picks them up – more jobs for book printers.

Here we trace the Oscar winners to their humble origin – the book version.

The Revenant
Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002), meaning someone, dead or alive, who has returned, tells the real-life story of Hugh Glass (played by DiCaprio), a far trapper, in Rocky Mountains in 1823, where a grizzly bear attacks him and then his men abandon him. Glass survives, fuelled by his passion for revenge, and travels 3,000 mile across the harsh American frontier, to find the men who betrayed him.

It is a tale of enthralling adventure and the film’s director Alejandro G Iñárritu turns this into primal tale of survival, with the battle of the grizzly bear at its centre. The film does not reflect the emotional density of the books, but it is visceral, to say the least.

Trivia: Punke is the US ambassador to the WTO.

Patricia Highsmith named the book The Price of Salt. Later, it was republished as Carol. The 1952 novel is a dazzling lesbian romance, which was a daring act during the time of sexual repression, especially since it has a happy ending. So much so, Highsmith first published the book under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Lovers of suspense would remember Highsmith for two of her beloved works, Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), both of which became successful films.

Todd Haynes’s film version, staring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, polishes the text to the barebones of the story and observes the scandalous romance from the equivalent of a cinematic close-up. It proves to be one of the most romantic movies ever made.

This one is pedigree. Irish master Colm Tóibín is one of the most celebrated writers working today, and the 2009 novel won a Costa Award. The screenplay is by Nick Hornby, another celebrated author, whose own novel About a Boy is a successful film. The book tells the story of a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) to America, and how she falls in love and how she has to return and has to choose between two countries and two lovers.

Simply, it is a love-triangle spanning two continents, and John Crowley’s film version retains the power of Tóibín’s calm, unhurried tone in a journey from innocence to acceptance.

The Martian
This is a story of the triumph of self-publishing. Andy Weir published The Martian, the story of an astronaut stranded in the Red Planet, himself in 2011. When the sale of the eBook version picked up, Crown Publishing purchased the rights and re-released it in 2014. The story follows Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars in 2035, who must improvise in order to survive. Besides the obvious adventure element, the book has been praised for its realistic description of the future technologies, for which Weir studied orbital mechanics, astronomy, and the history of manned spaceflight.

Ridley Scott, a master of science fiction horror films, made the movie as much realistic as possible, with no small help from NASA itself, bolstered by a winning performance from Matt Damon. It was one of the most popular movies of 2015.

Trivia: When rebuffed by literary agents (this is such an old story, potential bestsellers ignored by agents; it is time somebody fired those agents who do not recognise a future bestseller!) Weir made the book available online, first in his website, then on Amazon Kindle. The Kindle edition rose to the top of Amazon’s list of bestselling science-fiction titles, where it sold 35,000 copies in three months. This garnered the attention of publishers.

Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, among other awards. This is a harrowing story of a five-year-old boy and his abused and captive mother, told with finesse and literary perfection. The novel tells the story of Jake who is born in the room and which is his whole world, before he and his mother are rescued and how his perspectives about the world changes.

Lenny Abrahamson’s film keeps the focus on the mother-son (played by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay) relationship and the film works chiefly due to the performance of these two actors. No wonder, Larson took home the Best Actress Oscar.    

The Big Short
Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010) is about the build-up of the housing and credit bubble during the 2000s. It was in The New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks. The book describes several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the collateralized debt obligation bubble and thus ended up profiting from the financial crisis of 2007-08.

The star-studded film works mainly because the director Adam McKay, who also wrote the script, infuses enough drama and eccentricities while at the time explaining the intricacies of the financial market. If you like finance, you would definitely love the movie.  

The Danish Girl
In a year when former Olympic Gold medallist Bruce Jenner reinvented herself as Caitlyn Jenner, the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, does not sound exciting, but it is. In The Danish Girl (2000), David Ebershoff attempts a fictionalised account of Elbe’s inner life, and he has been successful in most parts, with critics calling it fascinating and humane.

Tom Hooper’s film has been praised for the acting of Eddie Redmayne as Elbe, and Alicia Vikander as his wife (she won an Oscar.), but has been criticised otherwise. Critics pointed out that the movie is all gloss, with no real human emotion, with one critic saying, “The frocks are more convincing than the emotions.” So, perhaps, the book remains the best bet to appreciate the story.

Honourable mentions
There are other movies inspired by written content. Jay Roach’s Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), a biopic on the life of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted for his alleged Communist propaganda, is based on the biography Dalton Trumbo (1977) by Bruce Alexander Cook. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, for which Charlotte Rampling was nominated for Best Actress, is based on the short story In Another Country by David Constantine. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has a tradition of adapting English novels into Japanese animation (Howl’s Moving Castle, Arrietty). This year’s Oscar nominated animation film When Marnie Was There is based on Joan G Robinson’s novel of the same name. This is one of the favourite books of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.