Set in 1947, the story follows Stingo, a young writer who has recently moved to Brooklyn to work on a novel. While there, he befriends Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant, and her somewhat unstable lover, Nathan Landau. As Stingo gets to know Sophie better, she starts to offer him insight into her Dark and Troubled Past, which involves having witnessed The Holocaust very up close and personally. Meanwhile, the already unhinged Nathan starts growing increasingly paranoid and becomes violently jealous of Stingo and Sophie's relationship...
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Streep winning Best Actress for the first time in her career. To this day, Streep's performance in this film is considered the finest in her extremely august career (and, therefore, one of the best given by a woman in any film). It was ranked the third-greatest in film history by Premiere magazine.note
The film provides examples of:
- Author Avatar: Stingo is almost exactly like William Styron. Just like Styron, he's from South, born in 1925, served in the Navy during World War II, graduated from Duke University, worked for McGraw-Hill, and ended up writing a controversial novel about Nat Turner. Stingo's name is never revealed, but it's implied that his last name starts with "St" (since his roommates in the training camp were Strohmyer and Stutz).
- Adult Fear: Having to choose which of your children to send to inevitable death is one of the scariest things almost any adult would have to face.
- All Crimes Are Equal: Sophie gets taken to Auschwitz for stealing a ham. She states that it wasn't the theft that got her sent to Auschwitz, but the fear she showed.
- Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Nathan is prone to violent mood swings and the opening scene is him right in the middle of one of these.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Nathan - and the "crazy" is to be taken literally. He's a paranoid schizophrenic, and he has recurring delusions about Sophie being unfaithful to him.
- Driven to Suicide: Sophie has attempted suicide several times. Eventually she and Nathan kill themselves together.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Stingo. The real protagonist, is of course Sophie but she dies at the end.
- For the Evulz: Stingo speculates that this is why the Nazi officer forced Sophie to choose which one of her children would die.
- Ill Girl: Sophie, before Nathan discovers that she's anemic.
- Lovable Sex Maniac: Subverted with Leslie, who is foul mouthed and likes to pretend she's one of these, but is rather afraid of sex.
- Love Triangle: Sophie, Nathan and Stingo.
- Omniglot: Sophie, being the daughter of a linguist, speaks a whole slew of languages.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Stingo, though in the novel it's implied that his last name starts with "St".
- Pet the Dog: Nathan's verbally abusive behavior towards Sophie and Stingo at the beginning of the film are somewhat neutralized by how kind and gentle he is the rest of the movie. Most notably he saves Sophie's life when she falls ill at the library.
- Sadistic Choice: Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Sophie is told to choose which of her two children will go to the gas chamber immediately, and which will live for some time longer in the camp. Since the story is realistic, it averts Take a Third Option. The movie was popular enough that the term "Sophie's Choice" is occasionally used to describe similar sadistic choices, and is even an alternative name for the trope.Sophie: Take my little girl!
- The Un-Reveal: It's never revealed whether Sophie's son survived, adding this uncertainty to Sophie's guilt over betraying her daughter.