Reading the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar category: The book isn't always better
Image Credit: Sebastian MlynarskiAs a huge nerd, the Oscar category I anticipate most each year is Best Adapted Screenplay. There’s something uniquely creative and scholarly about deconstructing a book line-by-line, condensing several scenes into one, inventing devices to lend greater truth to the narrative, and building with images the unspoken words that authors have the luxury of telling readers outright. I like imagining how beaten, dog-eared, and annotated the screenwriter’s copy of the source material must be, and the adapter’s inevitable hours of turmoil of having to sacrifice beautiful scenes for the ruthless economy required of a good film.
It bothers me when people say, “The book is always better than the movie.” It’s a blanket statement I think people say to sound smart, but it’s simply not true (unless you’re talking about Harry Potter). The Devil Wears Prada the movie was leagues better than the charmless book by Lauren Weisberger. The Godfather films will long outlast Mario Puzo’s pulpy potboiler. In the hands of screenwriters and directors who aren’t afraid to take risks, a film adaptation can elevate the source material into a new stratosphere.
As a whole, the nominated adaptations this year—aside from Toy Story 3, which is included in the category as a sequel—stand up well to the source material, or in the case of the likely winner, The Social Network, far exceeds it. The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich focused on the tabloid-ready elements of Mark Zuckerberg’s story and wildly speculated about events. The film version arguably took even more liberties, but through incisive dialogue, sensitive characterization, and economic storytelling, the film achieved its own thematic, if not factual, truth.
The Coen brothers didn’t mess with the Charles Portis classic True Grit—that faithfulness might have contributed to the slow pace of the first act—but Portis’ language and strong heroine in Mattie Ross translated seamlessly to screen. Aron Ralston’s riveting 127 Hours, which doesn’t lend itself to the typical three-act structure of film, undoubtedly presented a challenge to Simon Beaufoy, but he and director Danny Boyle told the story of Ralston’s solitary journey with the right mix of exuberance and horror.
While Aaron Sorkin would certainly be a deserving winner for The Social Network, in a perfect world, I think Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini’s stunning adaption of Winter’s Bone would get the recognition it deserves. Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel was spare, haunting, unforgettable, and underappreciated. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a physical reaction to a book. The desperation I felt for Ree Dolly, the heroine, almost constricted my throat. I watched the film version with reservations—in my mind, I was protective of the novel—but I was blown away. I wouldn’t say the film improved upon the book, but rather, it revealed the limits of my own imagination, which is what good adaption can do. The film imagined the abject poverty of the Ozarks with more dignity and respect than I could. Characters I thought of as monsters in the book came through with such humanity on screen—their restraint told you so much about who they were and their strict code of conduct. The mythic overtones I gathered from the book—Ree Dolly as a modern-day Antigone—were fully captured in Granik and Rossellini’s treatment.
How do you think this year’s nominated adaptations stack up next to the book versions?