The great thing about the screenplay nominations for the Academy Awards is that they aren’t hampered by the same out-of-date thinking that makes the Writers Guild Award noms sometimes feel like also-rans. The difference between Oscar and WGA is that the guild steadfastly refuses to let any potential nominees into the party unless his or her film was a signatory to the guild’s agreement and the writer is a bona fide WGA member in good standing. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voting branch couldn’t care less how the scripts got made, just that they did. That is why we are likely to see, for instance, Anthony McCarten’s The Theory Of Everything or Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner on the Oscar honor roll this year even though they won’t be anywhere near the WGA party on Valentine’s Day. In fact, Leigh only has managed one WGA nomination in his entire career (for 1996’s Secrets & Lies) while receiving a whopping five Oscar screenplay nominations. That is why, in this awards season, it is best to take the eventual WGA nominations with a grain of salt, if you are looking for them to be any kind of precursor for the way the Oscar winds are blowing for scribes this year. Here, instead, is a more realistic Oscar outlook in the adapted and original screenplay categories.
As far back as this category has been in existence, a cardinal rule has been in place, namely that it doesn’t hurt to be able to say your film was “based on a bestseller.” This year, two of the hottest contending adaptations were from books that hit No. 1 on multiple bestseller lists. Most notably is Gillian Flynn’s enormously successful, Gone Girl, which the author herself adapted into a slyly funny and compelling look at a marriage, in addition to a good old-fashioned thriller. The fact that Flynn adapted her own book means she is one to look out for in this category. And then there’s Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which also benefits from massive literary exposure, though in this case it took several big-name screenwriters—namely Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravanese—to break the adaptation code. Whether that lineup helps or hurts their ultimate chances of winning, it’s certainly an imposing quartet to have.
Speaking of breaking the code, no one did it better this year than newbie screenwriter Graham Moore with his Black List script for The Imitation Game. This is the adaptation—based on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma—that could be in the early lead for the gold. But Moore faces stiff competition in McCarten’s work in bringing another scientific genius’ story to the screen, the Jane and Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, based on Jane’s account of the life she led with her husband, who was afflicted with ALS. Jason Hall’s effort to bring Chris Kyle’s memoir to life in American Sniper is similarly compelling. Hall started working with Kyle himself on the project before the veteran—the U.S. military’s most successful sniper—was murdered at the hands of another vet in 2013. The tragedy also could have killed the movie, but Hall persevered, Clint Eastwood signed on after Steven Spielberg dropped out, and the film is winning high praise.
In a category full of literary adaptations, two others really stand out as particular challenges for their writers. Nick Hornby, previously nominated for An Education, found a way to restructure and cinematically open up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a personal and very internal memoir of her backpack journey. Similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson cracked what no screenwriter has been able to accomplish: He found a way to effectively bring a Thomas Pynchon novel to the screen in the witty and out-there adaptation of his 1970s–set Inherent Vice. Young-adult novels usually aren’t fodder for Oscar voters, which is why you will never see the likes of a Hunger Games or Twilight adaptation making the cut, but if one could it might be Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s sharp take on John Green’s massive bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars. And though Broadway musical adaptations have been nominated here in the past, they rarely have won. Could James Lapine turn the trick for finally bringing Into the Woods to the movies after 27 years?
The emphasis here is on original, with everything from Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood to the inventive Birdman (credited to director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Armando Bo, Nicholas Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris) among the likely nominees. The Lego Movie just won Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the National Board of Review’s original screenplay award. Then there’s Sundance winner Whiplash, about a maniacal music teacher and his drumming student, from newbie writer-director Damien Chazelle, and the stirring Selma from British writer Paul Webb. Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias’ touching gay marriage story, Love Is Strange also is getting Oscar chatter.
Returning to the category are past nominees Christopher and Jonathan Nolan for Interstellar, J.C. Chandor for A Most Violent Year, Leigh for Mr. Turner and Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel. In the past, the tightknit writers branch has proven its affection for the likes of Anderson and Leigh, and there is no reason to believe they won’t continue the affair this time around. But I see serious competition coming from many different corners, and that could make the final five scripts chosen a surprising bunch. That said, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked to see Dan Gilroy grab a nom for his intriguingly creepy Nightcrawler. The film reps his directorial debut, but here is where his name is likely to show up. Speaking of creepy, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s wrestling saga Foxcatcher has got to be high on the potential nominee list, as well as David Ayer, who finally could break into this club with his World War II drama Fury. This is also one category that traditionally has welcomed lighter material, which could mean good things for Scott Alexander and Larry Karasewski, overlooked in the past for the likes of Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt, but who finally could grab a nom for their very funny Big Eyes, which reunites them with Wood director Tim Burton. Could Jon Favreau find fans for his amusing Chef from earlier this year? Maybe, but it’s a longshot. Oddly, a more likely nominee would be Argentinian writer-director Damian Szifron for his multi-story Wild Tales. Alhough the film’s in Spanish, it could get nominated since the writers branch likes to acknowledge work from overseas. Which could bode well for Russian Leviathan writers Andrey Zvyagintev and Oleg Negin. The original screenplay category also could be the one place Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby could be recognized, even though it has been unveiled as three separate films, told from different points of view and delineated in the title with the added pronouns, Him, Her and Them, the third being the official entry. The Weinstein Co. certainly is not discouraging voters from watching all three. Not a bad strategy.