2014 Academy Awards: Adapted Screenplay

**This post first appeared on The Lamb, as part of the 2014 'The Lamb Devours the Oscars' series.**

After the 2014 Oscar nominations were announced, I set myself a fun challenge - to read all of the nominated screenplays (both Original and Adapted). Sometimes writers get lost in the madness that is the film industry, even though without their stories there would be no movies in the first place. That's why I like to cheer on the screenwriters and their work. So having read the five Adapted Screenplay nominees, here is my take on each of them.

Before Midnight 

The third movie in the acclaimed Before series, Before Midnight is written by Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It is considered an Adapted Screenplay because it’s a follow-on from the original film Before Sunrise. Written as essentially one long conversation, the script's dialogue is as close to perfection as any screenplay can get. Reading this script is almost like eavesdropping on a conversation in a cafĂ©, or, in the case of the superbly written fight scene near the end, an arguing couple in the hotel room next door. Jesse and Celine might be a long way from the idealistic pair we met in the first film, but in writing Before Midnight Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have answered the question that hung so hopefully in the air at the end of Sunset - will this couple get together? I'm glad the answer was 'yes'. And even though Midnight is beautifully written, it doesn't hold back - this is real life, with the hurts and resentments of long-term relationships so awkwardly on display here. Still, I'm happy to have been given another glimpse into these characters' lives.

Captain Phillips

Written by Billy Ray and based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, this action-packed screenplay is not your typical voyage-at-sea adventure. Captain Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, is hijacked by a small band of Somali pirates wielding AK-47s. The crew does all it can to fight off the pirates, but Phillips is eventually held hostage aboard a lifeboat. This is Captain Phillips' story and yet the script is so well written, with the characters given such distinct personalities, that we come to see the pirates, led by Muse, as men rather than just evil enemies. The dialogue is sharp throughout and the setting is so richly described that it was easy to visualise the massive ship and the cramped lifeboat. A tense thriller that is about a lot more than just pirates-take-over-a-ship, Captain Phillips is one hell of a waterlogged ride.


Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, the screenplay was written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Philomena is the heartbreaking story of a real-life woman whose young child was taken from her in 1950s Ireland. Written with spark and wit, this script gives us a brilliant balance of humour and drama. Martin and Philomena's interactions, their funny remarks, and the way Martin eventually warms to Philomena is all there on the page and it is beautiful to read. It's just as well there are light moments in this story because the devastating truth of poor Philomena's life really did drain me emotionally. I was horrified to see what had happened to these young women, the lives that had been ruined, the relationships that can never be fully mended. With expert skill, Coogan and Pope have given us an unforgettable story that touches on so many human emotions, but never loses itself in melancholy. A powerful 'human interest' story that proves character-driven plots can provide just as much entertainment as the big special effects films.    

12 Years a Slave

This screenplay was written by John Ridley, based on the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. A script that features a lot of prose, this story is all about the interior fight Solomon goes on to keep himself from 'falling into despair.' While he can not fight on the outside, for fear of death, Solomon's journey is captured on the page through Ridley's many novel-like descriptions. That's not to say there is no action in this screenplay. The action, when it comes, is brutal and very hard to read. The harrowing story of freeman Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, was always going to be an emotional one. There is so much going on here - terrifying violence, political commentary, moral debate, and the human struggle for survival and freedom. This is not easy entertainment or escapism. To read this screenplay is to be taken on a gut-wrenching ride to hell and back. But that's the beauty of the script - such a story could not have been told any other way.  

The Wolf of Wall Street 

Based on the memoir The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort, this screenplay was written by Terence Winter. The first thing you notice when starting to read this script is just how funny it is. There's dwarf-throwing and copious amounts of drug taking, there's sex and all kinds of general debauchery. It's fair to say Jordan Belfort lived a very crazy life. This screenplay relies on voice-over narration by Belfort to tell his story, as well as a lot of quick, punchy scenes that ram this aforementioned crazy life down our throats (and up our noses). That's what is so perfect about this script - it is written in the same way Belfort lived his life; fast and high-as-a-kite. The screenplay moves along at a rapid pace and even though it is 138 pages, it never feels like too much craziness. In fact, it is exciting to read. With page after page of wanton gratification, it is no wonder Belfort eventually found himself behind bars. Belfort's life was lavish and all about excess; Winter's script captures this all to great effect.

I can see why these five screenplays were nominated. Reading each one showed me that with skill the screenwriter can produce a script that captures the mood of the story. We have five very different stories here - the romantic one, the thriller, the character-driven one, the struggle for survival, and the comedy - so it is hard to compare them to find a winner. I can't guess who the Academy will choose, but I'd like to see Before Midnight win. That succinct script proves that well-written dialogue does more than offer up a simple conversation - it can also go deeper than the surface and show us all the things left unspoken.   

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