Mad Max: Fury Road Should Qualify For the Original Screenplay Oscar

By  · Published on September 15th, 2015

Warner Bros.

If there were awards given for most original adapted screenplay, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials might be a contender. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the most loosely adapted works of all time. This isn’t a comment on quality or a review of the movie at all (we’ll have one of those later this week), just an observation. One that fits into my thinking lately that the Academy might need to eventually expand its definition of “original.”

Plot-wise, The Scorch Trials actually shares a lot in common with another imaginative sequel released this year, Mad Max: Fury Road. Some people escape a compound, head out into the desert and eventually seek a kind of sanctuary. Aside from involving a simple, familiar foundation of a narrative and featuring a single character (and his car) linking it to a series of movies from 30–36 years ago, Fury Road remains one of the more creative pieces of cinema in 2015.

Had Fury Road just gone by its subtitle and renamed its male lead, I think it’d have a shot at being one of the rare summer blockbusters to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the first since Inception five years ago. Why should it be deemed an unoriginal work? Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, it’s an original continuation of an original movie, not really adapted from anything. It’s more originally conceived than all the nominees based on true stories.

Unfortunately, this is the way sequels are viewed, and unfortunately there’s way too much competition in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. If they aren’t adapted from sequel books (such as The Color of Money, The Silence of the Lambs and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), sequel films are typically screwed when it comes to the Academy Awards. However, we have been seeing them make appearances in recent years in the adapted category, including Toy Story 3 and Before Midnight.

Fury Road is appearing on some Oscar bloggers’ adapted screenplay prognostication lists, but it’s hardly one of the favored picks. Same goes for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a sequel to one of those rare blockbusters that were up for the original screenplay award. For all its secrecy, the plot of The Force Awakens better be as freshly written as the first Star Wars, but even if it’s indeed another masterpiece of space opera storytelling, it’s likely to suffer the same fate as The Empire Strikes Back before it and no screenplay recognition.

This year would have been a great time for the Academy to start openly allowing for sequels to be considered original works, not just because there are too many contenders for Best Adapted Screenplay but because the competition in the Best Original Screenplay category is looking very light. In a recent tweet, awards guru Kristopher Tapley called the category “jaw-droppingly thin” with “maybe 15 real contenders. Maybe.”

So far, from what’s been seen, the best bets are Inside Out, because Pixar is pretty obligatory, and Spotlight, which has actually sold itself as being based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. But not based on the words that investigation printed, so original. Of those unseen, The Hateful Eight and Joy are expected because Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell have both become obligatory hopefuls, too. Fury Road could take the fifth slot.

The screenplay categories can often be confusing, as far as their rules are concerned. Or lack thereof. As already noted, sequels are supposed to be automatically considered adapted works. Yet before 2002, the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) award was called Best Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen), which would technically seem to mean a sequel would count. If any did, they still weren’t nominated (excluding Road to Utopia, which is part of a franchise but not really a sequel).

But a year after that change to the seemingly more limiting word choice, The Barbarian Invasions, officially a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, was nominated in the original screenplay category. Then one year later, Before Sunset, a sequel to Before Sunrise, was nominated in the adapted category. I’ve seen this confusion explained by the fact that while involving the same characters by name, The Barbarian Invasions doesn’t really have anything to do with its predecessor. Isn’t Fury Road a similar exception?

Maybe the Academy needs to provide more definition to its screenplay categories. They could adapt the wording from the animated feature rules, which state that “a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.” The original screenplay rule would be that “a significant number of the major characters must be original, and originality must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.”

Much of Fury Road’s originality could be nominated in other categories, such as those for production design, makeup and costumes. The movie even has a tiny bit of a shot at being nominated for Best Picture. But with Imperator Furiosa already going down as one of the most iconic movie characters since Darth Vader, it would be a shame if her creation receives less acknowledgment than that of “Crocodile” Dundee or Juno MacGuff.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.