Alright, movie lovers, following up on last week’s discussion of the “Directing” category of the Oscar nominations, Doug and I decided we’d dig into the writing categories this week. We kick the week off by delving into the “Adapted Screenplay” category. Enjoy!
Sarah: Let’s try to decide on criteria for this category. The question is, do we think the voters actually read the original material that the screenplays are based on, or is it just this was a good story, the movie had a good flow, everything fits together, it has a good story arc?
Doug: Don’t we think there’s almost no way the voters actually read the source material.
Sarah: I’m guessing they’re probably not giving homework to Academy voters, so they’re just voting on how the story presents on screen.
Doug: A pretty sneaky way, in the end, to get 10 groups of writers instead of 5 nominated for a screenwriting Academy Award. Because if you really do take into consideration how well the adapted screenplays are actually adapted, then it seems like it would be a requirement that you’d have to read the source material to be able to tell that. But, since I haven’t read any of the source material of the nominees except Moneyball, maybe we should give the Academy voters a pass. Because if that is a criteria, I can’t give a full opinion, really, on any of these.
Sarah: I haven’t read any of them either, so I think we just have to go with how the stories come across on screen, or this is going to be a short discussion.
Doug: It might be short, anyway, because for me this is one of the easier categories to choose a winner in.
Sarah (laughing): Let me guess. You’re going Tinker, Tailor, aren’t you?
Sarah (laughing): See how good I am? I know what you’re going to pick.
Doug (laughing right back): Do we need to talk any further? We should just have a talk where you tell me my picks for each category, and we could stop there. And I promise to not change my picks after you guess just to make you look bad.
Sarah: I’d be happy to do that, but just for fun, let’s talk over the adapted nominees, anyway. Why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?
Doug: Before I answer, let me say it can be tough to tell sometimes what makes a film like Tinker, Tailor great. How much credit goes to the writing and how much goes elsewhere? When you watch what you think is a bad performance, how much was it the performance or how much was because the writing stunk? A good example of this, for me, is Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart. My first reaction to her in that film was how bad she was. But then I realized that she was acting her ass off with material that was laughably bad. In Tinker, Tailor I do struggle a little with who deserves what credit for the feel of the movie.
Sarah: Right, because so much of the movie came from the atmosphere; it was in the editing, the performances, the directing, there was a great flow about it.
Doug: And how much of that was on the page? The thing I liked the best about the film was that it told the viewer everything we needed to know in a way that revealed nothing to the characters within the world of the film. And, again, I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me that that feel would be easier to write in a book than in a screenplay. George Smiley doesn’t reveal anything, but in the film you can still see his wheels turning. In a book, you can go on for five pages, if you want, to tell the reader what this character is thinking. In a film, that can be harder to get across. I’m assuming that the screenplay for Tinker, Tailor has that feel somewhere in it as a guide to the director. So, assuming I’m right about that, I have to say Tinker, Tailor is the best of the nominees.
Sarah: I have some thoughts about a couple of the other nominees. Not so much because I think they should win, but they’re worth discussing. I didn’t read the book Moneyball, but I will say one thing; to me, that could have been the most boring story in the world. A story about statistics and baseball? It could have been horrible, but it wasn’t. And I thought it was primarily the way it was written that pulled it off. The acting was good, as was the directing, but nothing special. It still could have been a pretty not fun movie for most people. It ended up really enjoyable and compelling. It got me invested in something that I don’t give a damn about. Not saying this is an Oscar winner, but you have to give Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin props for making something decent out of it.
Doug: Here’s where a lot of personal perspective can bias your view of something. Because everything this movie was about, sabermetrics, advanced statistical analysis of baseball, yada, yada, was something I was heavily into as a pre-teen and teenager who loved baseball. It was a whole new world opening up to me. So, that part of me was disappointed that the more technical parts of the book Moneyball weren’t explored in much greater detail in the film. But I also recognize that, ultimately, this is a movie designed as entertainment for the masses, so I can’t really say anything other than your breakdown is spot on.
Sarah: Yeah, it appealed to a broader audience and did it well.
Doug: Like with Tinker, Tailor, how much of that was other factors, like Brad Pitt, and how much was the writing? But it was broadly appealing.
Sarah: And speaking of biases, people kind of know Aaron Sorkin and anticipate good work out of him.
Doug: Which can work against you. Before I saw Moneyball, I saw all the Social Network comparisons. For me, Moneyball fell flat compared to The Social Network. But how fair is that? Does that mean Moneyball wasn’t any good, just because it wasn’t as good as The Social Network?
Sarah: I think of Aaron Sorkin as writing snappy, smart dialogue. He’s known for the walk and talk. And while there was some of that in Moneyball, the dialogue was more just sort of funny. There was a lot of personality written into a story that could have been dry. Who knows how much personality Billy Beane really has?
Doug: He probably isn’t Brad Pitt hanging out wearing his little visor…
Sarah: And shoving Twinkies into his face.
Doug: Probably was a little more complicated than the film made it out to be.
Sarah: But even in a scene like the one with Brad Pitt and the scouts. That scene was written with a lot of personality. I understand those were real scouts and some of the actual lines came from them, but it was force of personality that worked there. The dialogue throughout wasn’t super snappy or smart, necessarily. Really, it wasn’t supposed to be The Social Network, so the idea of comparing it to The Social Network is sort of foolish.
Doug: Right, and again how fair is it, anyway? Even if Moneyball was supposed to be like The Social Network, which it wasn’t, if The Social Network was the best movie of its type in the last five years or so, what’s the problem if Moneyball wasn’t as good? It still was a pretty well done film.
Sarah: And who’s to say Sorkin wasn’t trying to purposefully do something different from The Social Network, to branch out?
Doug: Right. But we are ultimately talking about handing out Academy Awards, and I don’t think Moneyball rises to that level.
Sarah: Let’s talk about some of the others. Ides of March. I can only hope that this screenplay was worse than the source material. Because this movie was predictable, the supposed plot twists were not very twisty. The dialogue was OK, but the story overall, at best, missed its target.
Doug: And overbaked. Or if you want to be a soap opera, just go even more over the top. I couldn’t really figure out what this movie was trying to be. Is it trying to reflect real life in politics? I mean, I understand it’s a two hour movie and a work of fiction and is purposefully exaggerated. But, could it have been more cynical?
Sarah: And the other thing is you’ve already seen political movies that do it right. Like, say, Primary Colors, that takes two hours and actually does encapsulate the feeling of a campaign. Ides of March was just so stark. It was very stylized, but that didn’t seem to come from the writing. It was visually pretty good, and that seemed to have more to do with the director, George Clooney, and not so much with the…
Doug: With the writer, George Clooney? You brought up Primary Colors, which is a great example of how to do a movie on politics. In a sense, it was a parody, but it captured the politics of the time so well. It wasn’t real, but it was so real, if that makes any sense.
Sarah: And a lot more believable than Ides of March.
Doug: Right, like you say, that’s the point. In the world that Primary Colors created for itself, it was all believable.
Sarah: Yes, and Ides of March not so much. It was really the performances in Ides of March that made it watchable, not the writing. If you had that story and writing and lesser actors, it would have probably been just a bad movie.
Doug: You would have almost been looking at a Lifetime movie.
Sarah: It was all about the performances with Ryan Gosling, in particular, as the anchor that made Ides of March watchable at all.
Doug: Yeah, Gosling should get the “I know we didn’t nominate you for any single performance, but we’re going to give you an award for your body of work for the year” award. If they give lifetime achievement awards, why can’t they do that on a year by year basis?
Sarah: How Ides of March got nominated for writing, who knows? Maybe the play was so horrible that the writing for the film looked better. I don’t know…
Doug: Well, and to pull a smooth transition, The Descendants. Again, didn’t read the source material, but I have to believe the film did a pretty good job of recreating the overall tone and point of the book. So, I give it that. And I’m operating on the bias that I feel like the Academy chose the wrong film about the subject of a loved one dying. Beginners was so much better. I’m not going to deny that there are people who react the way Clooney’s character and family do to that sort of stress, to sort of focus on something else other than the main issue at hand. I’m sort of criticizing the message itself more than the delivery of the message. But it felt like a copout. I’m not saying The Descendants isn’t a movie that can resonate for some people, and reflect how many people handle a loved one dying. But if the point is you have this person dying, and you focus on all these other side issues to avoid dealing with the main issue, and then all of a sudden realize the person is actually dying, I’m not sure there is a whole movie there.
Sarah: I think, like with Ides of March, the thing that made The Descendants work at all was really the performances. You even said you thought that it was really George Clooney who held that movie up. But if you’re talking about screenplay and story arc, like we are in this category, I don’t see it for The Descendants. Because that wasn’t what was good about the movie.
Doug: And in fairness to the adaptation of the book, the fact that I am reacting this strongly, it probably isn’t Alexander Payne’s fault. I’m reacting to the source material, not Alexander Payne’s adaptation. So, I don’t want to be too critical of somebody who looks like he recreated this book well. But, again, we’re talking about handing out an Oscar. And I don’t think I can say OK to giving an Oscar just for faithfully recreating something on screen.
Sarah: That goes back to what the criteria should be for this. If you just say it’s a good story, is that really enough for this category? Because it’s an adapted screenplay so, really, someone else came up with the story.
Doug: And having said all this, you’ve got something like The Descendants nominated in a lot of other categories, so you usually end up with a movie with multiple nominations winning. That makes me worry for Tinker, Tailor because other than Gary Oldman, who I think should win Best Actor, Tinker, Tailor is kind of out there alone on screenplay. Maybe we’re looking at The Descendants as a possible winner. Or maybe Hugo?
Sarah: Let’s talk about Hugo. Because for me the best adapted screenplays come down to Hugo or Tinker, Tailor. Even though I thought Moneyball was well written, I think it falls just short of being Oscar caliber.
Doug: And there’s no huge message in Moneyball, like the Academy normally likes. Other than, you know, the underdog can overcome.
Sarah: Yeah, except they don’t really overcome.
Doug (laughing): Yeah, they quasi overcome. The underdog can come in second place instead of eighth.
Sarah: Hugo may come off as sort of simple, but there are an awful lot of clever ideas being thrown in there. You have old filmmaking being celebrated, science fiction, the dream sequence, imagination, all of it. There is an awful lot of fun stuff being written into it. Again, the source material argument, and it isn’t a massively deep film… But there are some larger messages some different levels. Tinker, Tailor might be a little more complex in some ways, but it’s essentially a thriller.
Doug: One thing, for me, that makes me feel like I’m not being completely fair to the writing in Hugo is that the visual world that is created is so spectacular that it sort of distracts from the number of different ideas being addressed in the writing.
Sarah: With Hugo, like we spoke about in directing, you have a child’s movie and an adult movie all rolled into one. It has to succeed on multiple levels, and it does succeed. Tinker, Tailor is complex, and it perfectly recreates the feeling of the Cold War and is clearly well written, but it is what it is. You have the difference between do you go with the best written real feeling film in Tinker, Tailor or the best written fantasy in Hugo.
Doug: The Ides of March is the only one on this list that, to me…
Sarah: We should just kick it out?
Doug: Just kick it out. The other four are all actually well written. We’ve sort of made some arguments for all of them. I’ve said my peace about The Descendants. I don’t think the story is all that perceptive. It wasn’t horribly written, but…
Sarah: I think we have a slight disagreement on that. I don’t think I feel as strongly as you about it, but I will agree to the extent that The Descendants doesn’t bring a particularly profound message. Of course, we can’t say Tinker, Tailor is really profound, although I liked it a lot. I’m sort of hedging toward Hugo on this one. I’m not sure it is the most likely to win, but I’d like to see a film written with this many layers and so fun to watch win. Fun is sort of the purpose of going to movies. Well done escapism and to have some fun. Tinker, Tailor had a good story, but not sure I would say it was fun.
Doug: Well, definitely not fun in the way Hugo is fun. Tinker, Tailor was pretty fun as a film, but not sure the Cold War is really super fun as a subject.
Sarah: And Tinker, Tailor has the violence. The violence was done and handled really well. It was perfectly effective for what is was used for. But you’d have to say that that is one of the things that make it not a purely “fun” film. At least not fun like Hugo.
Doug: Tinker, Tailor does use violence in the way it should be used.
Sarah: It was sparing. But it really had an impact. It wasn’t thrown in for the sake of gore as it is often in movies. It really made you understand and think about the consequences of making a wrong move in the world of the film. It was impactful without being overly gory.
Doug: It felt like a film paying homage to all those great 70s political thrillers. But in a more modern way. In the 70s, you may not have been using the violence in the same way.
Sarah: A lot of it in Tinker, Tailor was implied.
Doug: Yes, but often implied after you saw just enough of the real deal to make you understand its purpose. And I would imagine a lot of the violence was on the pages of the book. Another example of it being adapted really well to the film.
Sarah: A lot of our choice on this one is probably coming down to the types of movies we’re predisposed to like. My bias is usually a little more towards fantasy. And your bias is more toward…
Doug: Right. Hugo, as you have pointed out, is not just a kid’s movie, but it is largely a kid’s movie. If you have two great movies like this, I’m almost always going to lean toward the more adult orientated, realistic film. So, I think Tinker, Tailor is the best adapted screenplay. But probably won’t win. I hope maybe they have a runner up trophy they can give out.
Sarah: I think Hugo should win. As for who the Academy will give it to. I have to think the Ides of March is out. I think Moneyball is OK, but it comes up a little short.
Doug: Although Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian are the big names in the screen writing category.
Sarah: Yeah, they’re darlings, but I suspect it comes down to Hugo and The Descendants. And even though The Descendants wasn’t one of your favorites, I think the Academy might end up showing a little of the same bias you do against a “kids’ movie” in the screenplay category and give it to The Descendants.