OSCAR GUIDE: Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Posted by · 10:05 am · February 7th, 2011

This year’s race for Best Adapted Screenplay has seemingly been the most predictable of the year. One script has dominated the precursor circuit and the name behind that script is as worthy as ever given his contributions to the medium over the years.

I’m not particularly a fan of this slate. One script is an interesting experiment that doesn’t fully land as a piece of screenwriting, another is a near word-for-word adaptation of a novel (which is fine, but credit where it’s due) and another, frankly, made for the most overrated film of the year. But the two that seem to be duking it out for the win are worthy and deserve to be here, in my opinion, so I have little room to complain.

The nominees are:

“127 Hours” (Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy)
“The Social Network” (Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin)
“Toy Story 3” (Screenplay by Michael Arndt; Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)
“True Grit” (Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
“Winter’s Bone” (Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini)

Each of the nominees is also a Best Picture nominee, unlike in the Best Original Screenplay category. It’s possible the race is over and done with, but in a season of surprises, I wouldn’t count on things being locked down for any competitor.

Many were surprised at the six-nomination haul for “127 Hours” this year. Others, interestingly enough, thought it would land more. It’s an odd in-the-middle film and I still can’t be completely sure how the Academy has responded. But I imagine the screenplay race is the least of its potential. Unfortunately, the Academy at large thinks of dialogue when it comes to screenplays, more than formal aspects such as structure, mechanics, etc. And this is a one man show. But it’s an interesting vision of Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, and if nothing else, a unique one. It was audacious, throwing the rules out the window, hungry for something fresh. That being said, 2008’s Oscar winner isn’t likely to repeat given the competition.

The frontrunner in the category could seemingly be argued as an original screenplay, given the reportage to date. But no one bothered arguing it and here we are, with Aaron Sorkin in the driver’s seat for his “adaptation” of Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.” Indeed, the best place to reward “The Social Network,” regardless of that, would be for its writing. Sorkin’s whip-smart dialogue has always been a point of discussion, but he also finds intriguing visual juxtaposition along the way, and a structure that allowed for multiple takes on a clearly multi-sided story. It would be a total shock if someone else’s name were called on Oscar night, so it’s safe to chalk this one up as a gimme.

But if that shock is going to come, I really think it would be the crew behind “Toy Story 3” that is waiting to pick up the ball and run with it. It would be a second Oscar for Michael Arndt but more importantly, it would be validation for the Pixar process. How fitting, then, that Pixar heavies John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton would also win the award, alongside director Lee Unkrich, as they each have a story credit. It’s worth noting that a single name on a script is an asset when it comes to the Oscars (not as messy), but multiple names on the ticket for this film pretty much tells the Pixar tale of workshopping and collaboration, etc. That’s before we get to the idea that this would be another chance for the Academy to vote with its heart. Crazy, I know. But crazier things have happened.

Speaking earlier of dialogue, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen lifted the best Charles Portis had to offer (which was plenty) for their adaptation of “True Grit.” The language bounces along like a melody through this atmospheric western, one that might have signaled the beginning of a renaissance (after a number of false starts) considering its box office haul. The film itself scooped up 10 Oscar nominations, second only to the year’s Best Picture frontrunner. So clearly, the Academy liked the film. But there remains that hurdle which would always pose a problem for traditional types: remaking a John Wayne classic. Unfortunately so few seem to recall how bad that films as and how genuine and expertly rendered this one is, but nevertheless, I would actually say this is a lurking spoiler possibility.

Finally there is “Winter’s Bone” from Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell. The script was recognized by the USC Libraries as a Scripter finalist, though it was not eligible for WGA consideration. There is a passion base for the film, which explains its showing up in the Best Picture category this year. Even if it’s a moody yarn, it’s still bogged down in backwoods stereotypes. Last year’s winner here was hit with similar accusations, interestingly enough. Regardless, there is clearly a sect of the membership that loved this film. And there is support from the biggest branch, given the two acting nods. But I doubt all of that will be enough to even thrust it into a competitive position here, so chalk it up as the nomination is the reward.

Will win: “The Social Network”
Could win: “Toy Story 3”
Should win: “The Social Network”

Should have been here: “I Love You Phillip Morris”

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves to win the award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)? Have your say in today’s sidebar poll!

[Photos: Roadside Attractions, Columbia Pictures]

→ 39 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Oscar Guide

39 responses so far

  • 1 2-07-2011 at 10:19 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    Should have been here: “Rabbit Hole”

  • 2 2-07-2011 at 10:20 am

    SC said...

    I’m all for Sorkin winning. I just hope it doesn’t swell his head too much, because when that happens he can go from being one of the best working writers to insufferably full of himself (see: “Studio 60”).

    I liked “Winter’s Bone”, but I wouldn’t say the screenplay is its strength. If anything, the acting and direction work hard to disguise how simple the story actually is.

  • 3 2-07-2011 at 10:24 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I liked Studio 60.

  • 4 2-07-2011 at 10:44 am

    SC said...

    I couldn’t stand that show. Self-important to the extreme, and not nearly as clever or funny as it seemed to think it was. “The West Wing” is my all-time favourite TV show, so it was a huge disappointment.

    I have high hopes for his next TV series, though.

  • 5 2-07-2011 at 10:44 am

    Rashad said...

    I believe True Grit was funnier, and more authentic. I hope they win.

    Am I alone in thinking 127 Hours doesn’t belong? I agree with Kris; I Love You Phillip Morris should be there. Funniest movie I’ve seen all year

  • 6 2-07-2011 at 10:47 am

    Alex in Movieland said...

    Toy Story 3 for the win!!! :D

  • 7 2-07-2011 at 11:05 am

    James D. said...


  • 8 2-07-2011 at 11:12 am

    KBJr. said...

    I’m puzzled by the acclaim that “Winter’s Bone” received. I recently saw the film and couldn’t muster one positive thing to say about it. Everything was overrated, starting with the Lawrence and Hawks performances. And a screenplay nomination is just silly. I hate to be so simple, but the movie was just dumb. I didn’t get it at all.

    Mood wise (and even thematically) it reminds me of the brilliant ‘Frozen River’…only it’s the trashy step-child of that film.

  • 9 2-07-2011 at 11:25 am

    Andrej said...

    I agree 100% your will, could, should and should have been here, Kris. I’d add How to Train Your Dragon to the ‘should have been here’, and that’s it.

  • 10 2-07-2011 at 11:28 am

    Jeremy said...

    I’m still confused why “Toy Story 3” is here rather than in the original category. Is it just that they’re basing the story off previously existing characters? Or did they give a story credit to “Cool Hand Luke”?

  • 11 2-07-2011 at 11:31 am

    Rashad said...

    obviously it’s the characters.

  • 12 2-07-2011 at 11:32 am

    Someone said...

    I would be more than happy if “TS3” wins this but I know it won’t happen. IMO “WB” has better chances to win with Sorkin.

  • 13 2-07-2011 at 11:37 am

    JJ1 said...

    I think Winter’s Bone’s strengths are in it’s acting, cinematography, & outdoor sets, not it’s writing. Where WAS this awards-worthy writing?

  • 14 2-07-2011 at 11:49 am

    Anita said...

    Unless the Academy really has it in for The Social Network (and with eight noms, I don’t think they do), they really can’t justify denying it its only safe bet for a win, can they?

    If it becomes a battle of previous winners, the Coens should take it.

  • 15 2-07-2011 at 11:56 am

    americanrequeim said...

    “Him with the mustchaes”

  • 16 2-07-2011 at 12:00 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Anita: Sound logic, but I said the exact same thing last year about “Up in the Air”, and look what happened there.

  • 17 2-07-2011 at 12:11 pm

    Anita said...

    I was thinking about the Up in the Air/Precious debacle, but for some reason, I feel like Sorkin is in a stronger position than Reitman was. And if it was truly based on merit, Sorkin’s is one of the best screenplays in recent memory.

  • 18 2-07-2011 at 1:25 pm

    red_wine said...

    Will win: “The Social Network”
    Could win: “True Grit”
    Should win: “Toy Story 3”
    Should have been here: “Wild Grass ”

  • 19 2-07-2011 at 1:44 pm

    Scott said...

    I already said shut up once with my mouth…

    If you don’t get Winter’s Bone, it is probably because you’ve never been exposed to the dark little corner of the country it portrays.

  • 20 2-07-2011 at 2:19 pm

    Sam C. said...

    Am I the only one who found a lot of the “gotcha” zingers in The Social Network to…not really make sense?

    Like, “if you knew what you were looking for, you would have seen it written on my dormroom window.” How is that a zinger?

    It truly is a shame so much is given to the dialogue in these races, when a true story-telling script is barely rewarded.

  • 21 2-07-2011 at 3:05 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “If you don’t get Winter’s Bone, it is probably because you’ve never been exposed to the dark little corner of the country it portrays.”


  • 22 2-07-2011 at 3:27 pm

    Mayukh said...

    I can’t wait for people to stop calling Winter’s Bone overrated.

  • 23 2-07-2011 at 3:41 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Nicolas Mancuso stole the words right out of my mouth with comment #1.

  • 24 2-07-2011 at 5:32 pm

    E said...

    Can anyone tell me why “Toy Story 3” is in the adapted screenplay category? What is it an adaptation of? An original story idea by Stanton, Lasseter and Unkrich? That doesn’t make sense to me.

  • 25 2-07-2011 at 6:03 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I feel like we’ve answered this over and over again all year, but everyone gather round and we’ll address it ONE MORE TIME:

    Toy Story 3 is an adapted screenplay because it is based on previously existing characters. Much like Before Sunset a few years ago. Any sequel, therefore, is considered an adapted screenplay.

  • 26 2-07-2011 at 6:36 pm

    E said...

    Ah, thanks. I’m a new reader here, so I hadn’t read the answer before. Appreciate your patience. Still seems odd to me since, for example, “The King’s Speech” and “The Fighter” are also based on “previously existing characters,” but those are considered original screenplays. Oh well.

  • 27 2-07-2011 at 7:59 pm

    Cordy said...

    E, they are not fictional characters. It is adapted if it is based on a character, but original if based on a person

  • 28 2-07-2011 at 10:05 pm

    E said...

    Yeah, I get that now, Cordy, but it still seems odd to me that creating a whole new story for a set of characters you created for a previous film is considered an act of “adaptation.” The category used to be called “Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium,” and it seems clear that Toy Story 3 and Before Sunset wouldn’t fall under that heading, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you think “adaptation” would have more to do with turning a previously existing *story* into a film than just writing new stories for preexisting characters? I bet Toy Story 3 wasn’t eligible for the USC Scripter award, was it?

  • 29 2-07-2011 at 10:33 pm

    Christian said...

    E, the Scripters *only* award *book (or graphic novel)-to-film* adaptations. Different beast than the Oscar Adapted Screenplay.

  • 30 2-07-2011 at 10:36 pm

    Christian said...

    Also, the category was renamed in the 90s as Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. Renamed again as Adapted Screenplay recently (for obvious space reasons, lol).

  • 31 2-07-2011 at 11:10 pm

    Hans said...

    It’s still interesting seeing a “story by” credit among Adapted Screenplay nominees. Weird rule, but makes sense: half your battle in writing an original screenplay is creating and fashioning and tweaking your characters. A sequel has that part done already.

    This is completely random and inconsequential question, but is the wording here the way they are officially credited? What’s the difference between “Written for the screen” vs. “Adapted for the screen” vs. “Screenplay by”

  • 32 2-07-2011 at 11:11 pm

    Hans said...

    Oh. I think I just realized the answer to my own question right as I hit send. It’s how they are credited in the film’s credits, right?

  • 33 2-08-2011 at 1:46 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Those each have specific designations actually, Hans.

  • 34 2-08-2011 at 4:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Winter’s Bone is my “should win” pick here, hands down. And White Material, obviously, my “should have been here.”

    I’m still curious how, if The Social Network isn’t actually an adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, the two works wound up so similar, sharing many supposedly fabricated scenes. What was the level of interaction between Sorkin and Mezrich?

  • 35 2-08-2011 at 4:59 am

    m1 said...

    Winter’s Bone had a wonderful script. What are you people talking about? The dialogue, the (SPOILER) hand-cutting scene, the development of Lawrence’s character-all brilliant. If not for The Social Network, Winter’s Bone should win.

  • 36 2-08-2011 at 5:51 am

    jlu said...

    amen. ‘rabbit hole.’

  • 37 2-08-2011 at 6:13 am

    Maxim said...

    “Like, “if you knew what you were looking for, you would have seen it written on my dormroom window.” How is that a zinger?”

    Meets my definition of a zinger (or, at least, a minor rebutal/burn). Could you explain why it doesn’t meet yours?

  • 38 2-08-2011 at 8:10 am

    Speaking English said...

    I like this category, actually, but “Winter’s Bone” is the one that shouldn’t be here. What a bland, uninteresting script.

  • 39 2-08-2011 at 4:07 pm

    daveylow said...

    I really like the screenplay for 127 Hours which tells a lot of the story visually rather than through dialog. And I agree, Rabbit Hole should have been nominated for it truly opened up the play in a good way.