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Oscarwatch: The Writers, Part One: Adapted Screenplays

There isn’t anything better than a great director working with a great screenwriter. Despite how many screenwriters there are in Los Angeles (rumor has it, there are more screenwriters here than people), there are precious few of them who can lay it down in any meaningful way. If the director picks a good writer and a solid script there is less distance to bridge between the written word and great cinema. The truth about the Oscars is that the screenplay categories, like most categories, tell us more about the best films of the year than they do the best screenplays. The doubling the number of nominees into dual categories of adapted and original also makes room for winners who couldn’t win in Picture or Director as a way of honoring the film, like Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation. The categories also make room for up and comers to shine even if their films have no prayer of entering any of the other major categories. JC Chandor getting a surprise nomination for Margin Call last year is a fine example of that. The Oscars take a lot of heat for “ruining movies” and being a “popularity contest,” but there is nothing like them for boosting the career of a virtual unknown. An Oscar nomination alone can change the lives of obscure, struggling writers who are lit up for that brief moment of time.

Best Picture heat is almost always the driving force behind winners in either category, original or adapted. Last year, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris were both formidable Best Picture contenders with nominations across the board. Maybe they had no chance to win the top prize, or even director, but they took the screenplay prizes as lasting acknowledgement of the overall work. Rarely is the screenplay win just about the writing.

What can boost a winner is the prestige the writer in the literary or screenwriting world. There was no way Aaron Sorkin or Larry McMurtry were going to lose the Oscar for writing; that would be like Bob Dylan losing the Best Original Song category. It just ain’t gonna happen. In McMurtry’s case, of course, the Best Picture winner, Crash, came from an original screenplay so they weren’t competing against each other. Something tells me if the categories had been combined, McMurtry — due to his own notoriety — would have come up the winner, but one never knows when it comes to that mysterious Crash win.

Many of the writing winners have also been the directors of their films but not always. It is probably roughly 50/50. Recent adapted winners who were also directors include The Descendants, No Country for Old Men, Sideways. Recent winners in original who were also directors include Almost Famous, Talk to Her, Lost in Translation, and Crash. It hardly ever happens that the writers of an original screenplay wins the category, director and picture. I think the last time it happened was Annie Hall.

Working back from the strongest Best Picture contenders, there are the collaborators and the auteurs. Different writers and directors versus the same writer and director. Let’s take a quick look at the strongest so far.

The Collaborators

Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg. You aren’t going to find a better pedigreed collaboration at this level for any other movie but Lincoln. Spielberg asked for the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s novel before she even finished writing it. It took her ten years to write it and Kushner spent six years adapting it. Theirs is a tight collaboration, along with Daniel Day-Lewis, and credit really goes to each of them. Kushner is the big fish in the adapted screenplay category, as he’s never won an Oscar in his already fruitful career. He’s been nominated once for an Oscar, for Munich, and won an Emmy and a WGA award — and the Pulitzer — for the exquisite masterpiece, Angels in America. One of the reasons Lincoln is the kind of movie that is generating such strong word of mouth (it’s expected to dominate the box office this weekend, unbelievably) is that the love for the subject can be felt in all the branches of the creative tree. Love for Lincoln reverberates throughout the film from Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis alike. A heartfelt ode to a great leader was not to be undertaken lightly. This puts Kushner in the number one spot in the Adapted screenplay race for the USC Scripter, the WGA and the Oscar; writers know better than anyone what kind of feat Kushner has pulled off here.

Chris Terrio’s script for Argo was so good that Ben Affleck decided, for once, to shoot his film exactly as written. He didn’t try to “make it better” by chopping it up. He knew it worked on the page. His job, then, was to bring that adept wit, suspense and drama to the screen. Argo is another film that was carefully written, and given over to a director who clearly trusted Terrio’s instincts. Argo moves along so smoothly, with so many quotable lines, and jazz-like undertones, the writing holds its own against the direction.

Benh Zeitlin and Luci Alibar for Beasts of the Southern Wild are forced into the adapted screenplay category for what is really an original script, but because Alibar had written it before, as a play, it’s technically adapted. Otherwise, it would give Zero Dark Thirty some heat in the original screenplay category. Vivid, dazzling, original, Beasts of the Southern Wild is written in poetic voice, brought to life by a director who trusted the writing. To make such a grand allegory come to life required an open-minded auteur at the help. Zeitlin and Alibar herald to us what’s coming next in film. It feels sometimes like so many of us are choking the life out of film as art with our notions of political correctness and adherence to traditional “structure.” Beasts of the Southern Wild thumbed its nose at all those rules and told a great story with simple soaring eloquence. The wonder of Beasts is that it takes you unexpected places in its writing. How many screenplays can you say that about?

Silver Linings Playbook is going to be a strong contender in the adapted screenplay race even though David O. Russell is better known for bringing original stories to the screen. He started his career writing them, with brilliant earlier efforts like Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. The Fighter was not adapted by Russell, but Silver Linings is. He’s listed as the only writer, in fact, which absolutely puts him in the running to win the award. He’ll go head to head with Kushner, just as Silver Linings will be going head to head with Lincoln for Best Picture. Something tells me the awards won’t split. Feels more likely that screenplay will match Picture, because the script collaborations are so good this year. Russell is responsible for the stuff in the screenplay that isn’t in the book, like Jennifer Lawrence’s “I slept with everyone in the office” bit, and her inclination to suddenly know everything about football. These aren’t improvements, in my personal opinion, but there is no doubt both of those additions are major crowd pleasers across the board.

Life of Pi is one of the best adaptations of the year, though you might not fully appreciate its approach if you haven’t read Yann Martel’s book (which I haven’t). The book was a major factor behind the film getting made, as its worldwide popularity is immeasurable. Like Cloud Atlas it was considered an “unfilmable” book. But David Magee decided to take it on anyway and in the adept hands of Ang Lee it is a notable tribute to a great book, and a captivating film on its own. The unfilmable aspects are what attracted Ang Lee to begin with; tackling the challenge of capturing visuals steeped in the imaginations of readers from around the world. A previous Oscar nominee for Finding Neverland, David Magee once again weaves ribbons of a storyteller’s life into the famous story being told. He spent 6 years adapting and polishing Life of Pi. Among the many inventive touches the screenplay adds to the novel is Magee’s decision to expand the book’s brief winking preface to serve as framing device, so Pi can address us directly throughout the film. It’s an important shift in structure and perspective that puts the audience alongside the writer. We’re invited to sit across the table from Pi and hear his tale unfold as a personal interaction instead of watching remotely from a distance — a device that makes us take part in the writer’s quest so we feel we have an intimate stake in the outcome, as all great screenplays do.