Last year, as we noted here, the source material in the Oscar category for Best Adapted Screenplay was immaculately fiction-free. All five screenwriters looked elsewhere for inspiration — to memoirs, investigative journalism, reportage, and, weirdly, to an earlier screenplay which, under the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, qualifies as “previously published or produced material.” I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that last nomination was a little too inside-baseball for me. But don’t forget, we’re dealing with Hollywood here.
Before last year’s Oscar went to John Ridley for his adaptation of Solomon North’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, I suggested that the writers of adapted screenplays needed to start mixing a little fiction into their reading diets. In 2014, I’m happy to report, they did. A very little. A grand total of one of this year’s five finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay drew on a work of fiction.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1998, all five Best Adapted Screenplay nominees were inspired by novels. (The statue that year went to Bill Condon for Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein.) Through the years, the scripts of Oscar-winning movies have been based on novels by a gaudy galaxy of literary talents, including Jane Austen, Colette, Jules Verne, Henry Fielding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Cormac McCarthy.
But the novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better, yet something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
So I say fiction lovers should rejoice that this year Hollywood is paying homage to something — to anything — produced by a novelist. It doesn’t happen every day (or, obviously, every year), and it’s becoming increasingly rare as Hollywood continues to play it safe while trying to connect with an audience that’s less and less likely to read serious fiction.
This year’s finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay are:
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson based his script on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Purists could argue that Anderson has settled for Pynchon Lite instead of the heavy goods (Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or V., or even Mason & Dixon). Let’s not quibble. Anderson has streamlined Pynchon’s novel while remaining true to its spirit, which is the essence of a successful adaptation. We get a fine facsimile of Pynchon’s wake-and-bake private eye, Doc Sportello, played with zest by Joaquin Phoenix in sandals and sizzling muttonchops. Doc’s search for a missing real-estate developer takes him through a post-Helter Skelter L.A. labyrinth of surfers, hustlers, dopers, and other less benign parties. It may be Pynchon Lite, but I’ll take it any day over Toy Story 13.
“I couldn’t give a fuck about the Iraqis,” Chris Kyle wrote in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History (with ghostwriters Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwan). “I hate the damn savages.”
The screenwriter Jason Hall captured Kyle’s machismo and his Manichean worldview in his screenplay for American Sniper, which found the ideal director in Clint Eastwood, no stranger to the notion that evil is at large in the world and it’s the duty of good men to use any means, including deadly force, to crush it. Kyle claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq (160 are confirmed), and he was not inclined to apologize for his work — or even ponder its moral ambiguities. Neither was Eastwood. Kyle was shot dead at a Texas gun range by a fellow veteran in 2013. American Sniper has taken in $250 million so far at the box office, and it has further divided a country already deeply divided over our forever wars. Michael Moore hated the movie; Sarah Palin loved it.
The Imitation Game
The screenplay for The Imitation Game is the least faithful to its source material of this year’s nominees — and therefore probably a lock to take home the Oscar. Graham Moore’s script was adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, written by the brilliant British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges. In telling the story of Turing’s heroic work breaking World War II German codes, Moore and director Morten Tyldum have gone the predictable Hollywood route, turning Turing into an ur-nerd, which he was not, and making him dapper, which he was not. (Turing, according to Hodges, was eccentric but likeable, and a bit of a slob.) But this is Hollywood, and so Turing, as played by the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (who is up for a Best Actor Oscar), is turned into a cartoon: he’s the heroic gay misfit struggling against an uptight homophobic society. The movie ends on this note: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Turing committed suicide, and much ongoing speculation that he died accidentally, or even was murdered. But this is Hollywood, where complexity must never get in the way of a good cartoon.
The Theory of Everything
Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote a queasy memoir about the joys and trials of being married to an award-winning cosmologist who suffers from debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, became the basis for Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the couple getting married, raising three children, separating, marrying other partners, and somehow remaining close through it all. Felicity Jones, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane, told an interviewer, “That’s why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.”
Last year the controversy was over Before Midnight, writer-director Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ongoing romance of another pair of extraordinary bohemians. The screenplay, written by Linklater and his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, qualified as adapted because it was based on the earlier screenplays.
This year the controversy belongs to Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, which tells the story of an aspiring drummer and his fanatical, abusive teacher. Back in 2013, in an effort to raise money for the project, Chazelle showed an 18-minute segment of the unfinished film at Sundance, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. The prize attracted money, and last year the completed, 107-minute feature won the Grand Prize at Sundance. The Writers Guild of America designated the script “original;” but based on its metamorphosis from short to feature, the Academy placed in the “adapted” category. Call the screenplay what you will, this shoestring movie, shot in just 19 days, has been nominated for a stunning five Oscars, including Best Picture. If you’re fond of Cinderella stories, this one’s for you.
Which brings us back to novels and screenplays. Four of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture are based on adapted screenplays. The only adapted screenplay that didn’t also get the nod for Best Picture was the one based on — you guessed it — a novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Image Credit: Flickr/Prayitno
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:
This 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
Terence 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
John 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.
Martin 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.”
Billy 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.