Based on a True Story: The Fiction-Free Finalists for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

January 23, 2014 | 5 min read

There are, for my money, only two worthwhile moments in that perennial PR orgy known as the Academy Awards. The first comes when actresses prance down the red carpet in their vomitous million-dollar get-ups and an interviewer poses that weirdest of questions, “Who are you wearing?” The second moment comes when writers, who spend 364 days at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, get to belly up ever so briefly to the big banquet table. The Oscar for Adapted Screenplay is almost enough to convince me that the horror stories are untrue. Some people in Hollywood actually do read.

In years past, the works of a galaxy of gifted novelists have inspired Oscar-winning screenplays. They include Edna Ferber, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones, Jules Verne, Harper Lee, Henry Fielding, Boris Pasternak, Mario Puzo (twice), Ken Kesey, Lillian Hellman, Larry McMurtry, E.M. Forster (twice), Jane Austen, James Ellroy, John Irving, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Cormac McCarthy.

This year, alas, the source material in the Adapted Screenplay category is immaculately fiction-free. This year all five finalists turned for inspiration to non-fiction — memoirs, reportage, even earlier screenplays.  The reason, I suspect, is that writing an adapted screenplay is an act of alchemy.  Essentially it’s the act — the art? — of transmuting ink on paper into gold on the screen.  It’s a maddening thing to try to do, which is why the five most magical little words in Hollywood are Based on a true story.

The key words here are “based” and “true.”  “Based” gives the filmmakers a few acres of wiggle room, freedom to massage the truth to their artistic and commercial ends.  And “true” stories, in both books and movies, are usually easier to write, make, and sell.  They’re also less likely to dazzle and amaze — effects that are achieved, more often than not, by an imagination that’s off the leash. Which is to say a novelist’s imagination.

This year’s five nominees for the Best Adapted Screenplay spring from material that varies widely in tone and quality. This source material is not all bad, by any stretch. But there isn’t the handiwork of an untethered imagination in the pack:

Before Midnight
coverThis is the contender with the thinnest pedigree. Written by its director, Richard Linklater, and its two stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, it’s the third installment in the ongoing 20-year romance between two adorable bohemians named Celine and Jesse. Under the Academy’s arcane rules, sequels count as adaptations because they’re based on previously published material, namely earlier screenplays. The dialog once again has a breezy, improvised feel, but the writers insist that what’s on the screen hewed strictly to a taut script. “You can’t cut things out of this screenplay,” Delpy said. Maybe not, but as adaptations go, it’s all a tick too inside-baseball for me. Maybe the Academy needs a new category for Perpetually Evolving Screenplay.

The Wolf of Wall Street
coverTerence Winter’s script for this Martin Scorsese film was inspired by a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a kid from Queens who made millions running a shady stock brokerage, lived a life of excess that would have made most Roman emperors quail, then crashed and burned and went to prison. Belfort’s memoir exhibits an appreciation for the cost of luxury goods that puts him in a league with Balzac. He lives on a diet of Quaaludes, cocaine, Xanax, and adrenaline, and he wears an $18,000 gold watch, walks on $120,000 Edward Fields carpets, pays his chambermaid $70,000 a year and his chauffeur $60,000. But there’s no mistaking Belfort’s prose for Balzac’s. Here’s Belfort walking across the trading room floor, listening to his salesmen bark into their telephones:

Fuck this and fuck that! Shit here and shit there! It was the language of Wall Street. It was the essence of the mighty roar, and it cut through everything. It intoxicated you. It seduced you! It fucking liberated you! It helped you achieve goals you never dreamed yourself capable of! And it swept everyone away, especially me.

(Full disclosure: This is not only the language of Wall Street. I once worked in a similar bucketshop in Los Angeles, selling oil leases in Oklahoma that, for all I knew, didn’t even exist. The things my fellow brokers and I barked into our telephones were echoes of Belfort’s mighty roar.)

Winter’s script for Wolf came in at a hefty 150 pages, well above the 100-or-so-page average. (A rule of thumb is that each page of a script translates to one minute of screen time.) The bloat of the writing shows: the movie runs, at full throttle, for three hours. But in this case bloat is not a dirty word. This is, after all, a story about success and excess, American-style, and Winter and Scorsese decided wisely to leave restraint off the menu. As Winter told an interviewer, “Very early on, we just said, ‘We’re just going to go for this, 100 percent, the whole way.'” And that’s precisely what they did. Thanks to some superb performances, especially by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, the sheer foamy hog-wallow exuberance of this lifestyle becomes both humorous and strangely joyous, almost admirable. We all dream of throwing the rules of decorum and decency out the window, but these guys, for a brief glorious bawdy moment, actually went ahead and did it.

12 Years a Slave
coverJohn Ridley spent four years turning Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir into a screenplay. It came in fat, too, at 157 pages, much of it lifted directly from Northup’s account of living as a free black man in upstate New York before getting kidnapped in Washington, D.C., then sold into slavery in the Deep South. I’m guessing that this screenplay will win the Oscar because the only thing Hollywood loves more than those five magic little words is a story that allows a movie to ascend to the high moral ground. Some dragons are irresistible to Hollywood, such as the Holocaust, racism, big government, terrorists, pirates, the gun lobby, big pharma and, now, slavery. But there is a dark little problem at the heart of this noble exercise. Ridley’s script is built on an appeal to counterfeit outrage: It asks us to feel bad for Solomon Northup because of the scalding injustice of having his freedom yanked away from him. But is his condition more appalling than the condition of his fellow slaves, fresh off the boat from Africa? This movie wants to say yes, but I say no. There is no way to calibrate pure evil. It is seamless, implacable. The high moral ground, it turns out, can be a slippery place.

coverMartin Sixsmith has worked as a foreign correspondent with the BBC, a novelist, and a spin doctor for Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2004 he met an Irishwoman who told him that her mother, Philomena Lee, had given birth to an illegitimate son in 1952 and been forced by Roman Catholic nuns to put the boy up for adoption. Sixsmith began investigating the claim and learned, as he wrote recently in The Daily Mail, that half a dozen convents “continued to send regular parties of so-called orphans to the U.S. for almost two decades. And no wonder — the trade was a lucrative one.” Sixsmith also learned that Philomena and her son spent years looking for each other, but the nuns did nothing to facilitate their reunion. The nuns, according to Sixsmith, regarded unwed mothers as “moral degenerates.”

Sixsmith’s book, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search was adapted for the screen by Jeff Pope and the English comedian Steve Coogan (who plays Sixsmith in the movie). The movie adds another wrenching chapter to the Catholic Church’s long history of perfidy, and it has reduced audiences to tears. For his part, Coogan told an interviewer that his long career as a comedian left him hungry for something more than laughs. “Acerbic asides don’t really feed the soul,” he said, adding that the movie is “partly a conversation I’m having, out loud, about challenging my own cynicism.”

Captain Phillips
covercoverBilly Ray adapted his script from A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. The book’s subtitle is like one of those trailers that lays out the entire plot of the movie it’s trying to sell — it says it all, which is to say it says way too much. We’re back in Dragon Country, this time the baddies being a gang of Somali pirates who board a container ship captained by a solid citizen played by — who else? — Tom Hanks, an Everyman who does heroic things. It’s a perfectly fine story, and what winds up on the screen is perfectly workmanlike. That’s not faint praise, but it’s a long way short of glowing.

The message is clear: This year, Hollywood screenwriters need to mix more fiction into their diet.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.