It’s arguably harder to write a great adapted screenplay than it is to write an original one. With an original script, you can pretty much do anything. You come up with the story, the characters, everything. The sky is the limit. However, with adapted scripts, there can sometimes seem like there’s a sense of obligation to be as true as possible to the source material.
Thankfully, there’s no actual rule with the Academy that one has to be faithful to the source. In a lot of cases, probably the majority of them, it can rub audiences the wrong way when a film drastically diverges from or alters it. But that’s sort of a rhombus/square correlation. With few exceptions, a bad adaptation sucks in part because of departures from the material (usually changing a major plot point or character), but the departure in and of itself doesn’t make the adaptation bad. As in many things, it’s not the concept but the execution that ultimately determines quality.
There are two very recent examples from big budget blockbusters that illustrate the point. The first is Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. A lot had to be added to the proceedings to pad it out to three movies, especially when it was originally intended to only be two, and even then, “The Hobbit” is a fairly short book. Some of the choices Jackson made worked, but a lot didn’t, particularly the creation of the elf Tauriel and the inclusion of Legolas purely for fan service, even though it retconned the character’s history. All the additions that were made ultimately diluted the overall product.
On the flip side, you have the Harry Potter series. The first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus and written by Steve Kloves, tried to stay as close to J.K. Rowling’s books as possible, while still making cuts here and there for time. But starting with Prisoner of Azkaban (Kloves adapted all seven books except for Order of the Phoenix), it became necessary to completely overhaul some of the plot lines in order to make the increasingly longer novels fit into a 2.5-hour runtime. For fans, it didn’t matter that much, because we had our fresh memories to fill in the narrative gaps that these cuts created. But for the finale, they went back to stuffing everything in, knowing they were going to split the last book into two films. That ended up backfiring, because we were reintroduced to characters like Dobby that got left out of the middle films, some story beats that weren’t important enough in previous movies got clumsily introduced and resolved at breakneck speed, and crucial lore like the rules about wand ownership were completely glossed over. If you tried to watch these films without having read the books, it would have been confusing as all hell.
These are the dilemmas that writers face when taking on some of the most beloved works in popular society. Imagine the problems that they can face when adapting something smaller and less well-known. How much do you keep? How much do you cut? Do you add characters? Do you combine some into a composite? If you’re adapting a stage play, how do you make it feel like it’s not taking place on a stage? What’s the balance of dialogue to action, and how closely should the dialogue match the original? Is it safer to adapt your own material or to secure the rights to someone else’s intellectual property, hoping you can do it justice?
I feel like sometimes Adapted Screenplay is treated like the lesser of the two writing categories, and that’s not a fair attitude. There’s a lot going on in the writer’s head as they work through this process, but just because they’re working with previously published material doesn’t make it any easier. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, as writers face unique challenges in formulating a script depending on what type of script it is. We have a variety of methods with this year’s set, and that makes for a rich, high-quality competition. At least I hope so.
This year’s nominees for Adapted Screenplay are:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, and Dan Swimer; Story by Baron Cohen, Hines, Swimer, and Nina Pedrad; Based on the character created by Sacha Baron Cohen
Wow that’s a mouthful. Good thing I didn’t write out the full title, huh? This is the second Adapted Screenplay nomination for the Borat films, and it’s something of a unique arrangement. This is a full writing staff, rather than just one or two people vying for the prize. Many of them are comedy and TV writers who’ve worked with Sacha Baron Cohen for years, and they all collaborated on the project. I believe either Anthony Hines or Dan Swimer noted on Twitter that this is the largest group of WGA writers ever nominated for the same project.
As for the quality of the script, it’s superb. You might discount it a bit, as part of the fun of these movies is Borat’s improvisational nature and the somewhat gonzo approach to the pranks. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of scripting going on. Thanks to the addition of Maria Bakalova as Tutar, there are a lot more moments where the two play off each other in private, without the involvement of other real people and/or joke marks. In those scenes, there is this weirdly endearing father-daughter relationship that grows in tandem with Borat’s further understanding of Western culture. All of that is scripted dialogue.
Then there are the actual jokes, drawn from the absurdity of modern America in the age of misinformation. The level of satire on display here is excellent and completely over-the-top. As I’ve said before, the reason the joke works is because way too many people in this country have the power of the pulpit or the gun despite being incredibly fucking stupid, and we need someone to playfully smack them upside the head. It’s cathartic because as a lovably ignorant jokester, those who don’t know who Borat is will be a lot nicer to him within the context of their own idiocy rather than lashing out violently. He gets away with what none of us ever could, and he’s hilarious at doing it. Yes, strictly speaking the real people in the film don’t have 100% scripted lines, but they’re coached on the kinds of things to say for the more staged scenes, and the regular actors do have orderly dialogue when they’re not riffing.
This is collaborative comedy at its finest, and it’s very reassuring to see a true writers room be recognized together.
The Father – Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller; Based on the play by Zeller
The success of this script boils down to a device that’s used often, and if done improperly, can become tiresome and cliché. But when it’s done right, it can be the difference between good and stellar. That device is repetition. In a film like this, it’s the screenwriter’s job to be repetitive. Their job. Their job. Repetitiveness is their job! And Zeller and Hampton pull it off to expert effect.
As the titular patriarch, Anthony has dementia, and as such has to be told things over and over again, though they never stick. That alone brings out the tragedy. But Zeller and Hampton go even further by having various characters repeatedly tell him contradictory information, particularly about Anne’s love life. All of this is confusing enough (in the best way possible), but it also represents a tonal reset every time we go through it. We in the audience are doing our best to keep up, and we’re (hopefully) completely of sound mind. What hope does Anthony have?
At the same time, repetition through routine is one of the few hopes such patients have of retaining information and leading something of a normal life. At first it looks like that might be a bright spot for Anthony, who takes to his new nurse fairly quickly, and is relatively accepting of Anne’s explanations when she finds his watch. The fact that Anne seems to cook him chicken every night can be a comfort. But as the film wears on, that solace turns to further paranoia and fear, because Anthony gets so trapped in his own mind that he can only mutter what he believes to be true ad nauseam in the vain hope that it will somehow materialize in his favor. Every time he says, “It’s my flat” and “I can look after myself,” your heart breaks just a little bit more, because you know objectively it’s not true.
One of the normal challenges of adapting a stage play is making it feel bigger than the intimate sets. Hampton and Zeller, on the other hand, adapting Zeller’s own play, narrow the focus even further, practically setting the entire film in two rooms and Anthony Hopkins’ own head. It’s bold and risky, but it definitely pays dividends.
Nomadland – Chloé Zhao; Based on the book by Jessica Bruder
This is a rather interesting adaptation, as Jessica Bruder’s book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” is not a work of fiction. Over the course of three years, she spent several months living in a van and traveling around with modern nomads to document their disillusionment with economic disparities in this country. Chloé Zhao created essentially an original screenplay from that framework. Some actual nomads were cast in the film, but the main character, Frances McDormand’s Fern, is completely fabricated.
This script is much more an adaptation of a theme or an idea than an actual story, so Zhao has a lot more freedom to create, and she does not waste the opportunity. The plot takes place over the course of a year, creating a sort of new life cycle for Fern, alternating between wide open spaces and more intimate character study. Some bits work better than others, but it is sort of fascinating how Zhao is able to create a modern epic odyssey without actually adapting “The Odyssey.”
Some of the dialogue leaves a little to be desired, I’ll admit. For example, the marketing department is getting a ton of mileage (pun intended) out of Bob Wells’ line about this lifestyle having, “No goodbyes, just ‘see you down the road,'” which is meant to sound a lot more profound than it is. I say basically the same thing when I wrap a gig. When it’s the last day and I pack up my office, I always say, “It’s not ‘goodbye,’ it’s ‘to be continued…'” because I want to stay fresh in people’s minds and leave a good impression so I can get more work in the future. It’s heartfelt and earnest, but it’s certainly not some insightful comment on the human condition or anything. A lot of people don’t like farewells, so they’ll make up a euphemism. That’s all it is.
That said, there are some really good exchanges peppered throughout, and the scenes that are meant to be funny genuinely are. But as far as quotable lines go, there’s not much there. The screenplay is novel in its form, but it’s not exactly memorable. Its merits come much more from story structure and atmosphere.
One Night in Miami… – Kemp Powers; Based on his play
Kemp Powers’ little “what if” fantasy is an utter delight when it comes to the dialogue, much of which I presume was lifted directly from his stage play. The four main characters each have their own identity, their own positive and negative qualities, and their interplay creates a lot of narrative possibilities.
It’s particularly poignant when you consider that within a year of the titular night in question (February 25, 1964), two of the four main players would be dead. As such, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X have the most dynamic relationship. One is logical and intelligent, but so full of hatred that he’s blinded to any viewpoint except his own, while the other is accused of playing up to “whitey,” all the while leaning into that reputation to create a business acumen so he can rob rich white folks blind and have them thank him for doing so. Knowing how short their stories are about to become, Powers infuses their antagonism with so much passion and clever wordplay that you can’t help but let out a “WOO!” every now and then for a good quip.
And that’s not to say that Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown are given short shrift. Their motivations are properly explored, and it’s refreshing to hear all of them provide a nuanced opinion on heavy matters, especially given how nearly 60 years later those issues are still prevalent in our society. Ali’s about to convert to Islam, but he still likes to drink, and of the four, he’s the least intellectual, but he’s eager to learn. Brown’s afraid to take a stand for his rights while playing football, but he’s got plans in the works to leave the NFL and start advocating as an actor, because it’ll give him a wider audience ostensibly filled with a lesser percentage of racist southerners. No man is a monolith here, and with four giant personalities, that’s a real challenge. Powers pulls it off admirably the entire way.
The White Tiger – Ramin Bahrani; Based on the novel by Aravind Adiga
Overall, I liked The White Tiger quite a bit, particularly the lead performance by Adarsh Gourav. The dynamic he has with his employers as someone aspiring to be a servant as a form of social mobility is intriguing. It’s not exactly a characterization you often see. Hell, you don’t often see depictions of the Indian caste system at all in Western cinema. I even like the basic story. However, when it comes to the actual script, there are five things I remember, and none of them is a high point.
One, the script relies heavily on narration. It’s not as bad here as it can be in other movies, but for the most part, narration is a crutch for storytellers who don’t know how to show us something rather than telling us about it. Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the exception that proves the rule. Here, as Balram is writing an email to the Premier of China (sure), there’s at least a structural reason for it, but that doesn’t excuse constantly coming back to the well.
Two, there’s a repeated analogy that Balram likes to make about the nature of servitude in his country. Essentially, it’s the idea that if a rooster in a cage knows it’s about to be killed and chopped up for food, it would sooner stay in the cage than accept its own freedom if offered. It’s a clumsy metaphor that sounds profound at first, but makes less sense the more you think about it. And sadly, it’s the driving theme of the entire movie.
Three, on at least two separate occasions, Balram says that the era of the white man as ruler of the world is over, and that now is the age of brown and yellow men (meaning the Asian diaspora). I kind of like the attitude behind it, but there are no white people anywhere in this movie. It’s a touch weird to make this declaration of an unseen enemy when the only people keeping him down are his fellow brown people.
Four, at several points, the characters use an insult in Hindi that translates as “sister-fucker.” I’m sure it’s purely a cultural difference, but every time it popped up in the subtitles, it put me off. I mean, we have similar insults here, particularly for the entire state of Alabama, but we don’t casually toss it off like a comma. Of all the things in this movie, that felt the most foreign, and they say it dozens of times.
Five, the most memorable line of the entire film is a dig at another film. When Balram is at his worst, realizing the desperate nature of his situation, he proclaims, “There’s no million-rupee game show” to save you. Look, Slumdog Millionaire has its flaws. It’s probably one of the worst overall Best Picture winners, and it’s likely the nadir of how cynical Oscar campaigning can be. But even with all that, you’re not winning any points with such a cheap shot.
1) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
2) The Father
3) One Night in Miami…
5) The White Tiger
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, it’s a game and a match involving the sets. It’s Production Design!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite script of the year? Have you ever tried to adapt something? Seriously, sister-fucker? Let me know!