Road to the Oscars 2013: Best Adapted Screenplay
Two novels, two historical books, and one play: these are the basis for the screenplays that are nominated for this year’s Oscar in the category of Adapted Screenplay. Likewise, there are two clear favorites, two that wouldn’t be a complete surprise, and one dark horse, ready to crash the gates. All of them have been nominated for multiple Oscars in other categories.
The nominees are: Life of Pi, (written by David Magee and based on the novel by Yann Martel), Silver Linings Playbook (written by David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick), Argo (written by Chris Terrio, based on a selection from the book “The Master of Disguise”, by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired Magazine article “The Great Escape,” by Joshuah Bearman), Lincoln (written by Tony Kushner, based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin) and finally, Beasts Of The Southern Wild (written by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, based on Alibar’s play, “Juicy And Delicious”). With the exception of Life of Pi, I (like, I imagine, many Academy voters) come to these screenplays knowing next to nothing of the works on which they are based. This is a good thing since the scripts, like the movies, have a right to be judged on their own merit and not in light of what’s come before.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Starting with that dark horse, Beasts Of The Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl living an off-the-grid existence in a back country bayou with her father. Everything around Hushpuppy is eroding – her community, the land where they live, and, worst of all, her father’s health. Fearing he may not be around to take care of her, Hushpuppy’s father takes a tough love approach in teaching her how to survive. The plot defies description as this is not a movie about plot – it’s about very specific characters in a very specific time and place. It’s a beautiful and moving film and surely the most original and unique of the nominees.
The movie was a hit at Sundance and is one of those movies that fans don’t just like, they LOVE. But I think what people respond to is more than just what’s in the script –it’s in how the filmmakers took a simple story and turned it into something magical. Trust me, you won’t see anything else quite like it. I doubt the screenplay will win, but it’s possible that, knowing it has even less of a chance in the other categories (it’s also been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress) Academy voters may try and throw it a bone here.
Silver Linings Playbook
Both scripts based on novels are solid contenders that I think will ultimately fall short. The first is Silver Linings Playbook – the story of Pat (played by Bradley Cooper), who struggles with bipolar disorder and, upon being released from a stint in a psych hospital, is hell bent on re-uniting with his wife. Along the way he meets Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) another social outcast who offers to help Pat get his wife back in exchange for being her dance partner in a local competition.
Writer David O. Russell (who hasn’t made a bad movie yet) does what he does best, which is find humor in the unexpected. It’s a funny and surprising film with a big heart, though it doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of mental illness. The rapid-fire dialogue is a modern take on the classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, and every character is distinct and has a life of their own – an impressive feat for any writer. It’s a crowd pleaser, and can’t be completely counted out given the film’s total of eight nominations. Russell will have his day on the Oscar stage for sure but unfortunately, the competition in this category is too stiff this time.
Life of Pi
The other adapted novel, Life Of Pi is just that – the life of a young boy named Pi and how he survived a shipwreck on a voyage from India to Canada, stranded in a lifeboat with a tiger. Based on that description you can see why many considered the book unfilm-able, and it’s no surprise that it took over a decade to get it made. For better or worse, it’s about as faithful an adaptation as I can think of. It’s an inspirational film and is that rare message movie that simply presents its case and allows the viewers to decide how to interpret that message, rather than beating you over the head with it.
But like Beasts, this movie’s power lies in the execution. It’s visually stunning and makes the best use of 3D since Hugo. It could get some love here, and much should be given, to screenwriter David Magee for doing the impossible. But with a total of 11 nominations, my guess is it will win in other categories (the cinematography surely deserves it), and not here.
This brings us to the top contenders. Argo tells the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) and his attempt to rescue six Americans who managed to escape capture after the U.S. embassy was overrun, igniting the Iran Hostage Crisis. The plan to get them out is to claim they are a group of Canadian filmmakers who are in the country scouting locations for science fiction film. It is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction as Mendez enlists the help of a producer and make-up artist in Hollywood to help create the cover. It sounds silly, which is what makes the script so admirable.
Writer Chris Terrio allows the absurdity to be played for humor, while keeping the threat and danger very real. It’s a seamless blend of comedy and suspense. The dialogue is great, particularly that of the Hollywood players, and I’m making the assumption that a lot of that is all Terrio’s. It’s also a very lean script – meaning that it really keeps things moving, with no extraneous scenes or sidesteps. A writer’s greatest challenge is not to indulge their self, to serve the story and only the story. Terrio’s script does just that, with textbook precision.
Last, is Lincoln, which tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed to abolish slavery. While the Civil War rages on, it is Lincoln’s hope that passage of the amendment will help put an end to the conflict. The entire film takes place over the course of only a few weeks, yet it has the feel of an epic.
Writer Tony Kushner has won a Pulitzer and a Tony for his plays and his experience in that medium is a huge asset with this script. Plays are about words, and when it comes down to it, this film is just a bunch of old white guys arguing, so the words better be great. And they are – for a bunch of old guys talking, the film flies by. And despite a huge cast of characters, you never feel lost. What you do feel is every bit of the gravity and urgency of what was at stake. The scenes set inside the House of Representatives are particularly riveting, and peel back our modern cynicism, reminding us of the value of honest, clean debate. Perhaps Kushner’s greatest achievement is in giving voice to both sides of the argument, showing us that what is a no-brainer today was truly a huge risk at the time.
Each of these five nominees could be a winner – it’s a particularly rich category this year. And, as a side note, curse the Academy for failing to even nominate Stephen Chbosky’s excellent adaptation of his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But we have to work with what we have, and so I think there are two easy bets: Argo and Lincoln. Both films are getting huge Oscar marketing blitzes, and it’s nearly impossible to say whether one should win over the other. So based purely on momentum of the film as a whole, I’m giving the edge to Lincoln, though I could see it going either way.
Road to the Oscars Series
February 16: Best Supporting Actor – Angela Stern
February 17: Best Supporting Actress – Hiko Mitsuzuka
February 18: Best Actress – Andrew Payne
February 19: Best Actor – Kit Bowen
February 20: Best Director – Andrew Payne
February 21: Best Picture – Kit Bowen
February 24: 85th Annual Academy Awards