Oscars Deep Dive: Adapted Screenplay

Welcome once again, dear reader, to the time of year when I embrace the relentless theorizing and predicting that courses under the Oscars race. In each of these columns, I’ll dive deep into the read I have on a major category at the Oscars. I’ll do this by first giving “The Short of It,” where I keep it real tight and to the point, and then “The Long of It,” where I offer more detail on each of the nominees and where they stand in the race. 

Nominees

Sacha Baron Cohen and Co-Writers, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton, The Father (2020)

Chloé Zhao, Nomadland (2020)

Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami (2020)

Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger (2021)

The Short of It

Will Win: Because of head-scratching Writers Guild of America (WGA) rules, Chloé Zhao could not be nominated there for her writing, but that will do nothing to hamper an eventual win for Nomadland at the Oscars. Her graceful script has already picked up a number of previous awards, and the amount of momentum she and Nomadland have this year leaves me with little doubt she will win. 

Should Win: I agree with the prevailing opinion that Chloé Zhao deserves this award. She took Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name and remixed it into a stirring and nimble story of her own design, which is exactly what this category is meant to reward.

The Long of It

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm:

I have to begin with the prominent head-scratcher in this category: how exactly is this an adapted screenplay? For one, much of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was improvised, a fact confirmed by any number of actors, interviewees, and producers. Furthermore, as opposed to every other nominee in this category, it does not have a source text, such as a novel or play, from which it has been adapted. I have read a concerning number of articles attempting to find a satisfying rationale, but there is none to be found. Therefore, here we are, with Sacha Baron Cohen and his laundry list of co-writers nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category for their truly deranged but, and I begrudgingly admit this, often hilarious work following up the sensational Borat (2006). There is a small part of me that wonders if this script could be the bizarro win on Oscar night befitting the last 12 months of madness in the world, an itch in my mind strengthened by the fact that Baron Cohen and company won out at the WGA awards. However, seeing as Nomadland was left out of those nominees, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s win seems more like a salute to the insanity of a pop culture sensation and less like a harbinger of more awards to come. 

One Night in Miami:

The issue that often arises when considering the film adaptation of a play is that a story that takes place in limited locations with scenes dominated by dialogue sometimes seems clunky on screen. There is excitement as a viewer in suddenly gaining access to a production otherwise only enjoyed in a theater, but once the newness rubs off, I cannot help but question whether or not a recorded performance would have achieved similar ends. Such is the space that Kemp Powers’ adaptation of his own play took me to. The story itself is fascinating: how would the night of Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) heavyweight victory in Miami have played out, had he spent time with Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir)? What conversations would the group have had? As a result, the massively talented cast makes a meal out of Power’s various monologues and debates, but even for that, the script never emerges as a piece that justifies itself as a film. Some of this can no doubt be ascribed to Regina King’s directorial approach, which highlights performances masterfully, but otherwise approaches the material more like coverage than interpretation. At the end of the day, Powers wrote a remarkable play and seems to have just tweaked it for the screen. It will not win the Oscar, and I can handle that. 

The Father:

In contrast to my disappointments with One Night in Miami, Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play, which he collaborated on with legendary literary adapter Christopher Hampton, takes full advantage of the new medium at hand. The Father is nearly a true chamber piece, the story taking place within the confines of an apartment that is shifted slightly at times to visually signal the instability of time and place that plagues the characters. You can see all the markers of the film’s theatrical roots, from the deft usage of the set design to the elegant performances, namely Anthony Hopkins’ and Olivia Colman’s, push and pull as they maneuver the decimation that dementia has leveled on Hopkin’s character. Zeller’s approach to the story plunges the audience into the unknown alongside Anthony (Hopkins) as he struggles to understand what is going on around him. Zeller works to adapt his story with an eye for the ways that film construction and editing can achieve visual slights of hand easier than on stage. He writes in sequences that swap actors out to note  the way that folks suffering from dementia struggle to recognize faces. Elsewhere the flow of scenes and images plays up the temporal and spatial distortion that stems from the dissolution and imperfect recombination of memories and present experience. The result is a deeply disconcerting and moving story that discovers creative ways to reimagine theatrical tropes for a movie-going audience. Zeller has not won any notable preceding awards, so I doubt he has much chance of breaking through on Oscar night, but I hope the nomination drives more people to seek out his work. 

The White Tiger:

Adapting a source novel written from the first-person perspective of someone relaying their life story presents the distinct issue of deciding whether or not to preserve the narrator quality of the prose. In his approach to adapting Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name, writer-director Ramin Bahrani settles into a split position. This means a spattering of voice-over that most often pops in after brief fades-to-black that generally replicate the feeling of starting a new chapter, all told from Balram’s (Adarsh Gourav) point-of-view as he recounts his rise from poor villager, to servant, and all the way to entrepreneurial millionaire. Gourav’s performance should be a proper star-making turn, and he is surrounded by exceptional work from the rest of an ensemble that includes Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, and Kamlesh Gill. However, I often found myself bored by a story that should be electrifying, which I chalk up in large part to Bahrani’s script and relatively rote directorial style. The ‘chapter’ approach emerges as a half-hearted attempt to channel a more television-esque episodic narrative, which begs the question: why not just make a television show? The voiceover presents a separate issue, leaving this viewer with the impression that Bahrani settled on doing a Scorsese impression with his ‘innocence-lost-crime-story-with-voiceover’ routine. There is little chance of Bahrani winning the Oscar, and I do think that is for the best. 

Nomadland:

I am often struck when talking to people who have not studied film (read: spent an unhealthy amount of time watching and reading about film) that the default judgement for the quality of a screenplay is the dialogue. There is a sense that the writing only matters when it comes to crafting the best one-liners or speeches, an approach that overlooks the vital work that goes into shaping a narrative and sculpting a compelling flow. I point this out here because Chloé Zhao’s script is generally light on dialogue, opting most often for the performers and settings to convey tones and insights that would be ill-served by clunky expositional or overly wrought conversation. What Zhao does do is pristinely arrange a series of vignettes that reveal protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand), the assemblage of nomadic Americans she encounters through her travels, and the state of post-2008-financial-collapse America. I have not read Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book on which the film is based, but my understanding is that Zhao used moments and themes from Bruder’s work, but invented Fern and the specifics of the plot. In this sense, Zhao’s accomplishment is all the greater: maintaining the spirit of a source text while making a piece of art all your own is a staggering task. For that, she has been well-rewarded by previous awards bodies, and barring some shock upset of massive proportions, she will win an Oscar for her screenplay. 

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