Sunday, February 12, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, nominated 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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees are:

Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer
Fences, written by August Wilson
Hidden Figures, written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion, written by Luke Davies
Moonlight, written by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney

There is an elephant in the room this year that cannot be ignored when it comes to Best Adapted Screenplay. It is an occurrence so unique as to be without precedent in the history of the Academy. Perhaps the greatest thing ever written in the English language is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It has been adapted into countless films, including Sir Laurence Olivier’s Best Picture-winning production in 1948. Even that, though, was not nominated for Screenplay.

In fact, the only direct adaptation of a Shakespeare play ever nominated in this category was Kenneth Branagh’s stately 1996 mounting of Hamlet, which lost the award to Billy Bob Thornton and Sling Blade. This is ludicrous if you give it any thought. As fine as Thornton’s Sling Blade script is – and it is a fine film – its competition was one of the greatest pieces of literary art ever gifted to this world. I mention all of this because the scenario likely to play out at this year’s Academy Awards is strikingly similar with one huge difference.

Fences – The difference is Wilson, the closest the world will ever get to an American Shakespeare. While Denzel Washington may have taken on directing duties, this is Wilson’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, completed before his death in 2005. Imagine if the Bard himself had given instructions how to film Romeo and Juliet, and you have some idea of the magnitude of this work.

Wilson’s Century Cycle, chronicling the black experience in America through each decade of the 20th century, is as important to the English literary canon as the First Folio. I was fortunate enough to see Jitney recently in its first Broadway run, despite being completed first of the cycle and premiering in Pittsburgh in 1982. Coincidentally, the production co-stars André Holland, who also stars in Moonlight. Wilson’s words, as ever, flow forth like a river, caressing every bend and charging forward relentlessly but majestically.

But Fences – glorious, wondrous, magical Fences – is Wilson’s crowning achievement, perhaps the crowning achievement in American literature, give or take a Mark Twain, an Ernest Hemingway or Wilson contemporary Toni Morrison. The story of Troy Maxson (Washington) and his family is the story of black Americans’ past, present, and future in this country, which is to say it is the story of the past, present, and future of this country.

Wilson is never afraid to tackle big ideas or grand themes head on, attacking prejudice, racial injustice in all its forms, and economic inequality with all the righteous indignity and furious anger such topics deserve. He gives his audiences – black, white, whatever – credit for being smart and demands that we keep up, insists that we follow wherever he leads, and never once disappoints us at the destination. In a just world, there would be no competition in this category as there is Fences and everything else, but as Wilson’s characters can tell you, we sure don’t live in that world.

Moonlight – I have been effusive in my praise of Wilson and Fences because the work warrants it, but that should not diminish the accomplishments of the other nominees, particularly Jenkins’ and McCraney’s alternately devastating and inspiring portrait of youth and young manhood. Based in part on McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkin’s adds his own riff on the material with an entirely original third act that rounds out the story and brings its protagonist full circle to face the man he is and wants to be.

It is courageous storytelling by Jenkins and McCraney on every level – structurally daring, narratively fearless, and socially audacious. Bravo to both of these men for telling the story of a young, gay, black boy with compassion, honesty, and fearlessness. These are the kinds of stories the world needs more of and which deserve to be seen far and wide by anyone and everyone. It is no secret I will be pulling for Wilson’s Fences to win this category, but Moonlight is a film with the power to change lives. A win for it here or anywhere else has the power to change even more, and who could begrudge a film that?

Hidden Figures – The feel-good hit of the winter, Hidden Figures is a box-office smash that tells the story of three unheralded women and gives them their rightful place in American history. It is smart, funny, and touching work in the classic big-Hollywood vein, reminiscent of something like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. It prizes and celebrates intelligence, which is something far too rare in cinema these days, and it hopefully will inspire a generation of young girls, particularly young black girls, to pursue an interest in math and science.

Given all of that, I still cannot help but feel Melfi’s and Schroeder’s script is a bit too by-the-numbers. Hidden Figures hits all the expected beats of a biopic, particularly one about the Civil Rights era, and while I have no doubts about the veracity of the stories it tells, I wish the writers had found a more interesting way to tell them. To be sure, the film is effective, it works on every level, but as breezy and fun as it is, it is hard not to see the gears grinding along. Hidden Figures is wonderful, but a story this unique deserves a unique telling.

Lion – Adapted from Saroo Brierly’s best-selling memoir “A Long Way Home,” Davies’ script was faced with the challenge of turning an inherently uncinematic story into a narratively propulsive film. Played in the movie by Sunny Pawar when a child and Oscar nominee Dev Patel when an adult, Brierly is a man who attempts to find his birth mother through Google Earth searches, sketchy mathematics, maps of train routes, and the power of 20-year-old memories. Not one of those things, let alone all in congress, should work on screen, but Davies, aided by the spirited and inventive direction of Garth Davis, finds the film in Brierly’s words.

The film’s first act is an incredible leap of faith on Davies’ part, telling the story of how Saroo ends up so far away from home in a nearly wordless montage of events and images. Davies rightly does not clutter the narrative with contrived dialogue or over-simplified exposition; rather, he allows the audience to become a part of Saroo’s world, to see through his eyes the experience of being lost and alone, a stranger in a strange land. By the time we get to the search later in Saroo’s life, we are so heavily invested in the character we would watch him do anything to achieve his goal. That ultimately is the trick of Davies script – though gifted a compelling story that peaks curiosity, the film’s character-first approach ensures empathy.

Arrival – I have not read Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” on which this film is based, but word has it that it is unfilmable. Well, Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve put lie to that assertion definitively. We have talked a lot about the looping narrative structure of Arrival and how its various nominated crafts contribute to its success. Of course, that narrative structure begins with the script, which operates throughout on two levels – as a straight science-fiction thriller and as an impressionistic mystery, which does not reveal its secrets until the denouement.

Arrival certainly stands out on Heisserer’s résumé, which is mostly horror, including the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot and The Thing remake/reboot/prequel. Heisserer also wrote and directed Hours, one of Paul Walker’s final films, which I have not seen. Without meaning this as a knock, nothing in Heisserer’s limited oeuvre suggests the levels of sophistication, subtly, and compassion on display in Arrival, and one hopes he has further opportunities to show off his skills on material worthy of them.

The final analysis

It has been 18 years since a film not nominated for Best Picture won this category, and that streak continues this year with every nominee cited for both this and the top award. This is just the third time since the expansion of the Best Picture category all five Adapted Screenplay nominees are recognized in both places, and the feat was even rarer before the rules change.

Best Picture heat obviously helps in this category, and with Moonlight sitting in the catbird seat to play spoiler, it is the prohibitive favorite to win here. Most likely right on its heels is Hidden Figures, which will appeal most broadly to the Academy as a whole and is the kind of witty, inspirational script for which members like to vote. Fences is probably running third, and Wilson is unlikely to pick up a posthumous Oscar, though his legacy hardly needs the additional honor. In point of fact, a Wilson win would do more for the Academy than any other group or person, proof the members are hip enough and smart enough to award a once-in-an-empire talent.

Will win: Moonlight
Should win: Fences
Should have been here: Love & Friendship

Tomorrow: Best Supporting Actor

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