Christy Grosz is editor of AwardsLine.
Screenwriter John Ridley and the late Solomon Northup, author of 12 Years A Slave, won the 26th annual USC Libraries Scripter Award for best book-to-film adaptation. The winner was announced tonight at a black-tie gala, chaired again by Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren and held at the Doheny Memorial Library on the USC campus. Ridley was moved to tears in discussing Northup and his memoir as he accepted the award. “There’s a very special relationship that forms between the writer and the originator,” said Ridley, who was joined by several of Northup’s descendants at the ceremony. Ridley praised the novelist and spoke about how adapting the book has been a new and different experience. “The clarity with which he wrote, the evocative language…” Ridley said. “Until I read Solomon’s memoir, I didn’t know what being a writer was about.”
The Scripter Award goes to both the screenwriters and the author of the material on which the script is based. It is solely given for adaptations, not for original screenplays. And while the Scripters don’t rival other awards-season events in size, they take place just before Oscar ballots go out, giving awards watchers fodder and providing headlines when a winner needs the attention the most. In fact, four out of the last five Scripter winners went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars — and all five won the WGA Award. (Ridley’s screenplay was not eligible for the WGA Award.) Previous winners include Argo (2013), The Descendants (2012), The Social Network (2011), Up In The Air (2010, and the only non-Oscar winner), and Slumdog Millionaire (2009).
During the ceremony, screenwriter Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for penning 1974’s Chinatown, was honored with the group’s Literary Achievement Award. It was presented to him by his daughter, Chiara Towne, who also is a USC student. Robert Towne got a big laugh after telling a story about Columbia chief Harry Cohn listening for the sound of typewriters on the lot and running across two writers dozing in their office. One saved the day. “Just as Harry was about to fire him, he sat up and said, I’ve got it. I’ve solved the third act!” On advice he has received: “(They have) given me the advantage of their perspective and given it to me truthfully,” Towne said.
The 2014 finalists — culled from 86 eligible adaptations, up from last year’s tally of 82 — were a mix of real-life stories (a common theme with many of this awards season’s films), as well as novels. Among the true stories were 12 Years A Slave, author Solomon Northup, screenwriter John Ridley; Captain Phillips, based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs And Dangerous Days At Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, screenwriter Billy Ray; and Philomena, based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee, screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. The two novels in the mix were The Spectacular Now, written by Tim Tharp and adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; and What Maisie Knew, from author Henry James and adapted by screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne.
The selection committee, co-chaired by screenwriter Naomi Foner and USC professor and WGA West VP Howard Rodman, includes critics, screenwriters, authors and producers including Leonard Maltin, Kenneth Turan, Callie Khouri, Steve Zaillian, Michael Chabon, Albert Berger, Gale Anne Hurd and Mike Medavoy. USC deans Elizabeth Daley of the School of Cinematic Arts, Madeline Puzo of the School of Dramatic Arts, and Catherine Quinlan of the USC Libraries also serve on the committee.