Oscar Gold 2022 – Adapted Screenplay

The moment has come! Welcome one and all to the 2022 Oscar Blitz! Get ready for seven weeks of poring over every category, every film, and every minute detail in this annual quest to provide an educated guess as to who deserves – and who will receive – the highest honor in the film industry. Some of the movies I’ll break down here undoubtedly got their recognition from being superlative works of technology and artistic achievement. Some got them for aggressive marketing campaigns. Others still are here for reasons known but to Allah. But that no longer matters. The nominations have been made, the snubs (real or perceived) have had their time to mourn what might have been, and this is our field.

For those new to the Blitz, here’s how my process works. Each day I’ll cover a different category, breaking down the pros and cons of every nominee. If you haven’t already, bookmark the central hub page for easy access throughout. After I’ve covered each of the five nominees, I’ll rank them according to my own personal preferences, with the top entry being the one I would vote for if by some miracle I ever got a say in these results. Then, I will open voting for all of you to register your favorites. Hopefully, you’ll find this process fun, informative, and maybe a little insightful.

We begin this year’s Blitz with Adapted Screenplay, which can often carry a slightly negative connotation compared to its sister category, Original Screenplay. That’s largely due to the very nature of the name. With the former, the writer is creating a script out of pre-existing source material, sometimes their own, while the latter is ostensibly created anew with no official inspiration.

At the same time, this is also the more complicated of the two to judge, as the source material sometimes becomes a variable in the equation. If there are multiple nominees based on well-known and/or beloved pieces of work, the skill with which the material is translated often comes into play, with fidelity to the original story being seen as a major factor for some.

I don’t think that’s going to be an issue this year, however. Looking at the five nominees, we have two remakes, one of which is also based on a book. But in both cases, the previous film versions aren’t exactly relevant. In one case, the nominee is an Americanized remake of a foreign film, and in the other, the writers made it abundantly clear that they weren’t just doing another version of the previous work, rather going back to the original source and starting from scratch, as evidenced by the fact that their script only covers half the book.

As for the other three, all are adapted from literature, but not from works that are universally known or accessible. One is a recent book, another more than 50 years old, and the third is a short story. None of these influences have rabid fanbases to satisfy by keeping slavishly close to their inspirations, which largely eliminates that occasional X-factor.

Instead, the competing scripts can be judged on the same merits as an original: the quality of the dialogue, the flow of the plot, and other tangible literary devices like symbol and metaphor. This is a competitive field that will largely come down to how well the screenwriter(s) tell the story more than anything else, which is exactly as it should be.

This year’s nominees for Adapted Screenplay are:

CODA – Siân Heder; Based on the motion picture La Famille Bélier, written by Victoria Bedos, Thomas Bidegain, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, and Éric Lartigau

The beauty of CODA‘s script lies in the strength of the interpersonal communication between its central family, the Rossis. Daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only one who can hear, while her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) are all deaf. By necessity, Ruby is a conduit between her kin and the outside world, with both sides relying on her to interpret and translate, bridging that rare language barrier that can be sourced back to the same vocabulary.

Once the initial cleverness of the film’s title is out of the way – “coda” is a musical term alluding to Ruby’s singing ambitions while “CODA” is an acronym meaning “Child of Deaf Adults” – the real genius comes in how much the script commits to absolute normalcy on all sides. Ruby herself is caught in the middle, but at no point is the dialogue softened or specialized in any way relative to the people with whom she interacts. Whether she’s flirting with her crush, singing her heart out, or shit-talking with her family, it all carries the same weight because she (and the script by extension) treats everyone the same. There’s no dumbing down or using euphemisms for her clan, nor is there some kind of high-minded purple prose for the hearing side. These are all regular people acting as regular people. It’s just that one group uses their mouths while the other uses their hands.

This translates to the larger story, because while there are parts where the Rossis’ deafness becomes an issue for the sake of a plot point – a Coast Guard inspection, social anxiety, or Jackie initially feeling insulted that Ruby wants to study something she herself can’t experience – the actual disability is used more as a symbol for universally relatable issues like insecurity, adolescence, class warfare, and parents trying to relate to their children. In many ways, this is not so much Children of a Lesser God or even Mr. Holland’s Opus as it is Norma Rae or Good Will Hunting with sign language. There’s something truly special about being able to spotlight an often unmentioned issue while also making sure that it’s not the defining trait of the film.

Drive My Car – Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe; Based on the short story by Haruki Murakumi

This is one of two entries where faithfulness to the source material can come into play (the other one is next), but it’s not for the reason you’d suspect. Based on one of several short stories from a collection called “Men Without Women,” Takamasa Oe, along with director Ryusuke Hamaguchi somehow made this into a three-hour movie, and even more amazingly, there is not one single point where it drags. The two accomplished something almost impossible by taking very succinct material and stretching it to double feature length while also making sure that every moment was engaging, keeping the story’s flow at just the right pace.

That alone would qualify the script for heavy consideration here, but it goes so much further than that. The entire film is a meditation on grief and how different people handle it, and no matter what the motivation for the character, none of them are presented in a judgmental way. It takes a lot of care to treat every character, even the ostensible antagonists, with an absolute degree of empathy, but Hamaguchi and Oe’s script never falters. Throw in the symbolism of mirrors, the open road, and the calming effect of hearing a loved one’s voice, and the tone of the screenplay is absolutely rich.

But there’s one more element that arguably lifts this work over all the others. While Murakumi’s short story is the only official source material, there are two more very important influences. The main character, Yūsuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima), is a stage director and actor, and over the course of the film he presents two theatrical productions, one of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the other of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, two of the seminal works of tragicomedy and melancholy. But rather than a straightforward performance, Kafuku breaks down every perceivable language barrier by casting actors from all over Asia and having them deliver lines in their native tongue, be it Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, or even Korean Sign Language (potentially one-upping CODA). This technique is crucial to the story, as Kafuku believes in the universality of the human experience, and that by having his cast perform in the most naturalistic way possible (translations in all applicable languages are projected on a screen hanging over the stage) he makes the material relatable to any audience. It’s a technique I never even imagined before, but it’s utterly brilliant, granting an absolutely unique perspective on how a message can be communicated to anyone and everyone.

Dune – Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth; Based on the novel by Frank Herbert

Normally I’d be a stickler for dubbing this film a remake, to the point that I considered adding “and the 1984 film by David Lynch” to the official Academy credit listed on the nomination. But in its purest sense, this isn’t really a remake. At least, not entirely, and I mean that in a figurative and literal sense.

Yes, by the purest definition, this is a remake, as there’s been a theatrically-released film based on Herbert’s novel, and there are no fundamental changes to the story or characters from that version to this one. That’s why I continually balk at anyone who claims the West Side Story remake is a “re-adaptation” and not what it literally is. However, Villeneuve, through his direction and visual effects, does go out of his way to make this film a different experience than the last one. So while it is a remake in the strictest sense, there is clear evidence of attempts to diverge in significant ways, even within the same framework. But more importantly, the previous film adapted the entirety of Herbert’s novel, whereas Villeneuve et al decided to split this work into two films, which actually does qualify for the buzzword-ish “re-adaptation” moniker.

Villeneuve knew from seeing the original and from reading the book itself that it was too dense to properly tell the story in two hours. There’s just so much going on that it’s challenging at best and impossible at worst to keep up. So the choice was made to tell a relatively self-contained story that still left just enough of a cliffhanger for a sequel to adapt the second half of the novel should this first entry be successful. If it worked, awesome. If not, there was still a satisfactory conclusion that allowed someone else could pick the story up at some other point. Rather than a cynical cash grab of just splitting the movie into two parts for the sake of getting us to pay for something twice (Deathly Hallows, Mockingjay, Twilight Bullshit), Villeneuve has opted to tell two complete stories under one heading.

As for the script itself, it is much easier to follow than the original film. The story flows much better, and we can give proper focus to the elements and characters rather than quickly introducing them and then shuffling them off screen to do whatever while keeping the camera squarely on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). He’s still the lead, but much more – and proper – attention is given to the surrounding ensemble. The dialogue leaves a little to be desired, mostly because the bulk of it is whispered, but that’s a directorial choice rather than a screenwriting one. That said, I did appreciate how efficiently yet thoroughly the exposition was handled, and dispensing with the “melange” half of Arrakis’ planetary MacGuffin.

The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal; Based on the novel by Elena Ferrante

Out of all the nominees, this may be the most sparse script, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve its place. Divided between Olivia Colman’s present day and Jessie Buckley’s past as main character Leda Caruso, there’s a delicate balance that Maggie Gyllenhaal maintains throughout that really works on a thematic level.

In a grand metaphor of the aging and maturation process, it’s quite noticeable in the mirrored scenes who is doing all the talking. When we’re focused on Buckley in the past as a young mother of an infant and a toddler, she says an awful lot. She vocalizes her stress, takes the initiative in her affair with an academic, constantly talks with her children (encouraging, loving, and scolding), and is generally extroverted. The irony of course is that despite all that, she is stunted emotionally and can’t properly communicate her needs and feelings when it matters most.

Contrast that with Colman’s present-day Leda. While she has her fair share of dialogue and never takes a passive role, she often lets others run their mouths, particularly the boisterous and loud family of tourists celebrating a birthday at the resort where she’s staying. She only speaks up when she needs to, whether it’s to give Dakota Johnson some emotional support, gently rebuff Ed Harris’ advances, or assertively refuse the request to give up her beach chair and umbrella to the partiers. The only time she loses her cool is when a group of teenage boys barge into the movie she’s watching and make a bunch of ruckus, disturbing all the other patrons. Apart from that, she’s grown up enough and been through enough hell to pick her battles and keep matters as streamlined as possible. She has much more to say than her younger self due to years of accumulated wisdom and experience, but those same qualities have also taught her the value of leaving well enough alone, or only interfering as much as required to get the point across. It’s a lovely juxtaposition, and Gyllenhaal handles it amazingly well.

The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion; Based on the novel by Thomas Savage

This is such a richly-drawn story, rivaled only by the genius of its performances and scenery. Jane Campion has done some incredible work here, but the true heft of the script lies in the very subtle ways in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank psychologically tortures the fragile Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her seemingly vulnerable son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

This is a screenplay where the actions of the characters speak far louder than the words, and Phil’s menace is the perfect encapsulation of this idea. He compliments a paper flower on the dinner table, only to make a devastating yet subtle show of burning it when he finds out that Peter, a boy, made it rather than a girl. As Rose struggles to practice a song on the piano, Phil sits upstairs playing it effortlessly on a banjo, and later whistling it whenever he passes her by. He knows the exact buttons to push, and does so with minimalist gusto.

Because of this low-key cruelty, it makes the moments when Phil actually does open up and talk at length about something – typically his hero worship of the late Bronco Henry or when he’s genuinely interested in training Peter in the ways of ranch work and wilderness survival – it carries so much more weight. Like any great cinematic baddie, when the villainy is so expertly executed that the dialogue feels more like pathos and character development rather than evil plan exposition, it shines so much the brighter. It’s this deft touch that Campion puts into the script, helping to create – with Cumberbatch’s help – one of the greatest antagonists since Anton Chigurh or Hannibal Lecter.

***

My Rankings
1) Drive My Car
2) The Power of the Dog
3) CODA
4) The Lost Daughter
5) Dune

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, what you see isn’t actually there. No, you’re not hallucinating, it’s Visual Effects!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What factors do you consider when judging an adaptation? How do you define a remake? Can a whistle be the most evil “line” of dialogue for the year? Let me know!

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