Best Adapted Screenplay

The art of adaptation is a tricky one. Taking someone else’s material, made for an entirely different medium, and reworking it to fit in the confines of a feature film is much like attempting to fit a square peg into a hexagonal hole. The elements aren’t designed to work together. It’s even trickier to take that same material and make it into a good movie, where the integrity of the original remains in tact but the quality of its adaptation still retains a palpable uniqueness. The best adaptations, then, are hardly transcriptions, but deliberate acts of taking a work that exists elsewhere and making it speak to the possibilities of cinematic storytelling.

This year’s nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay run the gamut of possibilities for different types of adaptation. The category includes the history of our most celebrated president to the true story of a little-known CIA operation to adaptations of celebrated novels to an independent adaptation of an obscure stage play. Oh, and whoever wins on the big night will be a first-time winner. That’s pretty cool.

Here are how the nominees size up, with my prediction for the winner in red

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ArgoArgo, Chris Terrio

Why He Was Nominated

Argo is one of those films that makes you wonder why Hollywood hadn’t already made a film about it before. It’s an amazing true story, is ripe with moments of incredible suspense, and even features Hollywood itself as a significant character. Terrio’s screenplay uses two major sources (real-life protagonist Antonio Mendez’s bio “Master of Disguise,” and Joshua Bearman’s 2008 Wired article “The Great Escape”) to infuse Argo with suspense, humor, and engrossing drama. This is the type of high-quality mainstream entertainment that Hollywood doesn’t deliver often enough.

Why He Might Win

Argo has been riding a wave of positive buzz going into Oscar night, which stands in contradiction to the relatively few major awards the film is nominated for. Because Argo only has one performance nomination (Alan Arkin playing Alan Arkin), and because Ben Affleck was overlooked for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay has a strong chance of being one of the categories that the film is recognized for. Also, the film’s comedic Hollywood angle certainly helps, as the jokes probably landed really well with Academy voters.

Why He Might Not Win

Besides the fact that Terrio is competing against Tony Kushner, Argo has also been brought into the ring over the similar controversies affecting Zero Dark Thirty. The film has been accused of stretching the truth a bit, which may hurt Terrio’s chances considering that this is a category meant to honor the reworking of existing material. Then again, Academy voters might not care about such an issue.

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Beasts of the Southern WildBeasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Why They Were Nominated

Beasts of the Southern Wild was this year’s indie darling, taking critics and audiences by surprise with its inspired mix of social realism and magical fantasy, all made coherent as a story told through the eyes of a precocious little girl in the southern Bayou of a Louisiana community that’s continually ravaged by bad weather, alcoholism, and giant boars. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Beasts of the Southern Wild creates a distinctive voice even though it’s based on previously existing material (Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious”).

Why They Might Win

Screenplay categories are typically where the Academy’s indie darlings shine, so this might be the moment where The Bathtub and the array of characters illustrated within it get their due. Furthermore, voters might want to recognize the specific storytelling device in this film, that Beasts of the Southern Wild is told (in its own fantastic way) rather convincingly through the eyes of a six-year-old girl. As beloved as Quvenzhané Wallis’s acting is, the character is distinctly there on the page as well.

Why They Might Not Win

While the Academy has made a habit of honoring indie screenplays (Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine, for example), this usually occurs in the Original Screenplay category. Beasts seems like an original screenplay because of the obscurity of its source material, and therefore it’s fighting an entirely different battle than the other films nominated here. And in my personal opinion, it’s easily one of the weakest films nominated in this category.

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Life of PiLife of Pi, David Magee

Why He Was Nominated

Based on the hugely popular novel of the same name by Yann Martel, Magee’s work makes for one of few adaptations that is almost comprehensively loyal to its source material while remaining singularly cinematic in its attempts to balance dense metaphysical themes with 3D-friendly adventure. It also makes a long boat ride between a human and a tiger quite enthralling, and any film that largely relegates itself to one speaking character deserves a bit of recognition.

Why He Might Win

He won’t win.

Why He Won’t Win

Of all the things Life of Pi has received accolades for, the screenplay isn’t one of them. Many critics didn’t find the film’s Wizard of Oz style ending or its not-at-all subtle statement on a universal theocracy very convincing, insightful or interesting. The film has been recognized mostly because of its spectacular visual style, something that has no equivalent on the page. Look for Life of Pi to take home Best Visual Effects instead.

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Lincoln MovieLincoln, Tony Kushner

Why He Was Nominated

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” is pretty much the gold standard on Lincoln history that you could find at your local B&N. It’s also a nearly-1,000 page tome. Playwright and sometimes screenwriter Tony Kushner took that tome and adapted it into a two-and-a-half hour film that is one of the most engrossing spoken-word dramas in recent years. The dialogue is dense yet accessible, and deftly tells audiences everything they need to know about these historical juggernauts while moving events forward. Lincoln could have gone in a great many bad directions, but Kushner’s screenplay makes the film excel far beyond the typical biopic or Hollywood race drama. Abraham Lincoln isn’t a historical totem here, but a fully realized human being.

Why He Might Win

Kushner is a dramatist of high regard, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Angels in America. It makes sense, then, that character and dialogue-driven material is his strong suit. Lincoln will almost certainly take home a few statues for its performances, but it’s Kushner’s dialogue that these brilliant performances rest on, and he’s why Lincoln is the best film Spielberg has made in over a decade.

Why He Might Not Win

The film’s fully realized performances may overshadow Kushner’s contributions, and he does have to compete with Argo and Silver Linings in this category, but it’s my humble prediction that Kushner should, and will, win.

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Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

Why He Was Nominated

After Russell’s quiet comeback into the Hollywood respectability machine with the surprisingly conventional (for him) The Fighter, Silver Linings represents the writer/director’s return to particularly Russell-esque territory. Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel proved to be exceedingly compatible with the madcap sensibilities Russell displayed in films like Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees, with its eccentric, lovable, and aggressively imperfect characters suffering through personal crises in esoteric ways. Silver Linings Playbook represents the full-fledged return of David O. Russell, maker of slapstick dramas.

Why He Might Win

This is one of those screenplays where the voice of its author is immanently available across the film, and writer/directors like Russell tend to be honored more often for their writing skills than their directing skills at the Oscars (see Woody Allen). With its character and dialogue-driven, intimate and largely plot-less plotting, Silver Linings Playbook is a film where the writing stands out. It’s also less conventional than its advertising suggested, yet the film’s third act is something that voters and audiences don’t have to feel bad for cheering about. It’s the right mix of original and Hollywood-friendly elements.

Why He Might Not Win

While this category is one of few where comedic dramas (like Alexander Payne’s work) are recognized, there’s a prevailing sense that Silver Linings Playbook, in contrast to the night’s other major contenders, isn’t a very high-stakes film. Some critics are even saying it isn’t even the best David O. Russell-style David O. Russell film. Nevertheless, Silver Lining Playbook is a major contender here. Who doesn’t love a comeback story?

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