Have you seen the movie? Now read the book! So many great, Oscar-worthy films this year, like 12 Years a Slave and Saving Mr. Banks were based on unforgettable books, many of them true stories. If you want to go deeper than the Hollywood version, here are the reads that inspired or provide more background for the holiday films now playing near you.
1. The film Saving Mr. Banks, about the long battle between Walt Disney to get the rights to Mary Poppins from author P.L. Travers, opens in most cities on Dec. 20. Fans of the Disney classic (as did the people making the 1964 film) had no idea of the dark back story that inspired Travers to create her famous nanny. The illuminating Travers biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson was the basis for the new film, starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney.
2. The heartwrenching true story 12 Years a Slave is drawing praise and shaking audiences who see the film, directed by Steve McQueen, adapted for the screen by John Ridley and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. The book that inspired it is the tale of survival of Solomon Northup, a freed black man who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. He wrote his memoir after finally being freed. One hundred years later, it was rediscovered by two Louisiana historians, who co-edited a historically annotated version that was published in 1968.
3. Lee Daniels’ The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as “Cecil Gaines,” a butler who served several presidents in the White House, but the real butler who inspired the film had a quite different life, and a different name. For the real-life story of White House butler Eugene Allen, read the book The Butler by Wil Haygood.
4. David O’Russell’s acclaimed new film American Hustle revisits the mostly forgotten ’70s Abscam scandal. The 60 Minutes e-book Con Men profiles the colorful characters in the pyramid scheme. The names in Russell’s films have been changed; Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfield was based on real-life con man with a comb-over, Mel Weinberg (now 89), who met with Bale in preparation for the film.
5. The tale of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit continues in Peter Jackson’s second installment of his film adaptation, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Jackson not only drew on Tolkien’s rather slim fantasy tale, but several later writings of Tolkien to flesh out the story into three 3-hour films. It’s worth a refresher to remind yourself what was in the original book. Tolkien, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia by David Day makes a nice companion piece.
6. The folk singer played by Oscar Isaac in the Coen Brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis is fictitious, but he is based on a lesser-known staple of the 1960s Greenwich Village music scene, Dave Von Ronk. The singer and guitarist, who died in 2002, was also a great storyteller, as demonstrated in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street.
7. In the tense real-life drama Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks plays the cargo ship captain who was taken hostage by Somali pirates. The real Richard Phillips wrote about the five-day stand-off on the high seas in his 2011 book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.
8. The heartbreaking story of an unarmed Bay Area, Calif., man who was shot and killed by BART police in 2009 has been made into the Independent Spirit Award-nominated film Fruitvale Station, starring Michael Jordan and directed and written by Ryan Coogler. Fergus Mason also wrote about the tragic incident in his book The Fruitvale Station Shooting.
9. Can’t get enough of the beatnik scene after watching Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings? Check out Bill Morgan’s book The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, which profiles Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, some of whom Morgan actually knew.
10. One of the most harrowing true survival stories is Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. It was written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor of a four-man team on a 2005 mission to take out a dangerous Taliban leader. Peter Berg’s film Lone Survivor, in which Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, opens in limited release this month before expanding nationwide in January.
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