By Jeremy Martin

A recent post by Andrew Grant on Salon.com suggested that the films that get nominated for Oscars in the Best Screenplay category have more to do with the film’s popularity (in awards terms) than it does with the quality of actual writing. This is a valid argument and in many cases is true, but I find it interesting that the film Grant takes issue with this year is in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay, not Original. The popularity theory may be true, but it’s not the whole story. So let’s take a closer look.

In the adapted category, this year’s nominees are “An Education” (screenplay by Nick Hornby); “In The Loop” (screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche); “Precious” (screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher); “Up In The Air” (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; and “District 9” (screenplay by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell). It’s not a bad group – you have two solid, respectable nominees that probably didn’t surprise anyone, two long-shots that maybe did, and one clear winner, for better or worse.

Let’s start with the more obvious ones, “Precious” and “An Education.” Interestingly, both are stories of young women trying to find their identity in a sobering adult world, yet the two are polar opposites. From a screenwriter’s perspective, taking on “Precious” is a daunting task. The book deals with some delicate subject matter, to say the least. The script keeps its integrity and tackles the story head on without losing the honesty or sympathy. It must have been quite a finesse job. Frankly, if the subject weren’t quite so dark, it could’ve been a front-runner. On the other hand,“An Education” – which is a solid piece of craft as well as just plain likeable – has the added advantage of being written by the beloved novelist Nick Hornby. Unfortunately, I think it’s simply not flashy enough for an actual win. Which is a shame because it’s the lack of flash that also points to Hornby’s skill – it’s written so fluidly that we forget or miss how smart it is and how complex and endearing every character is.

The two surprises/long shots are “District 9” and “In The Loop.” The Salon article’s gripe is with the inclusion of “District 9” over “The Informant!” And while I agree that “The Informant!” should be in there, “District 9” has earned its place, too. Admittedly, I think “District 9” may better have been served by nominations in some other categories, and it’s possible that Academy voters (or at least those who get to vote in multiple categories) felt it should be recognized in some way, and screenplay ended up being it. Taken in that context, the Salon article has a point, but it’s not the whole story. Whether “District 9” is a great screenplay in terms of dialogue and characterization is debatable, but there are many layers to a screenplay and one of the first is the simple idea. “District 9” has a very good idea at the heart of it, and that idea was executed into a good screenplay. It’s not literature, but it did form the blueprint for one of the more memorable films of 2009. Still, I think this is a case where being nominated is honor enough, and it won’t win.

Like “District 9,” “In The Loop” has the distinction of being the only other nominee not based on a book (it’s based on a British TV series, and “District 9” is based on a short film). In writing, less is generally more and that certainly goes for the number of credited writers – the more you see, the worse the script tends to be. With four credited writers, “In The Loop” has bucked that trend, and its satirical take on a U.S. President and British Prime Minister cooking up a war certainly makes it a movie indicative of the times. But, alas, there is some truth to that popularity theory, so this one has no chance, since virtually no one saw it.

That leaves the clear winner to be “Up In The Air.” I’m not saying it’s right, but there it is. How much of the credit goes to the screenwriters and how much to the source material could be argued to death. But consider this: the backpack speech that George Clooney gives, citing his every-man-for-himself philosophy? Not in the novel. The Anna Kendrick character (and, in my opinion, best part of the movie)? Not in the book. George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, spends much of his time in the book alone, which you just can’t do in a movie. Now, it’s easy to add in a sidekick just to give your lead someone to talk to. But to make the character more than just a sidekick, to make them someone who opens your main character’s eyes and question themselves, and get at the heart of the themes of the movie – all the while fitting it in to the framework of the original novel and without messing that all up – well, it’s not easy. So from a purely writing standpoint, the nomination is well deserved. Throw in that popularity advantage, and now you’ve got a shoe-in.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!