Happy Birthday, Jack! The Books That Inspired Jack Nicholson’s Most Famous Roles

Happy Birthday, Jack! The Books That Inspired Jack Nicholson’s Most Famous Roles


Hollywood’s favorite rogue may be turning 77, but Jack Nicholson’s roles in these 15 book-adapted films—including John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick—never get old.

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    1. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    Ken Kesey was insanely offended by the changes made in Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation of his 1962 novel about patients in a mental institution. Despite the film’s success—winning five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Nicholson—Kesey sued for over $800,000. “When you’re insulted, you must squawk,” Kesey told People in 1976.

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    2. The Witches of Eastwick

    Critics hailed Nicholson’s devilish performance in the 1987 film, but the novel’s author, John Updike, was not as easily charmed. USA Todayreported in 2008 that Updike believed the film, “had a beautiful cast but intruded on the world of the witches. It became Nicholson’s movie and dissolved into special effects.”

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    3. Ten Days That Shook the World

    Journalist John Reed strove to change the world through his involvement with the American Communist Labor Party, and his novel, Ten Days that Shook the World, focuses on the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Reed returned there after the novel’s publication in 1919 to learn that Vladimir Lenin had read the book and wanted to write an introduction for its next edition. “With the greatest interest and with never slackening attention I read John Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World,” Lenin wrote. “Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. Here is a book which I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages.” Warren Beatty’s 1981 film—which earned him an Academy Award for Best Director—follows Reed’s life leading up to the revolution and after the publication of his book. Nicholson portrays playwright Eugene O’Neill, who has an affair with Reed’s wife.

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    4. The Love of the Last Tycoon

    “Writers aren’t people exactly,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his last novelLove of the Last Tycoon. “Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying to be one person.” Fitzgerald was still working on the book when he died of a heart attack in 1940, at age 44. Though unfinished, it was compiled and edited by literary critic Edmund Wilson and published the following year. Sam Spiegel, producer of the 1976 film, wanted Nicholson to play the lead—powerful Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr—yet director Elia Kazan went with Robert De Niro and Nicholson was given the smaller role of a writers union leader.

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    5. The Pledge

    Displeased with the standard ending of his screenplay It Happened in Broad Daylight—in which sheriff Jerry Black smoothly catches the killer after vowing to do so—Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt rewrote the script into a novel with a darker twist: The killer’s accidental death as he’s about to get caught dissolves the case against him and drives Black to madness. Sean Penn’s 2001 adaptation of the novel, starring Nicholson as Black, dazzled late film critic Roger Ebert: “[T]he last third of the movie is where most police stories go on autopilot with…chases, stalkings and confrontations [but] that’s when The Pledge grows most compelling.”

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    6. Ragtime

    E.L. Doctorow was skeptical about turning his 1975 historical fiction of racial conflict in early 20th-century New York into a film (he envisioned a mini-series) and played no part in the process. When it hit the big screen in 1981, however, the film proved a complete success. Featuring both Randy Newman’s first full music score and the last screen appearances by legends James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards. As for Nicholson—who was supposed to play Cagney’s role as bigot fireman Rhinelander Waldo but unexpectedly dropped out—he’s remembered by attentive film buffs for his quick cameo as a mustachioed pirate.

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    7. Batman: The Man Who Laughs

    Introduced in 1940, the Joker is a brilliant psychopath, devious and heartless in his crimes. Though originally slated to be killed after his second appearance, he’s gone on to become Batman’s archnemesis and is responsible for the paralysis of Batgirl and the murder of Jason Todd (the second Robin). Nicholson played the role of the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. A character that lacks empathy and borders on deranged can take a toll on even the most practiced of actors. Though he rarely spoke of his own struggles, Nicholson cryptically told reporters, “I warned him,” upon hearing of Heath Ledger’s death. Ledger played the Joker in the 2008 hit The Dark Knight and died five months before the film’s release.

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    8. The Postman Always Rings Twice

    The 1934 novel by James M. Cain features a drifter who breezes into town and steals the heart of a married woman. The two conspire to kill her husband—only to be met with disastrous consequences. Due to its sexual nature and violence, the book was banned and the first film adaptationharshly censored. In the even more risqué 1981 remake, Nicholson stars as the tempting seducer. Though Cain died before the second release, he made his views on films very clear, once saying, according to The Los Angeles Review of Books, “There’s no such thing as a good one.”

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    9. James T Farrell: Studs Lonigan a Trilogy

    James T. Farrell’s 1935 trilogy—which follows the eponymous protagonist’s fall from grace in both a celebration and condemnation of Irish-American life on Chicago’s infamous South Side—ranked 29th on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and inspired dozens of authors, from Kurt Vonnegut to Frank McCourt. In the 1960 B-movie version, Nicholson plays neighborhood bully “Weary” Reilly. Stud’s defeat of Reilly in a sloppy teenage fistfight proves pivotal in both book and film, as it boosts Stud’s street cred and accelerates his transformation from angelic youth to rascal.

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    10. Heartburn

    After Nora Ephron discovered her second husband Carl Bernstein’s affair with British politician Margaret Jay in 1979, she did what most women would do: She divorced him. But she didn’t stop there. In 1983, she published the semi-autobiographical novel—her first—about food writer Rachel Samstat’s struggles with cheating spouse Mark. Three years later, she turned it into a drama starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. In one of the book’s (and subsequent movie’s) final scenes, a scorned Rachel rises from the table at a dinner party and throws her homemade key lime pie in Mark’s face—proof that revenge is a dish best served cold…and in the form of dessert.

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    11. Terms of Endearment

    James Brooks’ 1983 directorial debut—like the 1975 Larry McMurtry novel it was adapted from—follows the 30-year relationship of overprotective widow Aurora Greenway and her spirited daughter Emma all through the latter’s rushed marriage and battle with cancer. Brooks’ version of the story differs from McMurtry’s original, however, in its addition of Aurora’s womanizing but ultimately devoted love interest, Garrett Breedlove, played by Nicholson. Despite this artistic license, Brooks said in an interview withFilm Comment that he tried to capture the spirit of McMurtry’s novel, to which he had a “great emotional reaction.” The end product earned him the exceptional Best Picture/Directing/Adapted Screenplay triplet at the Oscars, where Nicholson himself won Best Supporting Actor.

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    12. The Shining

    In Halloween of 1974 Stephen King and wife Tabitha spent a weekend at the deserted Stanley Hotel in Colorado. They checked into the allegedly haunted room 217 and, according to King, “by the time I went to bed … I had the whole book in my mind.” Three years later, The Shining became an instant success. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation, on the other hand, opened to half empty theaters and mixed reviews. Even King claimed it was the only adaptation of his books he could “remember hating.” More than three decades later, it’s considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and the American Film Institute has rated Nicholson’s depiction of the increasingly deranged writer Jack Torrance as the 25th greatest villain of all time.

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    13. About Schmidt

    “On the script it says, ‘Inspired by the novel by Louis Begley.’ You could even say ‘Suggested by,'” Alexander Payne described his 2002 film About Schmidt to The New Yorker. About all Payne took from Begley’s 1996 novel—about a man who finds his life unraveling before his eyes and is helpless to stop it—was its title and protagonist’s last name. If Begley minded, he wasn’t at liberty to say. A gag clause was added into his movie-sale contract forbidding him to talk negatively about the project. In the same New Yorker article, Begley did say that he had been a fan of Nicholson’s since Five Easy Pieces and thought of him “every time I go into a diner and order a chicken-salad sandwich.”

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    14. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe

    Once upon a midnight dreary, director Roger Corman made eight films loosely inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. 1963’s The Ravencontains a talking raven seeking revenge on the man who changed his form—a wizard played by the master of monsters Boris Karloff. The 26-year-old Nicholson plays his son in a role so small viewers likely thought that he was to return nevermore to the big screen.

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    15. Ironweed

    In the 1987 adaptation of William Kennedy’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—the last book in his famous “Albany Trilogy”—Nicholson plays a former major league infielder whose alcoholism drives him to homelessness. For his performance, he was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Academy Award.

    This article originally appeared on Zola Books.


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