A Retrospective Look at the Past 10 Oscars Winners of Adapted Screenplay

The Oscars don’t mean anything in the long run. I mean it when I say that. They do not a great or enjoyable film make. And they also don’t immortalize a film, necessarily. I mean who remembers “Crash” except in the context that it unfairly won over “Brokeback Mountain”?

That being said, there is merit in looking at why exactly these films are considered good and even superior to other films, despite the fact that they are usually considered to be less accessible to the masses, or at least more boring, based as they are on biographies and history lessons instead of giant robots and men in colored tights. What do the voters look at? What makes their toes curl? And — in the case of Adapted Screenplay — what choices do filmmakers make to turn a 300 page book full of factoids or a bunch of news clippings or an actual compelling story onstage into something that works on film and that film is able to communicate properly?

P.S. You will find on this list that five over ten of the films went on to win best picture. Out of the other five, four were beaten for the big prize by the winner of “Best Original Screenplay”. The only out-lier is The Artist, in 2011, having won neither award. This means that 9/10 times in the past decade, the winner for either screenplay award would go on to win best picture. Keep that in mind next year when you put your money in for your Oscar bets.

1. MOONLIGHT
Adapted by Barry Jenkins, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Unquestionably THE deserving winner of best picture this year despite all the hullaballoo and howdy-doo that went down, Moonlight is a must-see masterpiece that was robbed of both the Best Ensemble SAG and the attention the film properly deserved. It wasn’t the only screenplay up for the award that was adapted from a play — Fences was also up there, and Fences touched on the commentary of racial tension and family ties while delivering powerhouse acting too. But what Moonlight did that Fences didn’t was turn a play into a film that capitalizes on the film medium — the gaps between scenes take their time and overflow with implication, everything is shown but not told, and the space in which the characters’ roam is truly expanded (Jenkins did mention repeatedly that showcasing Miami was very important to him).

McCraney’s plot and characters were rich with quiet and wondrous dimension to begin with. Barry Jenkins playing with flickering, neon lighting and slow string music and alternating frantic and slow-as-molasses camerawork just immortalizes it on the big screen.

2. SPOTLIGHT
by Tom McCarthy and Josh Springer

Spotlight was a bit unusual. The only other thing it won was Best Picture, and while I’m mad that my hashtag #MadMaxBestPictureRoad didn’t come true, there is still a lot of merit to Spotlight — not the least of which is the way it handled a story that could have easily become too broad or preachy to handle.

Wikipedia calls it a “Biographical Crime Drama” film. That seems about right. It isn’t often that we have a film, not about the story that broke the world, but of the people who broke the story. Instead of sensationalizing a sensational story, Spotlight dwells on the personal issues that arose when the individuals from The Globe began to piece together a horrific puzzle depicting the almost systematized sexual abuse of Priests towards young boys, and how the authorities were either covering it up or just plain ignoring it.

3. THE BIG SHORT
Adapted by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis

I didn’t like The Big Short, primarily because I didn’t understand it. I am a Communications and Humanities major, I am a simple person. When your wikipedia summary says “[It] describes several of the main players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bubble and thus ended up profiting from the financial crisis of 2007–08”, I nope out with respect.

Still, the film was able to take the book and meld the narratives together in a way that was entertaining. If the plot lost you in the first ten minutes, Bale, Gosling, Carell and Pitt could at least keep the ball rolling and make you feel the actual stakes. The ultimate charm of this film wasn’t in showing these different characters and their sliding scale of morality, but in situating them in the grander context of an American-wide cautionary tale that puts pop culture in a blender of greed and fraud, with a healthy dash of humor.

4. THE IMITATION GAME
Adapted by Graham Moore, from the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

I’m going to come right out with it and say that I have never seen the Imitation Game. I have no idea why. Maybe because I was too busy watching Whiplash 76 times this awards season. That or I avoided it because it starred Benedict Cumberbatch and, amazing actor and charming celebrity as he is, I was completely Cumberbatched out.

What I can tell you is that it was adapted from the stuff that all oscarbait is made on, an autobiography of a gay man in World War 2. Alan Turing used a a pre-computer-computer to decode German messages and give Britain an edge up in the war. Add that up with his social difficulties and personal demons and you’ve got a story that has been picked apart, not just in this film, but in plays and tv specials too.

Without meaning to sound too un-academical about it, I have nothing to say here that I would have to lift from the thoroughly sourced and double-sourced delineation of differences between history, biography, and onscreen depiction, found on the film’s Wikipedia page

5. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Adapted by John Ridley, based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

I remember quite well during this awards season that a lot of people preferred sci-fi/horror/drama story “Gravity”, or one of the worst things I have ever seen with these two eyes “American Hustle”, simply because “12 Years a Slave” was just downright depressing. I concur — it is extremely difficult to watch, and honestly the ending just makes you want to run a bath and sit there for a month.

But adapting the biography of a man who was literally sold into slavery and experienced the whippings, beatings, and worse, was specifically what the filmmakers set out to do. How do you do such a thing without it becoming too sad to bear? You don’t. You depict the sadness in all its’ soul-crushing reality, which is exactly what Solomon Northup intended to do by writing about his experiences in the first place. “12 Years A Slave” sets out to unsettle you. It’s not a comfortable watch, in the same way it is not a comfortable read, and that is the whole point.

6. ARGO
Adapted by Chris Terrio, based on the books The Maser of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez, and the article The Great Escape by Joshuah Beraman

How do you smuggle 66 American hostages out of Tehran? When you’re extractor Tony Mendez and you’ve got a whole history of risky CIA exploits, posing as a film director and pretending you’re making a movie seems just about crazy enough to work.

I’m struggling to write anything about Argo, because honestly that entire season sort of flew over my head. Ang Lee won direction, and that’s all I got from it.

The interesting thing about Argo is that it was actually just one story from Mendez’s whole autobiography about his now-open case files in the CIA. It is simultaneously terrifying, and yet also darkly hilarious that this is the sort of things that go down in real life sometimes.

7. THE DESCENDANTS
Adapted by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

The Descendants is one of those Oscarbait films that is nominated for a lot of things, but really will only come out winning only one thing, if anything at all, as it finds itself smack dab in the middle of a busy awards season wherein there are films both funnier than it (Bridesmaids), more dramatic than it (The Help) and more dramatic AND funny simultaneously than it (The Artist). Still, it was a solid show by Clooney.

A melancholy tale of a man finding out that his wife, in an irreversible coma due to an accident, was having an affair. How he handles it along with his two daughters differs from word to screen, as the former focuses more on him looking inwards and trying to be a good father, while the latter focuses more externally on him keeping the family together. This Huffington Post Article deconstructs it pretty succinctly.

8. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Adapted by Aaron Sorkin, from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Mezrich

It’s been over half a decade, and people are still mad that this lost to The King’s Speech for best picture — and rightly so. While my 18 year old self was ecstatic at the Firth and Rush vehicle getting the top prize, my current, morose, anti-deppressive 24-year old soul now knows that David Fincher is unclockable as a director and the awards circuit adores Aaron Sorkin and that The Social Network was damn near flawless. Note to my younger self: period films do not always a superior film make.

“The Accidental Billionaires” does delineate the turning points of Mark Zuckerburg’s life well, taking the great choice of starting with his creation of the “rate-a-girl” system at Harvard, and openly ending with the continuation of Zuckerburg’s case with the Winklevosses and with Saverin. Under Fincher’s hand and Sorkin’s screenwriting, and with the benefit of a retrospective look on the case instead of an ongoing one, the characters become almost more compelling than their real life counterparts. The story is elevated from a biography of a success story into a fast-talking, intertemporal, hard but steady look at moral ambiguity and self-awareness under the microscope of ambition and success.

9. PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE
Adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher

Precious was based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Obviously. But what not a lot of people know is that the novel “Push” is written in first person by the titular Precious — an obese, bullied, abused, and illiterate young colored woman. The book starts out with stilted misspellings and the copious use of slang and near illegible phrases, as Precious begins to take us into her unforgiving life. As it goes and she learns more and her psychological outlook begins to change, so does her writing and her language. Sapphire really made it feel like you were reading an actual diary, and she truly captured the character of an individual who was formed by her surroundings and who struggles to grow beyond it.

Without the benefit of written text, Gabourey Sibide is left to play Precious’s growth onscreen entirely on her own shoulders. She does this with amazing strength without having to go full ham. The film also expands on the characters a bit, as we see them function away from the first-person, making everyone at least a sliver more sympathetic and inevitably ending the film in a much more optimistic way.

10. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy, from the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup

“Slumdog Millionaire” is about Jamal, a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” who is accused of cheating. He claims that he knows every answer because every question makes him flashback to an important moment in his life — getting seperated from his mother, scraping together coins with his brother, joining a begging syndicate, falling in love and losing the girl of his dreams but never giving up hope…

“Q&A” is also about someone on a game show who is accused of cheating, and in explaining how he isn’t, ends up recalling a lot about his past. But that’s about it. Ram — our lead — is telling a story to his lawyer, and not a policeperson played by Iffran Khan. His love interest is jaded Nita instead of hopeful Latika. Salim isn’t his brother, but his cousin, and has very different and less violent aspirations and tendencies from his film counterpart. And our lead’s reasons for joining the show are personal, and lead to a pretty dire outcome.

Whether that “Bollywood” lift was good or bad is down to opinion. It’s actually one of my favorite films, A.H. Rahma’s “Jai Ho” remains a staple on my phone, and I can copy the exact inflection of Anil Kapoor bellowing “That is the correct answeeeeeer!”. But still, I get stuck on the weird choices: Is there any reason why the past them speak Hindi, while present them speak English, aside from the technical? Why cast Dev and Frieda (as blessed as their beautiful a faces are) when there are plenty of Bollywood actors? Why call it Slumdog Millionaire — I mean it really is a different story but there’s still something inherently negative in the way the title paints India? Why didn’t Amhitabh Bachchan make an actual cameo, especially considering he’s the actual host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” in India? I guess some questions really don’t have an answer.

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