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The Book That Inspired Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer

Since James Cameron's hiatus is officially at an end as of the visually stunning "Avatar: The Way of Water" hitting theaters, a return to high-quality blockbuster filmmaking may well be underway. While Marvel has effectively dominated the cinematic world for a decade now, auteurs like Cameron are still plugging away at passion projects capable of rivaling these Marvel movies in scale. Now, film buffs can look forward to fellow blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan's first release since the latter half of 2020. The innovative mind behind films like "Memento" and most recently "Tenet," Nolan will soon return to theaters with the story of one of World War 2's most famous scientific personalities in "Oppenheimer." Cillian Murphy stars the as real-life historical figure J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose name viewers should recognize as that of the man who helped invent the atomic bomb.

Nolan, notably, has stayed true to his brand by depicting a nuclear explosion without the help of CGI for his latest project. That said, on top of this and other such creative choices, it's worth keeping in mind that Nolan is largely adapting true events. In fact, beyond the real-world history that serves as film's basis, Nolan is sourcing the telling of his principal character's story from a nonfiction book that helped popularize the subject in the present day zeitgeist.

Oppenheimer is based on a pulitzer-winning book

Shortly after the first trailer for "Oppenheimer" premiered, Variety cited a thoroughly-researched and heavily-detailed biography titled "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" as the film's source material. Written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, this book won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize in the biography category for its in-depth analysis of both Oppenheimer's contribution to the creation of the atomic bomb and his disapproval of its successor in the hydrogen bomb.

Based on the first "Oppenheimer" trailer, Nolan seems to be utilizing his literary source to great effect. In a voiceover, for example, Oppenheimer vocalizes his trepidation over harnessing the atomic bomb's power, as "American Prometheus" makes a point to highlight. The trailer also includes shots of him deposed at a hearing, which appears to be based on the book's account of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover barring Oppenheimer from learning some of America's nuclear secrets. The notorious moral quandary over Oppenheimer's role in World War 2 will most certainly lie at the center of this film, making the analysis of this subject in "American Prometheus" core not just to its story but its point-of-view as well.

Nolan's Oppenheimer may differ from American Prometheus in one key way

On May 8, 2023, Universal Pictures released a roughly three-minute long trailer for "Oppenheimer," providing viewers with their closest look at the film yet prior to its July 21 premiere. As with its prior trailer, this preview focuses almost exclusively on J. Robert Oppenheimer's relationship to his work on the atomic bomb. "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," notably, is more than 700 pages long, and attempts to paint as comprehensive a picture of its subject as possible, detailing significant episodes in his life surrounding the work for which he's become most well known, rather than merely chronicling his atomic bomb research.

Nolan's "Oppenheimer," then, doesn't appear to be a comprehensive adaptation of "American Prometheus," but a film about its titular scientist's sizable role in world history, based on the sections of the book focused directly on this pivotal time in his life. That said, Nolan is frequently a surprising filmmaker, leaving the possibility plenty open that "Oppenheimer" might subvert its audience's expectations to some degree at the time of its full release.