Oscar Circuit: Adapted Screenplay


Faithfully and successfully adapting an original source into a workable feature film screenplay often poses itself as a daunting task to even the most seasoned writers.  Combined with the constant concern of providing a captivating narrative to drive a story, the added pressure of doing justice to the source increases expectations.  Ranging from a stage play to best-selling novels to a sweeping biopic, this year’s nominees tackle their adaptations with the vigor and mastery to propel their respective films into the life-affirming endzone, out of a hostage crisis, within safe distance from ancient aurochs, out of a morally-divisive Civil War, and into a colorful voyage of survival.

The Nominees are:

  • Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell
  • Argo – Chris Terrio
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar, Benh, Zeitlin
  • Lincoln – Tony Kushner
  • Life of Pi – David Magee

In his adaptation of the Matthew Quick novel, David O. Russell provides his Silver Linings Playbook cast with the necessary ammunition to fire off at one another with the  electric energy that’s the lifeblood of this human comedy.  As one of only two director-writer combos in this category, he exerts a masterful command over the material his actors deliver, coaxing a natural chemistry between them.  This marks the first time the three-time nominee–including Best Director for The Fighter in 2011 and this year for director and adapted screenplay– has been in contention for a writing award with the Academy.

In Daniel Day Lewis’ Best Actor acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, he admiringly addressed Tony Kushner, admitting, “every day I have to live without the immeasurable wealth of your language which reminds me every day of the impoverishment of  my own.”  Such eloquent praise reflects the general consensus of Kushner’s soaring, complexly structured screenplay for Lincoln, sourced in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  He has already been honored with the Critics Choice Award, but he still may be the safest bet for the Academy Award, many considering it his to lose.  This is the playwright’s second nomination, both coming at the hands of work with Spielberg, the first being his adapted screenplay for Munich  in 2006.

For Argo, Chris Terrio adapted the screenplay from Antonio Mendez’s book The Master of Disguise and Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article “Escape from Iran.”  Terrio staggered Affleck with how well his first draft of the screenplay dramatized a complicated historical saga, as well as his collaborative effort, making extensive on-set revisions.  Being one of the film’s many well-executed components and having already lost out to Lincoln at the Critics Choice Awards and Django Unchained at the Golden Globes, its chances at the Oscars may still be high.  This marks Terrio’s first standalone writing credit, having written screenplay material for his directorial debut in 2005’s Height, and Oscar nomination.

Benh Zeitlin teams up with Lucy Alibar to adapt her stage play “Juicy and Delicious” into one of the year’s most uniquely fantastical and subtly poignant films, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Other than David O. Russell, Zeitlin is the only other writer in the adapted category to also direct his film, which also happens to be his feature film debut.  The collaboration with Zeitlin is also Alibar’s first effort at a motion picture screenplay.  The first-time filmmakers notably caught the attention of Academy voters to become first-time nominees.

Second-time nominee David Magee realizes a theme in his adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, Life of Pi, which is common to all his films so far: imagination as a means of overcoming ordeals.  His first handling of the career-trending thematic in 2004’s Finding Neverland earned him his first nomination, and is also reflected in his underrated script for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008).  Ang Lee presumably noted the parallel between the two films when the time came to select a screenwriter for his ambitious adaptation, and Oscar may have also picked up on the cue in the voting process.

When the big day arrives, Kushner’s second politically and morally tinged script is probably Oscar’s cup of tea this year, unless they decide to go with something more unexpected (hardly ever the case).  If they opt for a more playful direction, David O. Russell may score his first win, though the Academy might feel they already fulfilled the quota for sharp-witted whimsy with last year’s recognition of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (for the original category) and Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash’s adaptation of The Descendents.  Newcomer Chris Terrio is also realistically in the running for the effective, tight narrative he delivers in Argo.  Zeitlin’s nomination is mostly a pat on the back since he’s of the writer-director variety, though it’s odd the Academy didn’t do the same honors for Stephen Chbosky, who adapted the screenplay for The Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own novel and directed it himself.  Magee rounds out the category, residing mostly in the sidelines for adapting a book largely considered unadaptable for the big screen.

Predicted winner: Lincoln – Tony Kushner


The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Anna Karenina – Tom Stoppard

  • JamDenTel

    I’m probably in the minority on this, but I think this is a terrible year for this category. It’s not a great year for adapted screenplays to begin with, but none of these scripts is better than okay. Lincoln and SLP are the best–and the most likely winners–but I wouldn’t even nominate them.

    I had a lot of issues with Beasts, but on reflection I could live with it winning this. It’s not like I have a favorite. As for Anna Karenina being snubbed…I truly don’t see it.

    My own winner would be the Norwegian thriller Headhunters.