Year in and year out, Adapted Screenplay proves to be the more difficult of the two writing categories to sort out. Mostly this is because it’s very hard for me to settle on consistent criteria for myself. I know in the end it all comes down to personal preference, but I get in my own head a lot about minor stuff, including whether I’m contradicting rules I’ve set in the past. The last thing I want is to come off as hypocritical or disingenuous.
For Original Screenplay, it’s a fairly simple proposition. Which script did I like best? Which one had the better dialogue and story? Lemon squeezy. When it comes to adaptation, however, there are so many more shades of grey. Does fealty to source material matter? Is the writer coming up with new angles or just rehashing the same points? That last one is especially tricky because by Academy rules, adaptation includes fairly normal things like sequels, remakes, and reboots. As long as anything in the film is based on something that came before, it counts. So how do you weigh that against a standalone picture that takes its cues purely from printed works like novels and stage plays?
In the end, the best I can come up with is the idea of impact, both in terms of the actual heft of the writing, and in how it attempts to convey the intended emotional effects of the previous material. It’s not much, and even in my own head it’s probably way too vague, but hopefully it’ll make sense as I break down the candidates.
And of course, I’m almost certain I’ll forget all of this by next year and basically hit a reset button on my own standards yet again.
This year’s nominees for Adapted Screenplay are…
All Quiet on the Western Front – Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell
I’m going to do something here that I almost never do, and spoil the ending. Under normal circumstances this would almost be a cardinal sin, but here I think it’s justified for two reasons. One, the novel is almost 100 years old, the original film is over 90 years old, and this version has been available on Netflix for more than three months. You’ve had plenty of opportunity to familiarize yourself with the overall story and this particular interpretation. Two, it’s difficult to talk about the quality of this adaptation without discussing the resolution, because it’s the core issue I have with the entire movie.
In the original novel, Paul Bäumer enlists in the German army during World War I, convinced he and his schoolmates will become national heroes after a decisive victory. Over years in the trenches, his humanity is slowly stripped away from him through the crucible of combat, as his friends – including his closest confidante in Kat – die one by one, and he sees first-hand on far too many occasions how disposable he is to his government. The fact that WWI was a particularly futile affair because the front lines only moved by a matter of miles in either direction only reinforced Erich Maria Remarque’s thesis about the pointlessness of it all. In the end, Paul himself is killed in an epilogue that gives the book its title. He’s the sole casualty on a day that is reported as “all quiet on the western front,” with no major exchanges of gun or artillery fire. This conclusion is even more tragic in the 1930 Best Picture-winning film, as the finale is infused with a brief irony, with Paul meeting his end while reaching out for a butterfly, his final moment an instance of inner peace and a return to the boy he once was.
Here, the script tries to go for an even bigger ironic whammy, and it just falls flat. After Paul and his company first experience combat, we jump ahead by a year to the final days of the war, and constantly cut away to the negotiations between German and French officials that lead to the Armistice on November 11th. Once the ceasefire is agreed to, a prideful general refuses to end the war in defeat, and orders one final attack on French forces that morning. Kat is killed in truly idiotic fashion after he and Paul try to steal a chicken from a farmer who’s already threatened them before for their shenanigans. Instantly Paul is a zombie, and he goes into the final offensive in berserker mode, taking his rage out on unsuspecting French soldiers who thought the final minutes of the war would pass without incident. Paul is then bayonetted seconds before the 11am bell that ends the war.
So… that was all pointless, and not in the proper way that Remarque wrote about. Is it honestly any more poetic to have him die in the final second of the war than on any other day? Is there any emotional resonance because we condensed the timeline so much (in the book Paul enlists shortly after the war begins, here he signs up just over a year before the end)? Are we supposed to care about Paul’s plight when we spend more time on government posturing than we do watching him be robbed of every aspect of his life? More importantly, are we supposed to feel anything about Kat getting shot by a farm boy? It’s like Berger and company thought the image would look cool but didn’t think of the implications. Hell, by doing the deed like this, the film actually undermines the title of the book. Paul is supposed to die randomly in a manner that hardly anyone notices, not in the noisiest way possible. That’s literally the opposite of what the novel intended, and as such, the impact is lost.
It’s a shame, too, because the movie (and script) starts out in spectacular fashion. In a masterful sequence, some poor schlub gets killed in No Man’s Land, and we watch as his body is collected and stripped, his uniform cleaned and darned, and then handed to a new recruit who has no idea where it came from. When Paul gets his fatigues, he notices another man’s name on them, which the officer waves off as a manufacturing error before casually ripping off the old nametag an tossing it in the garbage. That is both brilliant and devastating, illustrating the cavalier nature with which Paul’s government would treat him and millions of others better in the span of a few minutes than all of General Friedrichs’ chest-thumping combined. It’s the perfect start, but the rest of the screenplay never lives up to the high bar it sets for itself. I still enjoy the film as a pure war epic, but this is one of those cases where I really feel the script needed to hew closer to the source material, because it’s by far the weakest element, one that actively lowers the movie’s quality.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – Rian Johnson
It is absolutely criminal that Rian Johnson’s amazing comedy murder mystery is left with just a token scripting nomination. The first Knives Out only got a nod for Original Screenplay, and the sequel suffers the same fate, with the Academy once again ignoring one of the best films of the year because… I don’t know, maybe they’re still pissed about The Last Jedi or something.
Anyway, despite the insult, the nod is well deserved and earned, as Johnson once again finds a way to toy with his audience’s expectations in a way that’s completely welcome and appreciated because we’re all in on the joke and can still play along with the actual case. This time however, it’s arguably a more difficult task, as he’s not only playing with the conventions of the genre, he’s operating with the reactions to the last movie firmly in the back of his mind. He not only has to subvert the style of the whodunit, he also has to keep us guessing with regard to his own characters and style. And of course, he absolutely nailed it once again.
He accomplishes this feat in two major ways. First, he makes sure that we’re all keenly aware of our respective positions as creator and audience, knowing that he’s catering to an established fan base that’s going to be actively looking for any and every clue it can, both within the story and in a more meta sense. As such, he makes sure to let as many scenes breathe as possible, allowing us to engage with the dialogue while we search the frame for anything we can scrutinize, basically giving all of us the time we need to fully immerse ourselves in the game. In particular, this expands beyond the borders of the screen, as in a bit of wonderful cheek, he removes the most obvious avenue for audience sleuthing from the equation. Many of us are well aware of the interview he gave (especially because I keep bringing it up) where he revealed the secret about Apple not letting bad guys use their products in movies. So knowing that we’re all going to be scanning the frame to see who’s not using an iPhone, what does Rian do? He basically removes ALL phones from the story. Sure, they pop up here and there, but there’s a specific emphasis in the script about not being able to use mobile devices, thus playfully preventing us from getting too far ahead of ourselves.
The second front is in the overarching theme of stupidity. Part of the fun of a mystery is the intellectual satisfaction we get in solving things, but Johnson pulls the rug right out from under us on that one, instead crafting the entire story around supposed elites who all act in monumentally stupid ways. It all comes to a head during the denouement, when Daniel Craig utters the line of the year, exasperatedly yelling, “No! It’s just dumb!” when the truth is revealed. The fraudulent transparency of what Johnson’s doing here is 100% an intentional part of the fun, creating dialogue and story beats more memorable than the vast majority of 2022’s output.
Living – Kazuo Ishiguro
As a Japanese-Briton, Kazuo Ishiguro is uniquely positioned and qualified to adapt Akira Kurosawa’s film, Ikiru, for a Western audience. I hope that doesn’t come off as reductive, because I certainly don’t intend it to be. I mean it as a testament to his talent as a writer. This is the man who wrote The Remains of the Day, after all. If there’s anyone who can perfectly balance themes of dignity and tenderness, it’s Ishiguro, and having lived both cultures for nearly seven decades, I can’t imagine this specific story being in better hands.
At its core, the script is about functionality and efficiency, even when it deals with some pretty heavy ideas about remorse, personal legacy, and the fleeting nature of existence. The emotions and stakes of the story are conveyed fairly directly, so as to free up time for more human explorations within the rigid framework. In essence, the screenplay itself is a macrocosm of Bill Nighy’s character, set with an exact purpose and utility that at times can feel cluttered and even dismissive, but when proper attention is paid, the possibilities are endless.
No better is this illustrated than in the early scene where a group of mothers is basically chauffeured to every department in the government office, with each passing the buck to someone else. It can be infuriating, but there is also an elegant order to it. It’s not exactly method to madness, but there is an odd poetry to whole thing. It’s this bureaucratic stymying approach that allows for the catharsis of the eventual resolution and its accompanying tugs at the heartstrings. This film and character, while relatively unassuming, are textbook examples of how to properly wring pathos.
Top Gun: Maverick – Screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie; Story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks
Hahahahahahaha! Okay, no. I’m sorry, but just, no. I’ve been trying to do all the nominees justice from a literary standpoint, but this is just silly. When I saw this got nominated, I almost did a spit take laughing.
And let’s be clear, I liked Maverick. I really did. I thought it would suck based on the trailer, but I was happily proven wrong. It was a real fun ride. But the script? Uh-uh. The entire opening of the film is basically a shot-for-shot remake of the original Top Gun, nearly every single character is an analog to one of the previous characters (right down to Rooster having Goose’s fucking mustache), we substitute homoerotic beach football for homoerotic beach volleyball, and the core mission against [insert rogue state name here] is – as many have pointed out – basically an Earthbound Star Wars trench run. There’s adaptation, and there’s just copying and pasting. Guess which one this is.
The one moment that stands out as unique is Maverick’s meeting with Iceman. That is a powerful scene, and it is scripted about as perfectly as can be, with Tom Cruise doing all the talking and Val Kilmer silently typing and gesturing to what he’s written on the monitor, only speaking up at the very end to demonstrate how far his illness has progressed. It’s a gorgeous moment for these lived-in characters, and of course it’s a heartbreaking reminder that Kilmer is likely not much longer for this world. I defy anyone to watch that scene and not feel something.
But everything else? It’s intentionally bare bones and bullet points, recreating pretty much every major plot beat from the original. It’s extremely entertaining at points, but if you think this comes anywhere close to being a superlative screenplay, I got a fucking bridge to sell you. The fact that it took five people to basically Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V the original is funnier by itself than a lot of actual comedy films from last year.
Women Talking – Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley deserves a lot of credit here because she arguably pulls double duty. I don’t mean the fact that she wrote and directed Women Talking, as that’s nothing unusual (Rian Johnson and Edward Berger just within this category put in the same effort). What I mean is that, if you think about it, her script adapts two different sources.
Officially speaking, this is based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, which itself was a fictionalized version of the real-life Manitoba Colony incident in Bolivia, where women of an isolated Mennonite community would wake up to find that they’d been raped, only for the men responsible to blame demons until they were caught in the act. But alongside the core story, Polley’s script and film follows the same narrative structure as 12 Angry Men, with the action centered around a heated debate where people’s lives are on the line, and it’s very well done.
The dialogue is top notch here, as women from three major families come together to determine the fate of every female in the colony, as they all must act as a united front whatever they decide. Some are scandalized, others irate and ready for violence, still others even-tempered but deeply traumatized. If anything, Polley has evolved from that classic play and movie, because there each of the jurors basically represented one archetype, and had to be convinced on the verdict according to their narrow characterizations. The women, however, are complex and multifaceted. While some initially embrace and reject certain courses of action, all of their approaches are tempered and nuanced on a spectrum of thought, with an emphasis on maintaining individual agency. The only groupthink for them is in their steadfast religious faith in the face of all of this, and even then, there is room to question even the basic tenets of Christian doctrine.
The story and stage directions leave me a bit wanting, however. For the most part, everyone’s just in the barn talking, with someone occasionally moving to a different seat or bale of hay every few minutes. After the opening montage that tells the backstory, shows the arrest of the attackers, and establishes the first ever vote among the women of the colony, the plot is very much just the conversation. They show up in the barn, they talk, they leave the barn for brief recesses, they come back to the barn, they continue talking, and then they make a decision and act on it. That’s it.
That’s not much of a plot, is it? I’m not necessarily saying that we needed more story to flesh things out, but when we’re talking about an award for a screenplay, you do have to consider the three major elements – dialogue, story, and action. This script overwhelmingly succeeds on the first front, but is merely competent in the other two. Still outstanding overall, though.
1) Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
2) Women Talking
4) All Quiet on the Western Front
5) Top Gun: Maverick
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, I give my fingers a bit of a break with the first video breakdown of the Oscar Blitz, discussing artistic scenery and sets. It’s Production Design!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What are your criteria for a strong adaptation? Did the inclusion of a legacy sequel make you laugh as hard as I did? What would you have chosen if you were among the Mennonite women? Let me know!
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