Ending not yet written for this year's screenplay nominees

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Ten screenplays will compete for two awards at this year's Oscars, and they couldn't be more different.

"That's what is so amazing about this year," says Ronald Harwood, nominated for Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." "It's so diverse. And there isn't one front-runner, unlike the year (1984) when I was nominated for 'The Dresser,' when 'Terms of Endearment' got everything."

Front-runners have emerged in both the original and adapted categories, but they are by no means guaranteed to win, even those with proven success at other awards shows.

Stranger than fiction

In the original screenplay category, five pictures compete: Fox Searchlight's "Juno" (written by Diablo Cody) and "The Savages" (written by Tamara Jenkins), MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl" (written by Nancy Oliver), Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" (written by Tony Gilroy) and Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille" (with a screenplay by Brad Bird from a story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco and Bird).

"Juno" appears to lead the pack. The comedy has won a host of awards for first-time screenwriter Cody. True, she lost out at the Golden Globes, when Joel and Ethan Coen took the prize with Miramax's "No Country for Old Men." But the Globes make no distinction between original and adapted screenplays; the Oscars split them in two.

"Juno's" front-runner status marks a remarkable coming-of-age for the onetime stripper who admits she didn't have a clue how to write a screenplay when she moved from blogging to screenwriting. "I knew nothing about structure," she says.

Like "Juno," Oliver's "Lars" is a comedy-drama that centers on a quirky, off-center character -- and, as with Cody's "Juno," this was her first produced film. A writer on HBO's "Six Feet Under," Oliver came up with the idea for the movie while working for a company through which she discovered a Web site (realdoll.com) devoted to selling ultrarealistic synthetic dolls.

Turning her discovery into a full-length screenplay, however, meant forgetting the gimmicky aspect and exploring what kind of person would fall in love with a doll. And that meant centering on issues of loneliness that she says have always interested her. "The reasons why he fell for her are completely in there; all the reasons why he meets her unfold (in the script)," she says.

Much-praised as Oliver's screenplay has been, the movie has not merited quite the same support as "Juno," the only specialty release this year to earn more than $100 million at the boxoffice, and Oliver would seem unlikely to wrest the Oscar from Cody.

That's equally true of "Ratatouille," the only animated film whose screenplay has been nominated and, along with "Lars" and "Juno," arguably one of the very few to take a brighter view of life. The only original screenplay nominee that was not nominated for a WGA Award, "Ratatouille" is also the only contender written by a number of writers (other than the Coen partnership), and when Bird became involved, the project was already so far along in its development that computerized sets had been built for some scenes and drawings had been done for the main characters.

"The first thing I did was try to keep all the character types intact," he recalls, "and very quickly I came to the conclusion that there were too many possible stories, and I had to throw some overboard. But in doing that I found things that ended up becoming very important to the film."

A case in point: The character of Gusteau, the chef whose restaurant the little rat Remy moves into, was once a more major part of the story. In the end, Bird kept Gusteau's character, but only as a figment of Remy's imagination.

"My way into the story was to connect with the rat who aspired to higher things," he says. But that did not mean he focused on craft at the expense of theme. "The challenge was to do that all in a way that felt natural and effortless, joyfully, without the heaviness that often comes when you try to write about things that are important to you."

Jenkins tried to avoid some of that heaviness in "The Savages," her mordantly funny tale of siblings coping with their father's dementia. Jenkins -- one of a record four women nominated for their writing this year -- traces her story's roots to her own father's illness. "Obviously, you tend to write characters that you identify with," she says.

If Jenkins wins, she will have an Oscar to go alongside husband Jim Taylor's (for co-writing 2004's "Sideways"). But "Savages" is an acquired taste that has not won over all Academy members, something that the film's lack of nominations in the director and picture categories made clear.

More popular is "Michael Clayton," a movie Gilroy spent years fighting to direct, even though it meant turning down the opportunity to have it helmed by Sydney

Pollack (who later came aboard as one of its producers). While the picture might seem more straightforwardly commercial than some of the other nominees, that's not the way Gilroy saw it when he first began working on it in the months before Sept. 11.

"It was flirting at the margins of commerce and art," he says of the thriller about a lawyer who uncovers corruption at the heart of a agrichemical company his firm represents.

If "Juno" and "Lars" split the quirky-screenplay vote, "Clayton" could be in with a chance of winning the original screenplay Oscar. But the Academy has generally steered away from straightforward thrillers in its writing awards.

Better in the retelling

Among the adapted screenplays, "No Country" is the front-runner and will compete with Focus Features' "Atonement" (adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan's novel), Lionsgate's "Away From Her" (adapted by Sarah Polley from Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain"), Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (adapted by Harwood from Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir) and Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood" (adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson from Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!").

"No Country" is the first adaptation the Coens have directed, though they have adapted other novels as writers-for-hire, including Elmore Leonard's "Cuba Libre." Longtime fans of Cormac McCarthy, they had not been tempted to film his other novels, which seemed to lack the inherent movielike structure of "No Country." But when producer Scott Rudin sent them the latter book, they signed on at once.

The movie's ending has divided even admirers of the film. But the brothers insist they never thought of changing it, even though that meant killing off a leading character and leaving the story hanging on a note of ambiguity.

"We were certainly aware, going in, that it was an unconventional shape to the story," says Ethan Coen. "We thought about it, given that it is not the usual (ending). You are aware that it is going to frustrate somebody. But it is faithful to the book in that respect, and that is what we liked about the book."

If "No Country" is the front-runner, it is by no means a lock. "Atonement" is also in contention. Writer Hampton -- like the Coens and Harwood -- is a previous Oscar winner in the screenwriting arena for 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons" (the Coens for 1996's "Fargo" and Harwood for 2002's "The Pianist"). Hampton has been praised for rendering a highly literary novel in cinematic terms, but the final screenplay was significantly different from his initial version.

When Hampton took on the challenge of adapting McEwan's work, he not only had to tackle the problem of dealing with a book about writing, but also of condensing a long novel that spanned decades in the same characters' lives into a two-hour movie. His first strategy was to have two actresses play the lead role -- a younger Briony and an older Briony. At the same time, his first drafts intercut two major segments of the four-part novel: the war sequence involving the character played by James McAvoy and the hospital sequence involving Briony in her late teens (played by Romola Garai).

But when the movie's original director, Richard Eyre, was replaced by Joe Wright, Wright convinced Hampton to stick more closely to the novel's four-part structure -- and Hampton seems happy with that final rendering.

"Various different solutions suggested themselves," he acknowledges. "But my instinct was to be as faithful to the book as possible."

"Atonement" dominated the recent BAFTA nominations but seems poised to do less well at the Oscars, perhaps because the Academy seems less favorably disposed toward English period pieces than it once was.

"There Will Be Blood" is another period piece, but an American one, and its boldness has impressed many Academy voters. In adapting a part of Sinclair's 1927 tome, Anderson wrote what is in many ways more of an original screenplay than an adaptation, reinventing the lead character, an oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and disposing of most of the story, which actually centers on the oilman's son.

"The main thrust of what we took from the book was the buying of the town," Anderson explains. "We decided that was a more manageable approach to what could be shot (and made into a film of) under two and a half hours."

But "Blood" is dark and -- well, bloody. And the Academy might find its bleakness too unpalatable for an Oscar.

That bleakness could have defined "Diving Bell," but Harwood took pains to avoid it.

"There were two things that were critically important," he says. First was his decision to have the camera's viewpoint and his hero's be one and the same, certainly at the beginning of the movie, when we see the camera "blink" as if we were looking out of his paralyzed hero's eyes.

The second important decision Harwood made was to avoid showing too much of Bauby in his debilitated state.

"There was that thing of not wanting to look at him for two hours in a terrible life state," he says. "You couldn't do it; you couldn't look at that awful collapsed body. And that was the real sticking point until I came up with my solution" -- to have the camera show Bauby's point of view.

"Diving Bell" is the only foreign-language nominee this year, but the Academy has proved willing to reward foreign-language screenplays in the past -- as in 2003 with Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her." Still, "Diving Bell" has won most praise for Julian Schnabel's directing, and its absence from the best picture lineup may indicate that it does not have support across the board.

"Away From Her," the remaining nominee, was an unexpected finalist. Like that other adaptation, "Atonement," it failed to earn a WGA nomination, which would seem to bode ill for its Oscar chances. Close as it hews to Alice Munro's story, the Canadian movie -- which deals with dementia, like "The Savages" -- presented its own challenges.

"There is so much that happens that is interior," Polley says. "For me, it was about finding ways of making the characters' inner lives accessible to people without making it too literal. There were scenes where Alice Munro says things about the characters that ended up being part of the dialogue."

It was the characters themselves that fascinated Polley. And it is the characters in all the nominated movies that make them so distinctive. In a field that has so much diversity, as Harwood notes, this might be what most unites them.

"They are all character studies," Jenkins says.

Adds Bird: "They are all about characters trying to come to terms with the complicated moral world we live in."
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