Oscars 2010: Original and Adapted Screenplays


When a film does well, it’s usually the director that gets all the credit. There are many cases where the director and writer are one in the same, but the director is the position of prestige. In a director-centric movie world, few people walk out of the theater and say “wow, that was a killer screenplay.”

To be fair, the script is the source material for which the rest of the movie is made. It is interpreted and imagined, cast often times after the fact. What’s on the page could be done hundreds of different ways in the hands of any variety of directors, producers, actors, crew, etc. But as is often said, no great film comes from a bad screenplay. Maybe from an okay screenplay, but never a bad screenplay. It is the foundation and as such it receives a place of honor on the list of Academy Awards categories. Still beneath director, but high up there no less.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

  • Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
  • Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker
  • Joel and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man
  • Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman for The Messenger
  • Bob Peterson, Pete Docter for Up

Original screenplays are more rare than you think. Even a completely unique and original film like District 9 was a short film by Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell prior to being expanded into a motion picture. They had to prove their vision first before they could really make a movie.

Producers want as close to a sure thing as they can get. It’s easier to take a chance on a film based on a popular novel or other source than risk it on some aspiring screenwriter’s never-before-heard-of story. With the former, you have at least some kind of audience’s attention before you even get started.

This year’s nominees are pretty strong and that’s a great thing. For many, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is tops. After proving himself with the Oscar-winning script for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s work became instantly reputable, allowing the Weinstein Co. to easily sweep up his “Basterds” script and his other efforts since.

The other veteran nomination went to the Coen brothers for yet another phenomenal script in A Serious Man, quite possibly the most intelligent script on the list.

Then there’s a guy like Mark Boal, whose only previous work was a story credit for In the Valley of Elah. This is a heck of a story: a guy who comes up with a screenplay as dynamite as The Hurt Locker. Completely original. As such he won the BAFTA, Writers Guild Award as well as numerous other area film critics awards.

Along the lines of originality you also have a similar unique war film in The Messenger plus Pixar geniuses Pete Docter and Bob Johnson following along the lines of last year’s winner in this category, their colleague Andrew Stanton, creator of WALL*E.

Each of these nominees brings something different. Boal’s script is impeccably suspenseful while highlighting a new way to think about action and war. Tarantino writes some of the most dynamic and powerful scenes ever in “Basterds.” Then there are of course the Coens who pack gems into every second of their film. It’s also worth mentioning Avatar is missing from this list. A heck of a year for originality.

Prediction: Mark Boal for “The Hurt Locker”

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

  • Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air
  • Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for District 9
  • Nick Hornby for An Education
  • Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
  • Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armondo Iannucci, Ian Martin, Tony Roche for In the Loop

Adapting existing material for the big screen is a challenge in itself. It’s easy to champion originality, but one of the real challenges is taking something successful in one medium and making it work as a film without veering too far away from the original material. How many times have you heard “it’s not as good as the book”? Well, that phrase doesn’t apply to these films.

Up in the Air could get shut out of every other category it was nominated in, but it shouldn’t fail on this front. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner took Walter Kirn’s novel and turned it into something better than the original from what I can tell. Reitman deserves at least one accolade for this terrific film – my favorite of the year – and after winning the Golden Globe and Writers Guild Award for this script, it seems likely.

Many people might turn on the Oscars this year just to see how District 9 holds up. Other than Best Picture, this is the category where it has the biggest presence. As we saw with the animated movie 9 this year, it’s not easy to expand a short film into one of feature length, but District 9 was brilliant. The inventiveness, the allegory, the fictional documentary style – it all made this a one-of-a-kind film.

English writer Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy) sounds pretty deserving as well for An Education and the writing team behind Brit political comedy In the Loop has apparently made one of the funnier more quotable movies of the year. I was also impressed with some of the unique ideas in Geoffrey Fletcher’s adaptation of Push by Sapphire, but it’s competing against too many films that while adapted are fairly original.

Prediction: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air

Side Note: I wrote both these without knowing who won the WGA awards and only added that information in, so it happens to be that I predicted in accordance with the WGA, not because of the WGA awards.

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