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.

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23 Comments

  1. Chris138
    November 30, 2012

    A friend of mine is taking one of David Magee’s classes next semester at Emerson. That’s got to be awesome to think you’re professor is an Oscar nominee.

    Based on what I’ve seen so far this year I’d give the adapted screenplay award to Russell.

  2. Five Easy Pieces
    November 30, 2012

    Good article, as usual. I look forward to the article on original screenplay contenders.

    One minor correction: you include “Milk” in the list of recent original screenplay winners where the writer was also the director but that is not the case. Dustin Lance Black wrote “Milk” and Gus Van Sant directed it.

  3. November 30, 2012

    Regardless of how Lincoln finishes, Kushner will be taking home the Oscar for adapted screenplay.

  4. enotS ahsaS
    November 30, 2012

    U really hate silver linings, don’t you sasha?

  5. November 30, 2012

    Silver Linings Playbook is full of good dialogue, but it has no respect for its characters. Its depiction of the leads’ respective mental illnesses was shallow and patchy – Pat’s bipolar came and went as David O. Russell demanded, there wasn’t even any suggestion of it in the therapy scenes, and Tiffany’s depression (was it depression? That’s what I gleaned, although maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention…) was manufactured almost entirely by Jennifer Lawrence, who had to work to overcome the restrictions the screenplay imposed on her.

    And I agree, the sex thing and the football thing with Tiffany were hideously transparent. I see nothing wrong with a man wanting to get his kicks, but throw some the other way too, mate. You stuck your handsome, buff lead in a bin liner. Couldn’t he have had a speech where he interrupts his diner date admit to his passion for cooking and cleaning and performing oral sex and buying girls boxes of chocolate at random?

  6. November 30, 2012

    *to admit to

  7. Aragorn
    November 30, 2012

    I’ve seen all those movies so I can say that they are all good. But, Lincoln is at a different level, in a different league to itself. He did a GREAT job based on a very complex material. I think that is one of the “lock” wins for Lincoln. Not much competition there.

  8. Robert
    November 30, 2012

    I can’t imagine anyone but Tony Kushner winning. One of the best screenplays in years. I’ve seen Lincoln 3 times. It’s deeper and richer with each viewing.

    Also, Dustin Lance Black didn’t direct Milk–it was directed by Gus Van Sant.

  9. Yogsss
    November 30, 2012

    ” Recent winners in original who were also directors include Milk”

    Hi, Gus Van Sant directed Milk while Dustin Lance Black wrote it.

  10. November 30, 2012

    Milk? – just a typo
    meant Talk to Her

  11. steve50
    November 30, 2012

    Yeah, they won’t get many opportunities to honor one of the finest living playwrights, Kushner. Throw in a damn fine script and I’d be shocked if anybody else won this (not unlike Tom Stoppard/Shakespeare In Love situation).

  12. Chris138
    November 30, 2012

    Ah, I completely forgot that Lincoln is in this category. I take that back then: Lincoln should definitely win this award.

  13. Matt
    November 30, 2012

    Does Les Mis fall into this category?

  14. Nic V
    November 30, 2012

    Hmmmm yeah Les Mis would fall into this category but I wouldn’t count on them pulling off an adapted Screenplay nomination. The category is too full already and I personally don’t see any way it could fit in here. And to be honest from what I’ve heard or read so far, and this is my impression; all they really did was just transfer the musical to the screen. So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “screenplay adaption” really available. I’m just referring to the screenplay and not too the directors choices concerning art direction or cinematography. When we think screenplay we think what the author has conjured up as character motivation and dialogue. I just don’t see how the transfer of the play to film, which is really a transference of staging a mucial in a new medium without really editing the original. It’s not like Les Miz is 250 page book.

  15. kel
    November 30, 2012

    I think there’s something wrong with me. In any normal year, something like Lincoln would be right up my alley and I would tend to dislike something like SLP and hate something like Life of Pi. For whatever reason, Lincoln bored the snot out of me (if he’s someone that “should” win, it should have been for Munich) and the whole Sally Field as MTL is just wrong on so many levels (her scenes were, to me, random)…while SLP intrigued me (who knew, especially after feeling that The Fighter was a bit cartoonish) and Life of Pi took my breath away. Beautifully done…no artificial feeling like Avatar gave me after my 2nd viewing..

  16. PJ
    November 30, 2012

    I’m a SLP guy but if Lincoln doesn’t win this, it would be a travesty.

  17. Nic V
    November 30, 2012

    Well Matt’s question made me curious so I did a little research.

    Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, and the Sound of Music were all nominated for Best Picture along with their directors. None of them received a screenplay nomination. Moulin Rouge [couldn't remember if it got a BP Nomination] also received no Screenplay Nomination.

    Chicago , Cabaret, Oliver, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and West Side Story all recieved nominations in the adapted category but none of them won. Fame, All That Jazz, and the Umbrella’s of Cherbourg all received nominations in the Original Screenplay category and none of them won.

    Coal Miners Daughter and Lady Sings the Blues although both bio pics relied a great deal on music and both received Adapted Screenplay Nominations and neither of them won. Topsy Turvey kinda falls into line with Coal and Lady and received an Original Screenplay nom and also didn’t win.

    So I’ll back track and suppose it’s possible they could get a nomination but with Oscar’s track record they won’t get an Oscar for the Screenplay. Now I only went back to 1960 but I don’t think you’d find much difference before then.

    When you think that Chicago, My Fair Lady and West Side Story all won the Best Picture award and lost the screenplay award I’d think that would probably tell the Les Miz adaptors what will happen even if they do get a nomination.

  18. Daveylow
    November 30, 2012

    Lincoln will win this. It’s one sure win right now.

  19. December 1, 2012

    Nice work, Nic V. I agree that Les Mis certainly won’t win Adapted Screenplay and probably won’t be nominated either. I think most would agree, in fact.

  20. Tero Heikkinen
    December 1, 2012

    Yeah, Les Mis is all over the place, but this category is so crowded that its nomination will be hard to get. If Lincoln is not celebrated anywhere else, it will be here.

    Argo
    Beasts of the Southern Wild
    Lincoln
    Silver Linings Playbook

    The FIFTH spot is a fight between:

    Anna Karenina
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
    The Dark Knight Rises
    Hitchcock
    Les Misérables
    Life of Pi
    The Perks of Being a Wallflower
    The Sessions

    …and it is almost certainly Life of Pi.

  21. Tero Heikkinen
    December 1, 2012

    I even forgot The Hobbit, but that’s because I don’t think it has any chance here.

  22. December 1, 2012

    No Dark Knight Rises? I kid.

  23. Kent
    December 1, 2012

    First off, no, I would not expect Les Miz to win the adapted screenplay award. However, Nik, as you say, it’s not like Les Miserables is a 250 page book–it’s a 1500 page book! In interviews they have said that one thing they did not want to do was just transfer it from stage to screen. I have seen it twice on stage and have read the book, and have always found the theatrical version to be a little lacking plot-wise. On the other hand, I have read the screenplay and I have been amazed at how they have gone back to the novel and brought in numerous plot elements from the book, adding scenes, characters and details that lend incredible richness to the story. Even new lyrics have been added to songs. I was impressed.

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