Predicting an Oscar winner is often tricky, especially if there’s no clear favorite, as is the case with this year’s nominees in the category of Writing (Adapted Screenplay). This year’s nominated films in the category are: The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides Of March, Moneyball, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Each film has enjoyed solid reviews and has its fair share of supporters. Adding to the difficulty is the group’s pedigree – writers on all but one of the films have been previously nominated and three of them have won. One might be tempted, then, to factor in source material, but that’s a tricky proposition in and of itself. It wouldn’t matter in this case anyway, as I freely admit that I’ve only read one of the pieces on which these scripts were based. So, without much to help us place the odds, let’s just dive and take a look at each one.

I’ll start with Moneyball, which is the only film in this category for which I can attest that the screenplay is a faithful adaptation. Moneyball is the true story of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane and his attempt to build a championship team with very little money, comparatively. Beane accomplished this by relying solely on players’ statistical data rather than the common wisdom and entrenched processes of scouting. Statistics and baseball – to a lot of people this equals boring. But a boring film wouldn’t find itself in contention for an Oscar. Much like he did with last year’s Oscar winning The Social Network, writer Aaron Sorkin (who co-wrote with Steven Zaillian, himself an Oscar winner for Schindler’s List) makes the mundane come alive. And Billy Beane is quite a character – a maverick who had the courage (even if born out of desperation) to do the unconventional. It’s a solid script, anchored by a classic underdog story and the writers manage to elevate it above the sports genre and turn it into something universal.

I’d say the long shot is The Ides of March, written by past nominees (for Good Night, and Good Luck) George Clooney and Grant Heslov who co-wrote with Beau Willimon, based on his play. The story is centered on Stephen Meyers, an up-and-coming staffer working on the primary campaign for Governor Mike Morris, who seems to be the ideal presidential candidate. The script’s greatest strength is in giving us an insider’s look at all the little details that go into a campaign. We knew the game of politics is an ugly one, but this proves that it’s even worse than we thought. Unfortunately, the script also has a fatal flaw – one of the dramatic turning points, in which Meyers learns that Morris isn’t squeaky clean, is really not all that dramatic. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal details but I bet it’s in your top three guesses of things politicians do wrong. It’s played as a big reveal, but my reaction was, “Don’t they all do that?” It’s still a good film, and the script eventually moves on to some more surprising places, but it’s not enough to warrant a win.

Hugo has a lot going for it:  It’s got pedigree – screenwriter John Logan has previously been nominated for Scorsese’s The Aviator, as well as Gladiator. It’s also got momentum – Hugo is the most nominated film of the year, with 11 nominations. In theory, this is a solid bet, and I personally have been a vocal advocate for the film. Still, even I have to admit that if there’s a weak spot, it’s the screenplay. Based on a children’s novel, Hugo tells the story of Hugo Cabret, a young boy who lives alone in the clock tower of a Paris train station after his father dies in a fire. The script sets up the idea that Hugo’s father may have left him a message stuck in a broken machine called an automaton. Fixing the machine leads Hugo to the innovative filmmaker of silent cinema, Georges Melies. It’s nitpicking, but stepping back, what Hugo discovers in the automaton isn’t really a message from his father – at best it simply shades in the dotted lines that were already there. Looking at straight plot, the script falls short. It sets up the film’s themes nicely and the general idea of the script certainly resonates. But what it does best is act as a blueprint, providing a template for director Martin Scorsese to work his magic.  Let’s be honest, the joy of Hugo is in the visuals.

The Descendants was written by past nominee (for Election) and winner (for Sideways) Alexander Payne, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings. It’s about a distant father who is struggling to re-connect with his children – while also processing his comatose wife’s imminent death – while also coping with the news of her infidelity. The stereotype is that such heavy material alone would qualify it for an Oscar. In this case, the nomination and potential win are well deserved. In addition to being a moving and poignant rumination on death and family, the script is disarmingly funny. A seamless blend of comedy and drama such as this is one of the hardest things to pull off. Never pandering or melodramatic, the writing treats its subject matter and characters with an authenticity that I guarantee you is the envy of other writers. Even some of the more outrageous moments are utterly believable because the characters are so well drawn and the situations are played out naturally, not forced. This is life represented – with all its quirks and banalities, its surprises and disappointments.

That leaves only Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a tight and mesmerizing adaptation of the John Le Carre novel, written by the only two newcomers to the world of Oscar, husband and wife Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor (who sadly died in 2010 before getting to see her work come to such gorgeous fruition). The script follows George Smiley, who, after being let go from the British spy agency where he’s spent his whole career, is asked back on a secret mission to uncover a mole in the top ranks. The script is dense stuff – lots of characters, with a lot going on, using lots of code words and language. And we haven’t even gotten to the different time periods taking place, so it’s a testament to these two writers that they’ve maintained clarity without losing any of the intensity and excitement. You’re pinned throughout and it leaves you wanting more. Luckily, there are so many twists and turns, you’ll continue to think about it and play it out long after it’s over. Better still, you’ll find that it all adds up. It takes a certain skill and artistry to pull something like this off and I’m glad to see it being recognized by the Academy.

How to choose? Ides of March is the only one I just don’t see happening. Both Moneyball and Hugo could sneak in, though they wouldn’t be my choice. The two most deserving are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Descendants. But this is where we get into that question of adaptation and source material. Having read some other Le Carre books, I know he must be a beast to adapt, so I’d be willing to bet that it’s better as an adaptation. It’s harder for me to say if The Descendants is as faithful (although it’s been reported that the book’s author was allowed on set throughout shooting, which suggests a close collaboration). But even if it’s not – say, if the book isn’t funny at all – then isn’t that a testament to what a great screenplay it is? If it turns out that the writers added all that levity and grace that make it such a beautiful story? So I’ll leave it at this: my heart is with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though it may actually be more of a longshot than I care to admit. Therefore my money is happily on The Descendants.

Road to the Oscars Series

January 27: Best Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 31: Best Animated Short – Savanna New

February 1: Best Documentary Short – Christa Youngpeter

February 2: Best Documentary – Dantzler Smith

February 3: Best Foreign Language Film – Steve Neumann

February 4: Best Visual Effects – Michael Benedict

February 5: Best Sound Editing – Michael Benedict

February 6: Best Sound Mixing – Joseph Doherty

February 7: Best Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 8: Best Costume Design – Jax Russo

February 9: Best Art Direction – Scott Youngbauer

February 10: Best Film Editing – Michael Benedict

February 11: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

February 12: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 14: Best Animated Feature Film – Steve Neumann

February 15: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Doherty

February 18: Best Supporting Actress – Angela Stern

February 20: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 22: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 23: Best Picture – Kit Bowen