We rate the books behind Oscar-nominated films -- Should you give ''The Pianist'' and other adapted tomes an audience?

By Karyn L. Barr and Missy Schwartz
March 21, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Sure, all five films in this year’s best-adapted-screenplay category are cinematic stunners. But what about their literary antecedents? We went back to the source of four nominees (the fifth, ”Chicago,” is based on Bob Fosse’s stage production) to see whether the book should share space with the DVD on your shelf.

THE PIANIST, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Picador, $13)
Ronald Harwood captures almost every haunting image and dramatic incident from Szpilman’s harrowing 1946 Holocaust-era memoir. Harwood alters the story slightly (Jewish police never tried to recruit Szpilman), but the film’s pivotal moments remain true (German officer Wilm Hosenfeld did aid the Polish musician toward the war’s end). THE LAST WORD Both versions are captivating, but filmgoers may want to skim ahead to the epilogue on Szpilman’s later years and excerpts from Hosenfeld’s explosive war diary.

ABOUT A BOY, Nick Hornby (Riverhead, $12.95)
Peter Hedges and Chris and Paul Weitz defy convention by penning an adaptation that one-ups the 1998 original. The screenwriters retain much of Hornby’s cleverly acerbic dialogue, but they add oomph by tweaking the comedy (Hugh Grant and Toni Collette’s repartee fares better on screen) and by scripting a more memorable ending (an embarrassingly heroic duet of ”Killing Me Softly With His Song” replaces the book’s unmoving climax). THE LAST WORD Sorry, die-hard Hornby fans, but you can skip the book.

THE HOURS, Michael Cunningham (Picador, $13)
David Hare’s script follows the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner to the most subtle detail(Meryl Streep’s Clarissa does indeed serve carbonated water with lemon) but jettisons minor characters like the queer-theorist pal of Clarissa’s tomboyish daughter, incarnated on screen by a more feminine Claire Danes. THE LAST WORD Make time for the novel — only so many Woolfian internal monologues translate from page to screen. Plus, Clarissa prophetically cites a certain actress who went on to play her.

THE ORCHID THIEF, Susan Orlean (Ballantine, $14)
You could fill an entire tome with examples of Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman’s warped departures from Orlean’s serene 1998 study of exotic plants (sorry, the book includes no drug-induced dial-tone games or fatal car chases). But some facts do correspond: Toothless King of Kooks John Laroche really did start an Internet porn business. THE LAST WORD Orlean’s bouquet of bizarro flower freaks may not be as wacky as Kaufman’s, but its freshness keeps the pages turning.