32 Pulitzer Prize Novels You Have To Read Before You Die
The Pulitzer Prize for fiction has been around since 1917. It awarded its first win to a novel the following year. Since that time, selections have influenced societies and made their impact in other media — i.e. stage, television and the silver screen. While you can wait for the movie if you want, we’ve put together a list of the 32 Pulitzer Prize Novels You Have to Read Before You Die. See how many you can check off.
1. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
What It’s About: A young man is released from prison after a 13-year stint, but has trouble reconnecting to the world outside in spite of the efforts of those who love him. This eventually leads to a terrible series of events that place him in the crosshairs of a firing squad. The work is a novelized account of Gary Gilmore, who was the first man to be executed following the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1976.
Is There a Movie? Yes — well, not really. It’s a television mini-series starring Tommy Lee Jones, and it’s awesome.
2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
What It’s About: Jonathan Swift once wrote that “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” That’s where the book derives its name. It follows Ignatius J. Reilly, a slothful 30-something trying to make his way in New Orleans. It was written in 1963 but went unpublished until 1980, 11 years after Toole’s death.
Is There a Movie? No, but not from lack of trying. Everyone from Harold Ramis, Richard Pryor and John Belushi to Steven Soderbergh and Will Ferrell have been attached. A number of efforts have been met with premature death of those involved — Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Divine — and Soderbergh himself has said his version has yet to be filmed because the project “has bad mojo on it.”
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
What It’s About: The story of two sisters — one a missionary in Africa and the other a child wife living in the South — who share a bond of loyalty and trust through time, distance, and silence. Alice Walker picked up the Pulitzer for this one in 1982.
Is There a Movie? Yes, a quite successful one, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Oprah Winfrey.
4. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
What It’s About: Retired Texas Rangers Gus McRae and Woodrow Call are coasting out the rest of their lives in the Texas town of Lonesome Dove. After hearing prospects of cattle opportunities in Montana, Woodrow convinces Gus to make the trek. But he has an ulterior motive in reconnecting with the love of his life for what he hopes will be a second chance. The beautifully sweeping western saga shows that even later in life, the things we do still matter and define us. In other words, there is plenty of life left to live.
Is There a Movie? Not a theatrical feature, but a wonderful mini-series that probably has one of the best casts ever assembled. Seek it out if you have six hours of watch-time to scrounge together.
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
What It’s About: Morrison’s powerfully moving tale of a slave mother haunted by the spirit of her dead daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, one year after publication.
Is There a Movie? Yes, though it fails to capture the power of the book. A shame, too, since it had some real talents involved in Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme.
6. Mao II by Don DeLillo
What It’s About: At times a self-important mess, Mao II nevertheless manages to have something valuable to say about the transformations of art once it is consumed by a mass audience. The plot is secondary to that messaging, but involves reclusive writer Bill Gray, who intentionally withholds his novel he’s working on from publication. Meanwhile he gets wrapped up in efforts to free a kidnapped writer from a war torn country.
Is There a Movie? DeLillo is hard to film, so no, there isn’t one, and there probably won’t be.
7. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
What It’s About: Seymour Irving Levov has crafted the perfect life for himself. Born of relative privilege from his family to his looks, he goes from being a star athlete in high school to having a successful business and a seemingly happy family. But nothing can prepare him for the political upheaval of the 1960s, which touches every part of his world and shatters what he thought he knew about those closest to him.
Is There a Movie? Not yet, but this one is actually going to happen. Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning will star, and filming has already begun.
8. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
What It’s About: The Prices are a missionary family, who in 1959 move from the U.S. state of Georgia to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, close to the Kwilu River. While there, they have the experiences and the tragedies that will follow them well beyond the village and shape them into the people they will become.
Is There a Movie? Nada.
9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
What It’s About: Kavalier and Clay are two young men, who help create comic books’ “Golden Age” of the 1930s and ‘40s. They are amalgams of many actual comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, and Joe Simon.
Is There a Movie? The film prospects are not looking good, which is incredible since this was one of the best-reviewed books of the last couple of decades. Talk has turned, after numerous failed attempts, to bringing it to television in an 8-part mini-series. But right now, it’s just that … talk.
10. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
What It’s About: A father and son are trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. This is McCarthy at his rawest, most personal, and most touching, showing that even when the world goes to hell there is still something worth continuing for.
Is There a Movie? Yes, starring Viggo Mortensen, but viewing it, it’s clear that the real power of this story is in how McCarthy tells it, rather than any of the events that transpire.
11. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
What It’s About: Olive Kitteridge is a retired school teacher having trouble coming to terms with the changes in her small Maine town and the world-at-large. Meanwhile, there are seismic changes going on in the people closest to her that she doesn’t even notice. The tale really resonates if you’ve ever felt that your blood relatives and best friends just don’t “get” you. It’s also wonderfully and humorously written by Strout.
Is There a Movie? HBO did a four-hour mini-series of the book in 2014 starring Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins.
12. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
What It’s About: A beautifully tragic tale of how two lives can intersect for only a short time yet have far-reaching effects that can last for decades. This novel takes place during World War II and a little before, and centers on a blind French girl and a young German boy who grow up following different paths but who are able to form a strong, in breakable bond through one key event.
Is There a Movie? Not yet, but with this type of material, you got to think it’s only a matter of time.
13. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
What It’s About: Set as the flashback in a coerced confession of a political prisoner, the book tells the story of the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, and events that followed while in American exile in Los Angeles, through the eyes of a half-Vietnamese undercover communist agent.
Is There a Movie? No, this one is still a bit fresh for any adaptations as it was published this year. But keep an eye out. This is the type of stuff the Oscars love.
14. His Family by Ernest Poole
What It’s About: The very first Pulitzer Prize winning novel! This one won the award in 1918. It tells the story of a middle-class family in New York City in the 1910s. The family’s patriarch, widower Roger Gale, struggles to deal with the way his daughters and grandchildren respond to the changing society. Each of his daughters responds in a distinctively different way to the circumstances of their lives, forcing Roger into attempting to calm the increasingly challenging family disputes that erupt.
Is There a Movie? None.
15. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
What It’s About: The novel, Wharton’s twelfth, focuses on an upper-class couple’s impending marriage, and the introduction of the bride’s cousin, plagued by scandal, whose presence threatens their happiness.
Is There a Movie? While some Pulitzer Prize winners haven’t been put to film yet in spite of having several years for Hollywood to wise up and do so, The Age of Innocence has been fortunate to see not one, but three film adaptations with the most recent being from director Martin Scorsese and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder.
16. Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
What It’s About: Alice Adams is the central character in Tarkington’s titular 1921 novel. She is young, ambitious and vivacious and holds an optimism that belies her lower social status. The novel relies on her pattern of lies and misleading signals to obscure her family’s true status.
Is There a Movie? Yes, two actually. A silent film was made in 1923 and later remade as a “talkie” with Katharine Hepburn in 1935. The latter was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
17. One of Ours by Willa Cather
What It’s About: One of Ours focuses on Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska native around the turn of the 20th century. The son of a successful farmer and an intensely pious mother, he is guaranteed a comfortable livelihood. Nevertheless, Wheeler views himself as a victim of his father’s success and his own inexplicable malaise.
Is There a Movie? No movie, television, etc.
18. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
What It’s About: Lewis’ novel on the culture of science won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but he refused to accept it, writing the committee one of the kindest F-You letters you’ll ever read. Here’s what he had to say.
“I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.
“All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
“Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.”
The plot centers on Martin Arrowsmith as he makes his way from a small town in the Midwest to the upper echelons of the scientific community.
Is There a Movie? Yes, one early theatrical production that was nominated for four Academy Awards at the 1931 ceremony. There is also a 1999 Czech-produced mini-series worth checking out.
19. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
What It’s About: A sweeping wartime family epic, The Good Earth tells the tale of Wang Lung and his rise and fall against the backdrop of World War I China.
Is There a Movie? Yes, one in 1937.
20. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
What It’s About: Civil War-era romantic drama that tells the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, starting with her idyllic life on a sprawling plantation and continuing with her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as her tangled love affairs.
Is There a Movie? Boy is there! The 1939 winner of Best Picture and the most successful motion picture of all time when it comes to actual movie ticket sales.
21. The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan
What It’s About: Kinnan’s 1938 coming-of-age novel about a young boy, who takes in a yearling, is still one of the most heart-rending depictions of the bond that can develop between man and beast. Young Jody Baxter’s world is that of a farmer and hunter, and there is a danger in that when you have an emotional connection to the creatures in those surroundings.
Is There a Movie? There is a theatrical film (1946), a television adaptation (1994), and a Japanese animated version (1983).
22. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
What It’s About: The Depression era classic is a book you probably had to read in high school (or will have to read at some point). It centers on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. Not seeing how it could get any worse, the Joads set out for California, seeking a brighter future.
Is There a Movie? There was a hugely successful Hollywood version directed by John Ford in 1940. Steven Spielberg also has the novel on his radar for an update, but nothing has happened with it since 2013.
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
What It’s About: Robert Jordan is a young American in the International Brigades. He is a dynamited attached to a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. His mission: to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia.
Is There a Movie? This one has seen several adaptations over the years — a theatrical version starring Gary Cooper in 1943; a TV version directed by John Frankenheimer in 1956; and a four-part BBC mini-series in 1965.
24. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
What It’s About: Warren’s tale mirrors that of populist Southern politician Huey P. Long. In the novel, the name is Willie Stark, but they both rise to power by preying on others’ fears and insecurities, and they ultimately end up with the same Fate, at the end of an assassin’s gun.
Is There a Movie? There have been two versions of All the King’s Men on the silver screen — one in 1949 and a second in 2006. There was also a television adaptation produced in Russia (1971).
25. Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
What It’s About: The book, written in 1946, is a series of short stories that sequentially play into one another. Michener wrote the book based on his experiences while stationed at the island of Espiritu Santo as a U.S. Navy man.
Is There a Movie? Film versions exist in 1958 and 2001.
26. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
What It’s About: Willie Keith signs up for midshipman school with the U.S. Navy and finds himself aboard the USS Caine, an obsolete warship converted for use from a WWI destroyer. The story focuses on Willie coming into his own while under the command of Queeg, a man who is increasingly losing the respect of his crew.
Is There a Movie? Yes, there is a very well known feature film version starring Humphrey Bogart, who won his third and final Oscar for the performance.
27. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
What It’s About: Hemingway’s shortest novel is also one of his best. It tells the tale of old Santiago and his young faithful companion, who defies what his parents and the villagers think of the old man to go fishing with him in hopes that, together, they will break his unlucky streak. They do just that — at least it seems that way at first — by hooking a huge Marlin. But bad luck can take many forms, and then the forms that it takes can prove that it’s not actually bad luck at all. This is a warm and touching tale that is worth the small amount of time it takes to read.
Is There a Movie? Yes, one theatrical film starring Spencer Tracy in 1958. There was also a mini-series in 1990 and an animated film in 1999.
28. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
What It’s About: Told from multiple points of view, Andersonville weaves a tale of the Confederate prisoner of war camp at the titular location using a mix of both real and fictional characters. It was written in 1955.
Is There a Movie? No. There is a movie called Andersonville that deals with similar material, but it does not use the book as its basis in any way.
29. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
What It’s About: A black man in the prejudiced south is wrongly accused of raping a woman. Atticus Finch is the heroic attorney who stands up to defend him in a clear no-win situation for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. The character of Finch has been called the greatest example of a father in world literature because all of his struggle is told through the eyes of his daughter Scout.
Is There a Movie? Yes, a very popular movie in 1962 starring Gregory Peck.
30. The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
What It’s About: Nat Turner led a slave rebellion which ended in the deaths of dozens of white people as well as many of his own closest friends. Thomas Gray, a smug, oily prosecuting attorney, urges Nat to “confess” his crimes and make peace with God. Nat begins to think back on his past life and tells the novel in a series of flashbacks.
Is There a Movie? No, but Birth of a Nation (2016), which releases this October, deals directly with the slave revolt led by Nat Turner. As with Andersonville, it is not an adaptation of the book.
31. A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean
What It’s About: A semi-autobiographical tale of Norman’s upbringing as the son of a Presbyterian minister and the brother of rebellious Paul. The “book” appeared in a collection of other stories originally, but came to global recognition thanks to the Robert Redford-Brad Pitt film.
Is There a Movie? The movie was made in 1992 and starred Pitt as Paul and Craig Sheffer as the author.
32. Roots by Alex Haley
What It’s About: It’s unfortunate that Haley tried to market the book as truth when it was, in fact, found to be baseless as non-fiction. The narrative is, as others have said, valid, but there is ample evidence that much of what Haley has in the book didn’t really happen as he and his publisher first said. Even so, the book is powerful and the cruelty and indignities therein are authentic to the time period. If you read it as a historical novel, it’s a powerfully moving masterpiece.
Is There a Movie? There are two mini-series adaptations — one in 1977 and another in 2016.
So there you have it, readers. How many of these Pulitzer Prize winners can you cross off the list, and which ones deserve inclusion here? Sound off in the comments section below.