Saturday, February 13, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay

Brooklyn, written by Nick Hornby and starring Saoirse Ronan, is among the nominees this year for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees are:

The Writers Guild of America Awards will take place this evening to honor the writers in a host of different screenwriting categories for television and film. Unlike the Directors, Producers, Screen Actors guilds, the Writers Guild is not a great indicator for the Oscars. Its eligibility rules require writers be guild signatories to be considered even for a nomination. Foreign films, some independent films, and writers who just do not want to sign are excluded.

People like Quentin Tarantino, a two-time Oscar winner, are never nominated here because they are not guild signatories. Last year’s Best Original Screenplay winners, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacabone, and Alexander Dinelaris for Birdman, were not cited at the Writers Guild. Across its original adapted screenplay categories, over the last five years, six guild winners have gone on to win a screenwriting Oscar, a 60 percent hit rate that tells us very little. All that being said, if anything other than The Big Short wins tonight or at the Oscars, it would be shocking.

The Big Short – There are four Best Picture nominees nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, plus a film the Academy clearly loved in giving it six Oscar nominations, but only The Big Short is among the frontrunners for the top award. A large part of the reason is the film’s unique voice, crafted by co-writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, both first-time nominees, and adapted from the book by Michael Lewis.

This is a great film, but it did not fully work for me because of that voice. To me, it is too snarky and takes it subject matter too lightly. Listening to McKay and Randolph speak and reading interviews with them, it is clear they do not take this lightly. Both men are genuinely angry and concerned with the way the U.S. economy has functioned to benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. If you are asking me, that concern only loosely translates to the screen. Though the writers may be sincere, their film is anything but.

However, those are my problems with the material, and I am in the minority, particularly as concerns industry voters. The other side of the coin – the side that makes this a deserving winner – is despite its snark, The Big Short is a witty, structurally complex script that takes incredibly dense material and makes it palatable for viewers who otherwise might never learn a thing about the financial crisis. It is absolutely must-see viewing for anyone troubled by the direction of the nation.

The Martian – Drew Goddard has made his career mostly writing smart, highly self-conscious material for television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Lost and films such as The Cabin in the Woods and World War Z. The Martian is a stark departure from that work in that it is completely unself-conscious. The script embraces its genre without winking at the audience and tells a straightforward tale about rescue and survival that is universal in its emotions but specific in its circumstances.

Working from a densely scientific novel by Andy Weir, Goddard makes the correct assumption that his audience is smart and does not dumb down the material. Viewers never get lost in the minutiae of the science because Goddard – and Weir – give the story a strong emotional through-line. The basic story is one of a castaway, which in and of itself is instantly enthralling, but the screenplay also adds in layers about the importance of science, teamwork, and problem-solving that frankly too few films consider.

Room – Somewhat remarkably, Emma Donoghue is the first woman ever nominated for adapting her own novel. The statistic is somewhat meaningless in its specificity – for instance, Lucy Alibar was nominated with co-writer Benh Zeitlin for adapting her play Juicy and Delicious into the film Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012 – but it is still telling in some ways. It obviously has never been a conscious decision by the writers to exclude women who adapt their own novels, but the phenomenon speaks to a larger issue about diversity, representation, and the kind of stories that get told in Hollywood.

Whatever it means, the writers have chosen a fabulously accomplished screenplay to be first. Donoghue’s writing is subtle, stirring, and brilliantly attuned to the emotional states of the characters. On first watch, it may not seem to be that complex of a film – a young woman and her son escape from the man who has held them prisoner for years and adjust to their newfound freedom. However, juggling the inner lives of Joy (Brie Larson), Jack (Jacob Tremblay), their captor (Sean Bridgers), and their family (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) is as deft a feat of writing as you will see this year.

Brooklyn – Nick Hornby, who previously was nominated for adapting the memoir An Education, has been a successful author for years and is well known and well liked in writing circles. Though his most popular novels have been focused primarily on lost, man-child-type main characters (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch), he has carved out an interesting niche in Hollywood as a writer of insightful stories about strong women – the aforementioned An Education, last year’s Wild, and now Brooklyn.

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is a simple story about in Irish immigrant in 1950s America, but it is told with such grace and intelligence as to be almost revolutionary. We watch as Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is slowly introduced to a world of possibilities she had never known, and that burgeoning awareness is magical. Though the story’s actual stakes are low – particularly compared to the other nominees in this category – the emotional stakes for the characters could not be higher, and by that, we are drawn into caring.

Carol – This is Phyllis Nagy’s first feature screenwriting credit, though she did write and direct the television movie Mrs. Harris. For her first feature, Nagy chose the defiantly strange and deeply passionate Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt. Thankfully, in the translation from the page to the screen, she loses none of the strangeness or passion that drive the story of two women who fall in love but are kept apart only by prevailing social norms.

Nagy’s script drips with pain and longing in ways that we so rarely see brought to life on screen. Portraying repression in a ‘50s setting is nothing new, but the way the script explores what it is like to be a liberated person in repressive times is beautiful and tragic. These women, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), know what they want and grasp at it but cannot take hold. The script portrays their closeness, even when they are separated, with the kind of despair less daring romantic dramas would never show. It is honest and heartbreaking.

The final analysis

This is The Big Short’s award to lose. It is one of three or four Best Picture frontrunners, none of the others of which are nominated in this category. It is a sterling achievement of screenwriting and will be a deserving winner. If it loses, that will be our first indication The Big Short will not be winning Best Picture. If it wins, the race to the top will remain close to the end.

Will win: The Big Short
Should win: Room
Should have been here: 45 Years

Tomorrow: Best Original Screenplay

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