Note: This is part of a series of Oscar pieces hosted by the LAMB. Check it out!
I think usually the Best Adapted Screenplay goes to the movie that goes on to win Best Picture. Which is predictable and boring, but there you go. The Academy is not exactly known for its dramatic surprises. It’s known to pull a shocker out of its sleeve from time to time, but usually not in the Adapted Screenplay category.
But what, exactly, does Best Adapted Screenplay mean? According to Wikipedia it’s awarded to the writer who made the transition from book/play/short story to film look the easiest. Basically, who took a crappy novel and made it palatable enough for the silver screen?
This year the nominees matched the Best Picture nominees almost name for name, with the exception of Doubt. Well, I like to read, and even though I’ve only read one of the nominees beginning to end, I have watched all of them and that puts me pretty much on par with the rest of the Academy. This year we have two plays (Doubt and Frost/Nixon), two novels (The Reader and Q&A aka Slumdog Millionaire) and one short story (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). The Reader, a novel by Bernard Schlink, addresses generational guilt issues and personal and moral issues coming into conflict. A young German boy begins a secret love affair with a woman old enough to be his mother and against his better judgment falls in love with her. One day she suddenly disappears and he goes on with his life. Then he sees her in court as a defendant. It turns out she served as a Nazi prison guard at Auschwitz during WWII and was responsible for the extermination of many, many Jews. The novel itself was on Oprah’s Book Club list, so I’m guessing it wasn’t a bad book to begin with. And the movie that was made with wasn’t bad per se, particularly not as bad as most Dark Knight fanatics make it out to be, but it sure is Oscar-baity. Illicit love, dramatic atonement scenes, illiteracy, the horrors of the NAZIS. But it’s not a book solely about the Holocaust and I think in general this was a solid reinterpretation from page to screen. It reminded me of Minghella’s work (RIP!) in so many ways, but I think that was more the direction than anything else. So, not a bad job.
Q&A, a novel by Vikas Swarup, adapted into Slumdog Millionaire. If what the critics say is true, the original book was not that good. And I believe it. Half the time I was watching the movie I was thinking how this movie shouldn’t be working, but it somehow was. An uneducated “slumdog” called Jamal (I think he’s called Ram in the novel) wins 20 million rupees on the gameshow Who Wants to be a Millionaire? because d) it is written. Plus, he’s in love with a chick named Latika and he gets her too. With every question we flashback to a time in Jamal’s life, a memorable moment that caused him to just know the answer. You see how this can get tiresome? But somehow the adaptors add just enough variation to the story and in the end you’re surprised by much you enjoyed it. At least I was.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now this one I have actually read, and the story is kinda boring. Sue me, but I don’t like Fitzgerald. Essentially the story is about how Benjamin Button grows younger. He has a wife, and a kid, and he progresses from taking care of them to them taking care of him. Then he dies when he’s a baby. Factually the details are not the same at all, but I think the movie managed to grasp upon the story’s fundamental theme – whether we go from womb to tomb or the other way around life is still short and filled with complications – quite well. And they added a love story, which was cute but not cloying, and a visual feast for the eyes. Many compare it to Forrest Gump, but I see no such similarities other than the whole progress-through-history-thing.
Doubt: A Parable, a play by John Patrick Shanley. A play about moral ambiguity and yes, doubt. Set in a rigid Catholic school trying to adapt to the changing racial environment, the ultra-conservative Sister Aloysius wages a verbal battle against the more liberal Father Flynn about whether he sexually abused a black student. Whether the allegations are true or not, Sister Aloysius has no proof whatsoever and the vendetta seems to be more personal if anything else. It’s a meaty, literary type of play, and one much better suited on the stage than on celluloid. Here the themes play awkwardly and Shanley doesn’t take advantage of film’s spacious medium to connect with the audience on a personal level. It’s a weighty story, to be sure, but not a particularly good one.
Frost/Nixon, a play by Peter Morgan. The story was fundamentally unchanged. Basically the tv show host David Frost hosts a series of interviews with the recent-resigned Richard Nixon and tries to coax a confession out of him. At its root the play is an intense character study drawing parallels between two superficially different men. I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but I thought it was one of the best movies of the year. I think play adaptations are the hardest to pull off, because usually the original playwrights do it. I don’t think they exactly have a good scope of how expansive movies can really be since they’re so used to the constricts of the stage. Now I haven’t seen the play itself, but I can imagine this film version to be better. We got some actual scenery, some seamless scene transitions, and the dialogue wasn’t as stilted as plays can get to be. And, you know, the characters got to move around a little too.
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire, and I’m willing to bet a sizeable amount of money on this one. At this point the momentum of Slumdog is too huge to be ignored, and it’s quite a good adaptation to boot.
If I had a vote: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here is a case where the story was almost entirely created by the authors. Basically Swicord and Roth took the fundamental premise of Fitzgerald’s story – that living is hard no matter which way you’re going – and stretched it into an unconventional love story also relevant to today’s current events. It did have a humongous running time, however - but I wouldn’t say it was ever boring.