Best Adapted Screenplay: No Longer a Novel Affair?

Jason Retiman's Labor Day, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.
Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures
I noticed an intriguing tidbit of trivia while finalizing my predictions for Thursday’s Academy Award nominations. As I was taking stock of Best Adapted Screenplay, my favourite category in the race, I referred to several precursors and contenders and took stock of a surprising fact: this year’s race for Best Adapted Screenplay will likely not include a single film based on a novel. This would be the first time for page-to-screen fiction to be shut out of the race since the very first year of the Academy Awards.

The 1927/1928 awards included a trio of films based on plays. Seventh Heaven (the winner), Glorious Betsy, and The Jazz Singer are all stage-to-screen endeavours. The latter Al Jolson pic seems like an especially logical piece to adapt for the first sound film. The Oscars have always been a literary affair in the years since Al Jolson mugged for the camera, for film has long looked to pre-established stories and novels for inspiration, but the Academy will probably chalk up an anomaly for the trivia books this year.

The Oscar race for the films of 2013 really includes only one adult-themed film of literary origins. It’s Labor Day, my favourite adaptation of the year, which has been virtually absent from the conversation altogether, save for a Golden Globe nomination for Kate Winslet in the Best Actress category. Labor Day, adapted by Jason Reitman from the novel by Joyce Maynard, might have been a logical shoo-in in the race’s main fête for literary adaptations, the University of Southern California Libraries’ Scripter Awards, which are the only awards to acknowledge the source author as well as the screenwriter. Labor Day wasn’t included in the Scripter nominations despite the fact that it is a pitch-perfect adaptation that remains faithful to its source text while delivering something remarkably authentic.
Onata Aprile as Maisie and Julianne Moore as Susanna in What Maise Knew.
Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment
The Scripters, on the other hand, gave two shout-outs to films based on fiction. One was an exciting mention for one of the year’s most ingenious yet overlooked adaptations, Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne’s take on Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. Maisie, despite positive reviews, hardly had a chance in the Oscar race for it was virtually abandoned by distributors. It didn’t even screen in Canadian theatres in Canada.

The other novel acknowledged by the Scripters was Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now, which was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. (I have not yet had a chance to see it.) The Spectacular Now is an interesting anomaly among recent film adaptations for it taps into the ever-growing field of young adult/teen novels being made into films (see: The Hunger Games, Twilight, Beautiful Creatures and the upcoming Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, The Giver, Vampire Academy, etc.) yet caters to an art-house Sundance-y audience. (One could call it a relative of last year’s Perks of Being a Wallflower.) The Oscar race of 2013 also includes one other notable teen novel turned art film: Michael Petroni’s utterly turgid adaptation of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
The Spectacular Now
What Maisie Knew and The Spectacular Now are, like Labor Day, dark horses in the Oscar race. The Scripter is the lone citation that Maisie’s screenplay has received all year, while The Spectacular now has popped up in minor critics’ prizes. Both films earned some love from the Scripters since the awards don’t give out prizes to plays, which bumped out fellow underdog (but Writers’ Guild nominee), August: Osage County. Even the nomination for A Dangerous Method cites the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr, but not the play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton who wrote the adaptation himself.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (far left) and Paul Giamatti in 12 Years a Slave.
Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight.
The three other books-to-films that were nominated by the Scripters—12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, and Philomenaare all based on works of non-fiction. 12 Years a Slave is a mostly faithful rendering by John Ridley of the book by Solomon Northup, while Captain Phillips dramatizes A Captain’s Duty Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty. The film, adapted by screenwriter Billy Ray and director Paul Greengrass, came under considerable scrutiny by the men aboard the Maersk Alabama, saying the film’s depiction of Phillips as a stalwart hero doesn’t jive with the true story. Phillips has largely survived any backlash and is quite secure for a nomination after being cited by both the USC and the WGA among other notable precursors.
Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith & Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an eOne Films release

Philomena, on the other hand, is an especially striking adaptation of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. The screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan takes considerable liberties with Sixsmith’s book, yet it remains true to the story of Philomena Lee and her son Michael Hess. If Philomena were a faithful adaptation of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Judi Dench would barely have a cameo! Sixsmith’s book is mostly a reconstruction of Hess’s life, a biography that connects a lost child to the mother he never knew, and fills in pieces of history with writerly interpretation. The adaptation tells the other side of the story, the mother’s search for her son, so Philomena is an especially unique case of a film furthering the adaptation process by giving something both new and true to its source.

Like Labor Day, The Spectacular Now, and What Maisie Knew, though, the Writers Guild didn’t single out the scripts for Philomena and 12 Years a Slave. The latter two projects were simply deemed ineligible by the WGA’s consistently restrictive guidelines; however, the absence of two frontrunners failed to open room for fiction. In addition to the aforementioned nominees Captain Phillips and August: Osage County, the vacant slots were filled by The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted from the memoir by Jordan Belfort; Before Midnight, based on characters created by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan; and surprise nominee Lone Survivor, based on the book by Marcus Lutrell with Patrick Robinson. This year’s field of adaptations has thus largely been an affair of true stories and teen-lit cash cows.

It’s hardly a sign of the times that half of Hollywood is looking to obvious sources for ready-made audiences in the key demographic. Neither The Hunger Games nor Divergent presents a new phenomenon (look at Harry Potter), nor is looking to true life anything new for films geared to adult audiences. There has been, however, an uncommon shortage of films based on adult fiction at the movies. One would have to go all the way back to 1998’s Oscar race to find a category that was filled with five screenplays based on works of adult fiction: Gods and Monsters, Out of Sight, Primary Colors, A Simple Plan, and The Thin Red Line. Does the subsequent dismissal of Labor Day by voters (not to mention many critics and, especially, distributor Paramount Pictures) suggest that there is shrinking room for a demographic of book club filmgoers?
Blue is the Warmest Color. Photo courtesy Mongrel Media.

Not entirely. Aside from Labor Day, but also largely absent from the recognition for adaption is Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix’s script for Blue is the Warmest Color. Even Blue, though, is based on a graphic novel (by Julie Marloh), rather than a prose novel. The popularity of the graphic novel has been a growing presence in adaptation with films like Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and  A History of Violence tapping in to a source that’s been opened up by the explosion of comic book movies and the like in the past decade. However, Blue is the Warmest Color, like Labor Day, has not received a single citation for its extraordinary screenplay.

In the unlikely event that Labor Day, The Spectacular Now, What Maisie Knew, or (heaven forbid) The Book Thief finds its way into the Best Adapted Screenplay race at the Oscars, it will still offer this ceremony a feat that hasn’t been matched in thirty years. The last race to include only one film based on a novel was for 1983. That film was Terms of Endearment, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, and it won Best Picture.