Oscar Breakdown: Best Adapted Screenplay

By  · Published on February 24th, 2011

This article is part of our Oscar Week Series, where you will find breakdowns and predictions for all of the major categories.

The process of making a film involves thousands of moving parts and pieces from the actors to the director to the caterers and beyond, but arguably the most integral aspect of the process is the script. I say arguable, but I’m only being polite. The script is the most important part of a film… it’s responsible for the words coming out of the actors’ mouths, for the shifts in story, for the very tale itself. Actors bring it to life and the director makes it a visual reality, but it all starts from the script.

An argument could be made that scripts adapted from a previous source have most of the heavy lifting already done for them, but the ones making that case have most likely never written a script. It may be an advantage to have the story beats clearly marked out for you in advance, but it doesn’t make the process of writing a smart, entertaining, and well crafted screenplay any easier. This year sees a mixed bag of nominees in the Adapted category, and while one film seems to be a lock to win there’s at least one nominee that just don’t belong on the same stage. I’m looking at you Toy Story 3.

The nominees are listed below with my prediction for the winner in red…

127 Hours (by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy)

Why It Was Nominated: The Academy has always been a sucker for films based on true stories, and Danny Boyle’s emotionally arresting take on Aaron Ralston’s near death experience is one of the year’s better examples. Ralston found himself trapped miles from civilization, but he survived through sheer smarts and determination. The film rewards those characteristics while also highlighting the human need for connection, the importance of family and friends, and an awareness that our time on Earth is limited.

Why It Might Win: Two years ago this category was awarded to Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire which was also a collaboration with Boyle. The film has no shot at a win in the Best Film category so this could be another way to reward it.

Why It Might Not Win: Most of the critical acclaim towards this film seems aimed at Franco’s performance. It’s neither the dialogue nor structure that stands out for most viewers, and instead is more about the acting, visuals, and editing.

The Social Network (by Aaron Sorkin)

Why It Was Nominated: This is the film that defined a generation! It speaks to the way we relate with each other on a daily basis and to our need to communicate and belong as well. Facebook is a digital behemoth that has managed to work its way into hundreds of millions of peoples’ lives and become an essential part of their daily experience. The film looks at the phenomenon through the actions of its creators, namely Mark Zuckerberg, and flips the lens to show us that even as the site is bringing people together it’s also capable of keeping them apart. And while it’s easy to say this was nominated because Aaron Sorkin wrote it, it’s worth remembering that the guy also wrote the 1993 Bill Pullman thriller Malice (which while vastly under-seen is still just a pulpy thriller).

Why It Might Win: Because the first thing people think about when heaping praise onto this film is the screenplay. The opening scene alone almost guaranteed a nomination with its rapid fire, wickedly smart banter between Zuckerberg and the girl he likes. Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara bring this doomed relationship to life, but it’s Sorkin’s words that make it possible to learn so much about a character in so little time. The remainder of the script is just as smart and entertaining. Also, from 2000 to 2009 there were only two times that the Best Picture winner didn’t also take home the award for Best Screenplay, and since this is one of the two front runners for the top prize…

Why It Might Not Win: Oh, it will. But in the off chance it doesn’t it may be due to the slight backlash against Sorkin from people who took real issue with certain factual changes and false issue with the film’s supposed sexism.

Toy Story 3 (by Michael Arndt)

Why It Was Nominated: The original Toy Story was Pixar’s first feature film, and over the course of two sequels audiences have become quite attached to Woody, Buzz, and the others. Part three represents the end of a journey begun when many viewers were themselves children and sees the toys accepting the fact that moving on doesn’t necessarily mean the end. Plus, after The Dark Knight was snubbed (according to some) two years ago the Academy has begun a mini trend of rewarding the year’s biggest box office hit with nominations, and Toy Story 3 is the box-office champ of 2010.

Why It Might Win: The love for Pixar films in this country is rivaled only by the love for fatty foods, instant gratification, and Two & A Half Men. This is the highest grossing film in the category, and the Academy loves rewarding success (witness any non-technical nominations for Avatar last year). Pixar films have recently begun spreading their reach to categories outside of Best Animated Film, and while they have yet to win this could very well be the year.

Why It Might Not Win: At the end of the day when nostalgia and blind Pixar love has worn off the story here is little more than a rehash of Toy Story 2. The toys have been on this journey before and the two best scenes, an elaborate escape and the bittersweet finale with the little girl, both work due more to the brilliant animation than to any words on the page.

True Grit (by Joel and Ethan Coen)

Why It Was Nominated: Folks scoffed and shook their heads in disbelief when the Coen’s announced they’d be remaking and/or re-adapting True Grit as their next film, but the result is a fun, beautiful, and lovingly crafted instant classic. The film surpasses the original in every way and manages to be the brothers’ most accessible film to date. Plus, Westerns are a purely American genre that have become a rarity on the big screen, so when one of this caliber gets made and manages to please audiences and critics alike it’s deserving of formal recognition.

Why It Might Win: The films’ leads including Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld are all fantastic, but what shines the most in their performances are the words coming out of their mouths. From the haggard bluster of Rooster Cogburn to LaBoeuf’s questionable bravado to young Mattie Ross’ incredible intelligence and spirit, it’s the dialogue that shines through the dust and dirt of the American West.

Why It Might Not Win: This is technically an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, but most folks see it as a remake of the John Wayne film from 1969. That might work against it as remakes seem to have a much tougher time winning than adaptations do… the last forty years have only seen two remakes bring home the gold and neither were based on widely seen originals (Infernal Affairs and Traffic).

Winter’s Bone (by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini)

Why It Was Nominated: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as a young woman in the Ozark Mountains trying to track down her missing father and save her family’s home has already made her a star and landed her a high profile (and very blue) role in the upcoming X-Men: First Class. The attention she brought to the film has also increased awareness of the (even better) performance by John Hawkes as well as the film’s slowly-built suspense and powerful conclusion. The film is an indie in a sea of far bigger films, but it has managed to hold and keep the attention of those who appreciate talent no matter the budget.

Why It Might Win: Everyone loves an underdog, and this little seen indie definitely fills the bill against competition consisting of box-office hits. The film opened up a world seldom glimpsed by most people, and those familiar with the Ozarks have praised the authenticity of the script and the performances.

Why It Might Not Win: But it’s those strong performances that have maintained the focus of this film’s attention. Lawrence and Hawkes both give stellar turns in their respective roles, but it’s the way they’re speaking more than the words themselves that are most impressive. Meaning it’s the performances, not the dialogue, that makes this a memorable film.

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Original Screenplay

Cole’s $100,000 Oscar Predictions

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.