Just like I did for the original screenplays, I want to talk about the adapted category. These aren’t necessarily what I consider the best, but scripts that have been influential and groundbreaking. Let’s go!
1. All Quiet on the Western Front by George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews (1929)(nominee)
Back then, there were no split writing categories, just an award given for “Best Writing,” but I count this one since it is based on a novel.
The most incredible feat of the film is the same as that of the novel: to make audiences sympathetic to a depiction of our wartime enemies. We know that the soldiers we are watching are Germans serving the will of the Kaiser in WWI, and yet, over the course of the movie, we see them as our boys.
Also, the segment of film involving the hand-me-down boots is incredible and could be a short anti-war film in its own right. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then watch this movie.
2. Gone With the Wind by Sidney Howard (1939)(winner)
Gone With the Wind is a staggering, 1200-page epic, so the task of adapting it is alone worthy of praise. Sidney Howard became the first ever posthumous Oscar win for his incredible adaptation.
His ability to capture Margaret Mitchell’s tone and characters with fidelity is unmatched as too often many screenwriters try to inject their own take on a character into the film version (looking at you, Steve Kloves). Despite its 4-hour run time, he had to leave out wide swaths of the novel but does so in such an effective manner, that many wouldn’t even notice (except my mom, of course).
Regardless, Howard set a ridiculously high bar for novel adaptations that is rarely matched.
3. The Lost Weekend by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (1945)(winner)
Billy Wilder is most associated with comedies like The Apartment, but this dramatic Best Picture-winner was a breakthrough in screen adaptation.
Based upon the novel of the same name, Weekend tackles the then-taboo subject of alcoholism and mental illness (depression) at a time when WWII was wrapping up and most audiences wanted an escape from grim reality.
Wilder and co-writer Brackett’s ability to capture in page to screen the struggles of addiction and withdrawal took this private subject into the public and helped make movies a place where issues of social concern could – and should – be discussed and brought to light.
4. 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose (1957)(nominee)
Rose Adapted his own play for the screen, this classic behind-the-courtroom drama. Rose’s ability to successfully translate the play is commendable for its incredibly wide yet well-defined cast of characters and its use of minimal space.
And as if that’s not enough, the story packs a wallop and gave he world one of Henry Fonda’s greatest performances. I don’t need to say much about this one except that it’s a must-see for writers. And everyone else.
5. The Godfather Part II by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (1974)(winner)
Why the sequel and not the original? Because this sequel eschewed the typical formula and redefined what making a sequel looks like in the film industry.
First off, it’s not just a sequel to the 1974 masterpiece, but also a prequel and, of course, a continuation of the Corleone saga created in the original novel by co-screenwriter Puzo.
Coppola’s script is even older than the first in creating a sprawling nearly 4-hour epic that incorporates extended flashbacks, political intrigue, and good ol’ fashioned payback.
6. Shakespeare in Love by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (1998)(winner)
Okay, I’m cheating on this one a bit. Technically speaking, Shakespeare in Love is not adapted but an original, BUT I think that’s the greatest joke it makes as a film.
Norman and Stoppard are Shakespeare scholars, and there are so many elements of the Bard’s work (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and even touches of Macbeth and Hamlet) that it really should be considered an adaptation. I mean, come on, there are whole scenes taken right out of R&J. The fact that they won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay must bring them continuous dry British glee.
But that’s also the beauty of the script…it takes so many elements from Shakespeare’s life and work and marries them together into this wholly original-feeling and fantastically-written thing of wonder. A wholly original take on adaptation.
7. The Cider House Rules by John Irving (1999)(winner)
Writers are not the most objective people for their own work. I would know. Which makes John Irving’s adaptation of his own novel an incredible feat.
While the film substantially deviates from some major subplots of the novel, Irving is able to keep the screenplay laser-focused on its core story. He is able to recognize that the two mediums are different and deserve different treatment, a different vision, a different soul. This doesn’t bastardize the novel – rather, it makes it more faceted in its movie version.
Not many authors can pull off a successful adaptation of their own novel, but Irving is the gold standard for how to do so successfully.
8. Memento by Christopher Nolan (2000)(nominee)
Nolan’s breakout film is groundbreaking on multiple levels, but mostly for its story structure and enigmatically poetic use of tattoos as storytelling devices.
But it’s also an interesting case in what constitutes an adaptation. Nolan’s brother Jonathan had the initial idea for the story. Nolan said, “Hey, can I write a movie about that idea?” And his. Either said yes. Then, before he movie was made, Jonathan Nolan published his idea as a short story. Since this short story was available to the public first, the Screenplay is considered an adaptation even though it technically existed first.
Either way, the movie was a game-changer and introduced the world to one of this generation’s best filmmakers.
9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coens (2000)(nominee)
Who cares if you’ve read the source material or not? The Coen brothers were not shy to admit that neither one of them have read all of The Odyssey by Homer, but that wasn’t going to stop them from turning it into a blues-infused Depression-era Southern Gothic musical comedy.
The genre-bending, rule-breaking writing completely redefines what screen adaptation can look like. Maybe they are the only ones who can pull this off, but man did they pull it off… What Homer would think of it, I can’t say, but I like to think he would be a fan. They would pull off a similar feat with 2010’s True Grit, in making an adaptation that had already been turned into an Oscar-winning film before.
10. Slumdog Millionaire by Simon Beaufoy (2008)(winner)
Beaufoy’s adaptation of the novel Q & A‘s first challenge was in coming up with a new title since another recent film had been released with that same title. And from there, the challenges continued.
Beaufoy’s script is genius for its seamless and effortless ability to piece together Jamal’s life over the course of his participation in a game show. It’s the kind of premise that sounds absolutely terrible and in the wrong hands, it would have been.
Add in plenty of Indian culture and the need for Hindi dialogue and you’ve got a masterful and flexible screenplay that shows a writer can infuse plenty of originality and creativity into a non-original story.
What do you think? Any other game-changing Oscar-nominated screenplays you enjoy?