Over the weekend, Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) and Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air) took home the WGA awards for Best Original and Adapted Screenplay. These were probably the expected winners, but does that actually make them the best? From what I understand, many of the WGA voters take the trouble to read the actual screenplay, in addition to watching the movie. Most of us don't get that opportunity; as a voting member of the SFFCC, I only received one screenplay in the mail, for Up. Thus, the majority of us can only judge the majority of the screenplays by the dialogue and the structure of the story as they appear on the movie screen.
When my critics group voted, we debated for a while over the merits of The Hurt Locker, versus those of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and we eventually gave our award to the latter. I love both movies, but The Hurt Locker seems to be more of a job of directing than of writing, whereas Tarantino's movie seems to rely more on the writing; the scenes build on -- and play out because of -- the dialogue. (Characters practically analyze their own actions on screen.) These two are nominated in the Best Original Screenplay Oscar category, with three other worthy candidates.
Joel and Ethan Coen have won in this category before, for Fargo. They are two of the best writers around -- especially when it comes to comedy -- and A Serious Man is one of their darkest and richest works, though I suspect that it's a bit too impenetrable for a voter that's quickly trying to get through his or her stack of nominees. (It requires some extra work.) Then there's Oren Moverman, co-writing with Alessandro Camon, on the surprisingly good The Messenger. Moverman worked on some very interesting screenplays over the years, including Jesus' Son and I'm Not There, none of which has ever even been close to an Oscar nomination before. The Messenger is an even harder sell than A Serious Man; it's all about war and death and does not look like much fun. I wouldn't be surprised if many voters skipped it, especially because it really has no chance of winning. But it's a rich and fulfilling experience, and it's great that it was nominated.
Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy are the final nominees, for Up. McCarthy, of course, is the guy who wrote and directed the very good movies The Station Agent and The Visitor, and this is his first nomination. I love Up, but I do think it flags a bit in its final third, when it becomes a chase and a fight with a villain that could have been slightly more. Moreover, its main strengths come in its images, such as the wordless opening "marriage" montage and the indelible image of the floating house and the colored balloons. But this raises the question: did these images begin in the screenplay, or is it the directors (or the animators) who deserve credit for bringing these images to the screen and making them physical?
Finally, regarding the Best Original Screenplay category, we should mention Avatar, which -- like Titanic -- was not nominated despite a ton of nominations in other categories. Personally, I don't think it deserved to be, but I'm sure plenty of other movie fans out there are up in arms about this omission.
This leaves us with some great screenplays that did not get nominated, such as Greg Mottola's Adventureland, which was one of those rare movies that had a lot of genuine laughs, some genuine heartbreak and some tiny nuggets of truth. Jane Campion's Bright Star was officially an original screenplay, though it was based on the life and romance of real-life poet John Keats. It incorporated Keats' writings into a visual tapestry that was itself infallibly poetic. And I'm a big fan of Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, a terrific original screenplay that seemed truly joyous and wicked even as it played around with some fairly well-used tricks.
In the "Adapted Screenplay" Oscar category, the choice, for me, is much clearer. The award should go to the group behind In the Loop. Because it's so fast and funny, I think it's probably not as clever as it seems, but the good news is that it's definitely fast and funny. I'm glad to see Nick Hornby get a nomination for An Education, but I'd say it's his weakest job of writing, on material that doesn't really suit him. Up in the Air is funny and interesting, but a bit schizophrenic. It also wants to say something relevant, but can't quite figure out what that might be, and sometimes this impulse pulls the movie in opposite directions. It should have stuck with being funny and interesting.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is more of a feat of casting and canny promotion than writing. District 9 is a fairly obvious political parable, wrapped up in a rather lazy faux-documentary style, which allows for tons of expositional dialogue, and which is then more or less abandoned about a third of the way in. If the movie works at all, it works due to the presentation, not because of the writing.
None of these adapted screenplays appeared on my personal ballot, which started off with Shauna Cross's adaptation of her novel Whip It. Like Adventureland, it's a very funny movie, but does not sacrifice truth or characters to get its laughs. After that, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach left enough of Roald Dahl intact in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but perfectly fit in some of their own fears, ideas and obsessions to make it something new and personal. Henry Selick's Coraline, from Neil Gaiman's book, is the best and darkest kids' movie in a generation.
David Hayter and Alex Tse did a remarkable job of bringing Alan Moore's complex Watchmen to the screen; it was epic, and a massive juggling act, but managed to stay rooted in moments and characters. Finally, there was Peter Morgan's The Damned United, from David Peace's novel. Morgan is probably an easy choice and has been much honored already for The Queen and Frost/Nixon, but it just goes to show that the guy's a darn fine writer.
How about it readers? Can you judge a screenplay from the finished movie? What are your choices? What else was overlooked?