Analyzing Oscar’s Best Adaptations

As you have no doubt heard, the Academy Awards nominations were announced on Tuesday. For the benefit of film-loving book geeks I have put down my Walter Mosley to ridiculously overanalyze that most writerly of Oscar categories, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), to try and determine this year’s champion based on the completely unscientific merits of the past winners.

Before we begin, this year’s nominees are as follows:

District 9 – Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

An Education – Screenplay by Nick Hornby

In the Loop – Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire – Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher

Up in the Air – Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

To start, the academy overwhelmingly prefers to award adaptations of written materials. There are only two exceptions: Sling Blade (1996) based on Billy Bob Thornton’s short film “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” and The Departed (2006) based on the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs.

This does not bode well for our first nominees, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Hatchell for District 9, which was based on the short film “Alive in Joburg” by Neill Blomkamp. They will lose.

The next least won category is adaptations of teleplays with three past winners. Two of these — Marty (1955) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) — came from the early “golden age” of original television dramas and the third, Traffic (2000), was based on a British miniseries.

Given these tepid figures I will cross out our second set of nominees Armstrong, Blackwell, Iannucci, and Roche for In the Loop since it was derived from their BBC show The Thick of It.

Scripts for movies based on short or original stories (the wording has shifted over the years) have won seven times and screenplays based on plays have won 14 times. None of this year’s nominees are based on short stories or plays, but I took the time to count them all so here you go.

Book adaptations have won the majority of the adapted screenplay awards, with 54 wins over 81 ceremonies.

This year’s first book-based nominee is Hornby for An Education, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of the same name. There have been four winners based on an autobiography or memoir: Julia (1977), Out of Africa (1985), The Last Emperor (1987), and The Pianist (2002).

Hornby’s name recognition is a complicating factor, but I don’t believe it’s enough to overcome the script’s memoir factor for the win.

That leaves the final two nominees, Fletcher for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire and Reitman and Turner for Up in the Air, based on Walter Kirn’s book.

In the past few decades book wins tend to be based on classics (A Room with a View (1986), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)), biographies for biopics (Schindler’s List (1993), Gods and Monsters (1999), A Beautiful Mind (2001)), and critically acknowledged best sellers (The Silence of the Lambs (1991), L.A. Confidential (1997), The Cider House Rules (1999), No Country for Old Men (2007)).

Kirn and Sapphire don’t fit into any of these categories. They’re unassuming middle list authors along the lines of past winners Forrest Gump (1994) and Sideways (2004).

This puts them at a dead heat that I will resolve by comparing the current Amazon sales ranking for the tie-in edition books. Up in the Air is at 8,931. Push is at 407.

Given the tie-in’s sales figures and the fact that the book and author get a gratuitous plug in the frigging title, I peg Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire as the odds-on favorite to win.

(Bill Gibron’s complete Oscar nominee analysis can be found on our film blog.)