OSCAR GUIDE: Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Posted by · 11:17 am · March 1st, 2010

Peter Capaldi in In the LoopIn most cases, the adapted screenplay category of a given Oscar race is packed with Best Picture nominees or contenders. This year, however, there was a nice balance of adapted and original screenplays in the Best Picture category, and in fact, of the “top five” films that trickled down throughout the season, three were original and two were adapted, a rarity.

Regarding the adaptations, things seemed to firm up for a while, but with the various WGA ineligibilities, one couldn’t shake the feeling that a surprise was in the works. At the end of the day, Scott Cooper’s run on “Crazy Heart” came to an unfortunate end, while a fan-fave British comedy found support.

The nominees are:

“District 9” (Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell)
“An Education” (Nick Hornby)
“In the Loop” (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche)
“Precious” (Geoffrey Fletcher)
“Up in the Air” (Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner)

Like with most screenplay races, it’s safe to look to crossover Best Picture nominees when trying to predict a winner. While there are four in the field this year, only two are from that anointed “top five,” so I would say the race is between those two films.

But that should take nothing away from what Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell did with “District 9,” an instant science-fiction classic that has enjoyed quite the unlikely awards run, especially for the writing, this season. The unfortunate thing is, to say nothing of Sharlto Copley’s consistent snubs as lead actor of the piece, he doesn’t get his fair shake here, either. Even Blomkamp and Tatchell will tell you he improvised virtually all of his dialogue, adding even more to what they conjured on the page than they could have imagined. Nevertheless, it’s been a healthy season for this film, which isn’t likely to walk away from the Kodak with any Oscars in hand. But clearly it didn’t need 10 nominees to get a screenplay nomination, and that, I think, is a favorable statement for the writers’ branch.

Author-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby was unfortunately one of the many scripts, along with “District 9,” actually, that was deemed ineligible by the WGA because of signatory concerns. Everyone and their mother knew he and “An Education” would pull out a notice here regardless, and so here he sits, one of three major nominations for the film, which has endured a long ride ever since Sundance 2009. Taking off of London Times journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir of her 1960s coming of age, Hornby turned out a tender, considerate, insightful study of the emotional perils of youth. He also subtly worked up an ensemble piece that would be cat-nip for actors looking for that spirit of community, and in tandem with Lone Scherfig’s direction, yielded one of the year’s best dramas.

The surprise in the category was Armando Iannucci and company’s nod for “In the Loop,” an irreverent summer politi-comedy that got quite the screener push and, despite not being eligible for WGA consideration, slid into the final field of five. If any screenplay of the lot bows at the altar of dialogue and sharp wit, this is certainly it. Sometimes when voters are sitting down to pick a screenplay winner, the truth is, they think about the dialogue more so than important things like structure or theme execution, etc. So in a parallel universe, this would be an upset possibility to keep an eye on. The only problem is, while the writers were successfully solicited, it’s not entirely likely that the Academy at large has seen the film or has an opinion on it, so it’s probably an uphill battle for the British invasion.

Another film that has endured the long journey from Sundance 2009 is “Precious,” which ultimately became one of the no-brainers in this category. Writer Geoffrey Fletcher was teaching at NYU and Columbia when Lee Daniels found him and tapped him to adapt Sapphire’s novel “Push,” which has quite the devoted following — a following that didn’t think it’s pages could yield a film. Fletcher proved that it was an inherently cinematic story and put forth quite the impressive adaptation, taken in a bold stylistic direction with Daniels at the helm. The script has a lot going for it, not least of which being a balance of tone, gracefully moving from the harrowing to the heartwarming. If there is any film truly threatening the perceived frontrunner of the category this year, I’d say this is it.

But the frontrunner, as it were, doesn’t look like it’ll have any trouble getting in and out of the Kodak unscathed. “Up in the Air” has had quite the interesting ride since its Telluride and Toronto unveilings. It went from potential Best Picture nominee to sure-thing Best Picture victor before finally getting overshadowed by “Avatar” in the December push. Actor George Clooney seemed to have a bead on a trophy until Jeff Bridges jumped into the race at the last minute. But one thing few have really been able to argue against (including the BAFTA, which had plenty of home-grown efforts to choose from) is Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner’s adaptation. There were some close PR calls with an arbitration dispute and the novel’s author, Walter Kirn, embarrassing himself on Twitter, but they likely did little to derail this express.

Will win: “Up in the Air”
Could win: “Precious”
Should win: “Up in the Air”

Should have been here: “Star Trek”

(from left) George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay? Have your say in the sidebar poll!

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34 responses so far

  • 1 3-01-2010 at 11:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “In the Loop” gets my vote quite easily, particularly after a second viewing — I initially feared it was too televisually quippy, but gradually a very tight screwball structure emerges from beneath all those words.

    “District 9,” as much as I like it, shouldn’t really be here, given that its chief flaw — the abandonment of its principal structural conceit halfway through — is one of writing.

  • 2 3-01-2010 at 11:33 am

    James D. said...

    Kris, who would you bump in favor of Star Trek?

    I root, against all likelihood, for an In the Loop win.

  • 3 3-01-2010 at 11:34 am

    RyanT said...

    The two films Guy mentioned would be my top two. With “Up in the Air” a distant third.

  • 4 3-01-2010 at 11:38 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    *sigh* If only Fantastic Mr. Fox were here…

  • 5 3-01-2010 at 11:50 am

    stylewriter said...

    I have to agree with Guy on both District 9 and In the Loop. I’m not a District 9 fan so I don’t think it deserved most of the nominations it received, but especially this one. I can think of quite a few films — A Single Man, Star Trek, Crazy Heart to name just a few — much more deserving.

  • 6 3-01-2010 at 11:51 am

    MovieMan said...

    Will win: “Up in the Air”
    Could win: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
    Should win: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
    Should have been here: none

    Commentary: I have not seen “In the Loop,” so I can’t comment on it. The writing for “An Education” gets a little lost at times, and the film more or less rides on Carey Mulligan’s performance and Lone Scherfig’s direction. “District 9” is an excellent sci-fi film (much better than the wildly overpraised “Avatar”), but nevertheless the third act does get a wee repetitive. The writing for “Up in the Air” is absolutely excellent, destined to win, and the film was on my top ten of the year, but the final five minutes were a bit off-the-mark, which is why it still didn’t get four stars from me. Indeed, if any film this year needed its final moments to resonate and make the film a masterpiece, it was “Precious,” which DID get four stars from me and which is my pick for the most deserving of the nominees.

  • 7 3-01-2010 at 11:55 am

    JCS said...

    *sigh* If only The Informant! were here…

    There was an interesting article a while back, I can’t remember where or who wrote it, that really dug into the writers for nominating “crap choices” like District 9 (which I like, but is a very borderline case for its inclusion) at the expense of other things like the aforementioned Informant!

    The writer in question said that the only good nominee was In the Loop, which would far and away get my vote if I was an Oscar voter. As much as I liked Up in the Air, I liked it in a Love, Actually sort of way: it becomes waaaay to sentimental towards the end, and even the final bit can’t save it from the cardboard-cut-out motif running all the way through.

  • 8 3-01-2010 at 11:56 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    James: I really didn’t like In the Loop, so probably that one. It all felt so…familiar. But that’s me.

  • 9 3-01-2010 at 12:03 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ stylewriter: Actually, if I’m not mistaken, Star Trek, Crazy Heart and A Single Man would all be considered adapted screenplays.

  • 10 3-01-2010 at 12:05 pm

    Cameron said...

    Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers were robbed of the nomination. That’s not to say that these nominees aren’t deserving, but it would have been nice to see those two at the Kodak.

  • 11 3-01-2010 at 12:06 pm

    ScreenSavour said...

    I think a great adapted screenplay should not only succeed on its own storytelling merits, but balance its connection to the source material while differentiating itself as a unique entity. This is why I’m continually disappointed by this category and usually by its winners, but c’est la vie.

    This year’s isn’t as bad as last year’s. “In the Loop” and “Up in the Air” are the best screenplays here, I think, and ultimately my vote would go toward “Up in the Air.” “In the Loop,” while devilishly clever, ended for me as satire with deeper wounds still left to inflict. Whatever the behind-the-scenes troubles “Up in the Air” has had, one thing for certain is that it’s an extensive adaptation that, for me anyway, seemed quite alive as both an adaptation and as a screenplay. (Genetically, Kirn’s novel and Reitman’s film are more like cousins than twins.)

  • 12 3-01-2010 at 12:08 pm

    ScreenSavour said...

    Oh, and I should mention I would have enjoyed nominations for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and, because the Academy decreed it should belong here instead of in Original, “Bright Star.”

  • 13 3-01-2010 at 12:13 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    It actually really bothers me that Up in the Air is considered good screenwriting, but I just gotta take my lumps.

  • 14 3-01-2010 at 12:17 pm

    red_wine said...

    Up In The Air is such a tired cliche choice. A nice Best Picture nominee? Lets throw it a bone since it will go home empty-handed otherwise.

    Its a 3/4 nice screenplay, the last half hour it devolves into an afternoon soap era. But I like the screenplay and wouldn’t fret if it won.

    But by golly this award belongs to In The Loop. I mean wow, I went nuts over the movie when I first saw it. Absolutely adore it.
    I agree with Guy, its very TV, you can clearly see its a low-budget production but I know its also one of the smartest and most savage critiques of the diplomacy leading upto the Iraq war and I’m gonna watch it over and over.

    Precious? ugh. I think the movie is borderline ridiculous. And District 9 was a truly awful nomination. After the first half hour, its an extremely mediocre sci-fi movie.
    An Education is good but too vanilla, too tame, too safe, and ends too nicely, the stakes never seem that high at all specially if you can put a nice little bow on it and say with a smile “this is what I learnt”.
    Fish Tank was much more daring and felt truer and it actually felt like something was at stake.

    The most inexcusable omission is Fantastic Mr. Fox. I don’t love the movie but the screenplay is magnificent, so much so that I wouldn’t have minded had it beaten In The Loop.

  • 15 3-01-2010 at 12:20 pm

    Jim T said...

    Chad, you’re not alone.

  • 16 3-01-2010 at 12:35 pm

    The InSneider said...

    Kris, how did Kirn embarrass himself on Twitter? Just curious…

  • 17 3-01-2010 at 1:03 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    @Guy: I think the change of that conceit is a lot more gradual than you’re giving it credit for. Throughout the eviction, the documentary element is predominant, but then the camera starts existing outside of the world of the film with the elements with Christopher Johnson. In fact, there’s a pretty wonderful back-and-forth when they evict Christopher Johnson where the camera is clearly documentary and clearly not. So it doesn’t drop it out of nowhere: it’s a very subtle and gradual shift. And as a matter of fact, it works perfectly because, within the context of the story, it’s exactly where filmed documentation of Wikus would cease. And even so, there are certain elements of news documentation later (with Christopher Johnson’s ship taking flight) throughout the film. The weaving in and out of documentary and fictional/narrative cinema (for lack of a better word) is actually quite deft and brilliantly realized by Tatchell and (particularly) Blomkamp.

  • 18 3-01-2010 at 1:29 pm

    Me. said...

    Will Win: Up in the Air
    Should Win: An Education
    Should Have Been Nominated: Bright Star and Where the Wild Things Are
    Yet to see: In the Loop

    I saw “The Last Station” this weekend. Really liked it. I loved the ending (almost cried), the music, the costume design (robbed!) and I thought Christopher Plummer completely incarnated Leo Tolstoy. Amazing performance. Helen Mirren, on the other hand, overacted to the point were I found myself laughing really hard.

  • 19 3-01-2010 at 3:36 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Note to self: Don’t write comments on InContention while coming off of a hangover…

  • 20 3-01-2010 at 4:06 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    Bleecch. Up in the Air isn’t terrible, and it deserves a nod, but as long as In the Loop is a nominee (which is, by the way, one of my favorite nomination morning surprises in the three years I’ve been following this stupid thing) it should win.
    I know that by now this complaint has been aired over and over again, but still, the twist of Alex being married was really contrived and bizarre. There were other ways to make the ending unhappy and more subtly hammer home the themes Reitman was trying to get across, but it just felt like he took the easiest path.

  • 21 3-01-2010 at 5:17 pm

    Henry said...

    I liked Up In the Air a lot better than some people, and still scratch my head at the reactions. My best friend was seriously involved with a businessman only to discover that he was already married. So I don’t find the ending implausible at all. Up in the Air is a movie that avoids well-trodden subjects, but instead hits on so many current and substantial issues: the recession, the changing face of business and the impact that has on human relationships. It’s the only road warrior businessman story out there. It just felt really fresh to me.

  • 22 3-01-2010 at 5:19 pm

    Henry said...

    I could be wrong, but I think the reason Up in the Air gets such a negative reaction out of some people is because it’s too effective in evoking over commercialization and dehumanization. Clooney is too stoic. The recession is too awkward to look at. It’s not fun for people. But ask yourself: Does that really make the script “bad?” Or does it make it so effective that it’s not entertaining?

  • 23 3-01-2010 at 6:07 pm

    KBJr. said...

    I’m glad to see one of my favorite films of 2009 (easily makes the Top 5), “In The Loop” getting some love in the Comments section.

    Having seen all films (except “An Education”) my favorite screenplay, bar none, is “In The Loop”…the film is just downright cleverly written. The words are so sharp and the characters so well written, you forget the film’s “The Office”-like structure and laugh your ass off.

    As stated above, “Up In The Air” seems a lazy choice to me. I know Kris mentioned that ‘Loop’ seemed “familiar” to him…I’d contend that not only does ‘Air’ seem familiar, it’s pedestrian. It’s an easy, safe, establishment choice for a screenplay victory…but it’s not the best screenplay. Not even close.

    I’d rank ‘Precious’ second, if for nothing else than Mary Jones and her vile lyricism. Having read the book, Fletcher does a brilliant job translating this monster to screen, and giving her words (in the book, Mary barely has any direct dialogue).

  • 24 3-01-2010 at 6:08 pm

    KBJr. said...

    P.S. Kris,

    Did I mention how much I am LOVING these Oscar Guides?

  • 25 3-01-2010 at 6:17 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Up in the Air” for me. Such a wonderfully human script that hits all the right emotional notes, and at the same time always feels thematically coherent and incisive. The dialogue is wondrous.

    I just saw “In the Loop,” actually, and if there’s one screenplay that could give the former some trouble it’s this one. Would be a very, very close second choice.

    Should have been here: “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

  • 26 3-01-2010 at 9:50 pm

    clydefontaine said...

    “In The Loop” is this year’s “In Bruges”, and I mean that in a complimentary sense. Everything dialogue should be this side of Tarantino.

  • 27 3-01-2010 at 10:26 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Thanks, KBJr. Glad they’re working.

  • 28 3-02-2010 at 1:52 am

    Mike said...

    up in the air is my pick.
    Avatar just cannot make it – http://www.tomedes.com/2010-Oscar-winner.php

  • 29 3-02-2010 at 4:39 am

    JCS said...


    From the people I’ve spoken to, and this certainly may not be the consensus for the people against ‘Up in the Air’, the view seems to be that UitA is good in its George Clooney goes around the world firing people storyline, but not when the sister’s wedding storyline goes into the foreground. Some reviews in the UK have commented unfavourably on how the complete tonal shift 3/4 of the way through shakes the film up in the wrong way.

  • 30 3-02-2010 at 9:17 am

    The Dude said...

    Reitman’s film ends up getting too preachy and simplistic in the end to win this (a problem not completely different from An Education’s).

    So, if there’s a God, District 9 will win this easily. But I’m an Atheist, so…

    And Fantastic Mr. Fox not only should have been there, but would be a great candidate for the win.

    Also, anyone thinks this was a weak year for the category? The Original Screenplay one seems so much stronger, it could easily have 10 nominees and still be strong (if of course they wouldn’t waste this extra 5 noms on the likes of Avatar ).

  • 31 3-02-2010 at 9:19 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Also, anyone thinks this was a weak year for the category?”

    Not compared to the horrors of last year.

  • 32 3-02-2010 at 10:39 am

    ScreenSavour said...

    Yeah, last year’s Adapted Screenplay category was just awful. This year’s category could have been much better (the three films I mentioned above would have been wonderful substitutions for “District 9,” “An Education,” and “Precious,” in my opinion, and would have caused me a few sleepless nights as I chose between them all). But at least this year there’s one film I’m happy to support.