Why ‘Philomena’ Deserves the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay

By  · Published on January 5th, 2014

I was disappointed this week when Philomena was not named among the WGA Award nominees. It turns out that it wasn’t eligible (Steve Coogan and/or Jeff Pope must not be in the Writers Guild of America), nor were a number of other noteworthy films (including 12 Years a Slave and Short Term 12), which hopefully followers of the Oscar race are both aware of and share if they’re also entertainment writers. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think Philomena is falling behind. After all, it might just be the most original adapted screenplay of the year, and if originality were the primary quality for that category then Philomena would deserve to take home the Academy Award on March 2nd.

How exactly adapted works are judged has never been clear, and it doesn’t help when the nominees may include sequels with purely original stories and dialogue, such as this year’s strong contender Before Midnight, as well as any films based on books, TV shows, plays and other films, including shorts by the same filmmakers that were basically like practice runs for the features. When it comes to those based on books, do the voters merit faithfulness or interpretation or clever strays from the source material? It probably isn’t the last, because otherwise past nominees like Adaptation, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and There Will Be Blood would have won for their looseness as adaptations to the point that they almost ought to have been in the original screenplay category instead.

Last year, I offered up the new categories of MOST original screenplay and MOST ORIGINAL adapted screenplay, the latter honoring those films that mostly used their source material as just a jumping off point. For some adapted works that’s always going to be the case anyway. Short Term 12 obviously adds a lot of new material to its basis, a 21-minute short that had to be expanded upon for the 96-minute version. As I said, Before Midnight would also obviously be in there. But how many of you are aware of just how original Philomena is? If you’ve read the book, you know, because the movie’s plot comes strictly from the epilogue of Martin Sixsmith’s nonfiction novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (pages 439–454 to be specific). Yep, like Charlie Kaufman adapting The Orchid Thief, Coogan and Pope took a little scrap of what they liked from a book and then went their own way with it.

And like that film, Philomena shifts its focus to a writer. Unlike Adaptation, though, Philomena is not about the writer of the screenplay but the writer of the book. Sixsmith, who is portrayed by Coogan, is the main character instead of the title character (Judi Dench), who wasn’t really the protagonist of the book anyway (that would be her lost son). And he’s been fictionalized a good deal in order to fit the themes and thesis of what Coogan, who also produced the film, wanted to explore. Then the plot focused on this ill-fitting buddy comedy element of the two leads going on a trip together. It’s not terribly unlike the underrated mother/son movie The Guilt Trip, also released last year, except it has a greater point and deals with some heavier subject matter, namely religious devotion and forgiveness and love and their clash against modern atheism, intellectualism and cynicism. I suppose you could retitle Philomena “The Catholic Guilt Trip,” and it would perform better in the U.S. The movie ought to be doing better at the box office simply for the fact that it works on two different levels and appeals to two different audiences, those who identify more with Philomena and like a nice, sweet road trip dramedy and those who identify more with Sixsmith and appreciate the deeper ideas the script is delving into. Personally, I’m somehow both a softy and a cynic, so I loved it all.

Not everyone is able to appreciate even a single side of Philomena. Coogan and Pope used artistic license in order to keep a certain real person alive for at least a decade longer than she’d actually existed. That part has earned them some complaints from people who will always prefer complete faithfulness as well as members of the Church relevant to that person/character (who already dislike the film’s portrayal of Catholics as the villains). I don’t know why they didn’t go with a totally made up composite for the role, but I feel like that sort of “inaccuracy” can potentially hurt a script like Philomena’s when it comes to Oscar voters. That and the directorial execution of a script, which in the case of this one is rather pedestrian compared to the material being worked with (I think in Kate Erbland’s review of the movie for FSR, many of her issues stem from Stephen Frears’ part as the director). But not contrivance, which shows a writer’s hand and can make a movie seem less realistic. The Academy likes movies that feel scripted more than natural, especially in the original category. They should be fans of Short Term 12 for that reason, too, though I don’t see that film being nominated.

I haven’t read the source material or even taken enough of glance at the books serving as the basis for some other frontrunners, such as 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, August: Osage County, Lone Survivor and The Wolf of Wall Street. I presume those films are all more faithful than Philomena. As a counter to the rule, perhaps, the closeness of WoWS to its source may in fact hurt that script’s chances given how much everyone wishes the movie offered more than Jordan Belfort’s narrow (in scope and mind) point of view. But voters are not required or even encouraged to look at the source, either, as far as I’m aware. These scripts are to be judged as isolated entities for their writing craft as displayed on the page and on the screen, not for what parts are recycled or invented compared to what they’re born out of. In that regard, Philomena may not be the strongest. It has a lot going for it on its own, but it is admitted so much more interesting in the context of its translation from book to movie.

To end with a prediction, I expect for 12 Years a Slave to win the Oscar, even though unlike Philomena it’s the directorial execution there that makes the film work as well as it does. As for Philomena, I do hope it at least secures a nomination. I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, though, as it’s probably the contender in this category that has the least Best Picture changes.

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.