Writers Guild Awards get a read-through

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Peers voting for peers -- that's what makes the annual Writers Guild of America Awards so special to the scribes nominated for the five original screenplay and five adapted screenplay slots. When 12,000 of your peers get to look on your work and choose both nominees and winners, that's a kudos unrivaled in the industry.

It's a subtle difference from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' setup. While the Academy's 10 writing nominees are chosen only by members of that organization's writing branch, the winners are voted on by the Academy's entire 6,000-strong membership -- including producers, sound editors and makeup artists.

Often, that has resulted in different winners at the two awards ceremonies, but in recent years, the WGA has become a remarkable litmus test for the upcoming Academy Awards: Last year, Michael Arndt's "Little Miss Sunshine" won an Oscar and a WGA Award for original screenplay, and William Monahan's "The Departed" took the adapted screenplay nod in both ceremonies. The year before that, "Brokeback Mountain" won for adapted and "Crash" for original screenplay at both awards shows. And before that, "Sideways" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" won on each occasion.

This close overlap between the Writers Guild and the Academy has added heft to the WGA Awards, on top of the prestige they have long held among the writers themselves. And the guild has cast some of that prestige on a relatively new award for documentary screenplay -- an award not yet in place at the Oscars -- which it will present this year for only the fourth time.

What follows is a look at the main screenplays in the running for this year's awards.

Original screenplay

Three radically different scripts are front-runners in the original screenplay category: a legal drama, a coming-of-age tale with a twist, and an offbeat and decidedly unexpected love story.

The legal drama is Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), a thriller about a law firm "fixer" who stumbles on a cover-up involving a major agrichemical company. The story first came to life when Gilroy discovered the dark, complex inner sanctums of the major corporate law firms -- firms that employ dozens of researchers and security staff in distant rooms that the public never gets to visit.

The coming-of-age tale is Diablo Cody's "Juno" (Fox Searchlight), written by the woman who has now gained fame as a one-time stripper, but whose story is far removed from the red-light world, centering on a teenage girl who discovers she is pregnant. Cody is already at work on another project with the same director, Jason Reitman -- a testament to the success of this little charmer.

And the love story is "Lars and the Real Girl" (MGM), a comedy-drama about a troubled young man who falls for a life-size doll. The movie drew its inspiration from research "Six Feet Under" staffer Nancy Oliver did years ago, when she discovered a San Diego company that actually makes such creations and a whole community of people who buy them.

These three original screenplays may be garnering the most early buzz, but they are far from alone. Another strong contender is the ultra-low-budget "Once" (Fox Searchlight), written and directed by John Carney, who set out to make a musical that was so grounded in reality that people wouldn't realize it was driven by songs.

Several war-themed movies are also competing, including Oscar winner Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent), on which he shares credit with Mark Boal. Haggis' film is probably the war drama with the best chance of getting nominated among a group, including MGM/United Artist's "Lions for Lambs" and Magnolia Pictures' "Redacted," that hasn't caught on with general audiences.

In a field where comedies are relatively thin, Woody Allen -- one of the most admired comedy writers in Hollywood history -- fields "Cassandra's Dream" (the Weinstein Co.), though the film hasn't gotten the same swell of support as some of his earlier efforts.

Another comedy in contention is Fox Searchlight's "Waitress," by Adrienne Shelly, the actress-turned-writer-director who was murdered before her movie reached the screen.

Also in contention are Pixar veteran Brad Bird for Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille"; Todd Haynes for his avant-garde take on Bob Dylan, "I'm Not There" (the Weinstein Co.); Kelly Masterson for the Sidney Lumet-helmed "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (ThinkFilm); and Steven Knight with David Cronenberg's critically praised thriller "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features).

And this season, a trio of writers will contend for their CIA drama "Breach" (Universal): Adam Mazer, William Rotko and writer-director Billy Ray.

Adapted screenplay

This is one of the most competitive categories in years -- a further indication that Hollywood seems better at fielding adaptations than originals.

David Benioff, whose screen rendering of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel "The Kite Runner" (Paramount Classics/DreamWorks) is a front-runner, says he remained very true to his source material and has been helped by a surge of support from fans of the book. While at one point it seemed that the movie might be hurt by controversy surrounding perception of the story, Paramount's skillful massaging of that situation has virtually eliminated any negative buzz.

Another quite faithful book adaptation, Ethan and Joel Coen's "No Country for Old Men" (which built from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and is distributed by Miramax) has also received enormous praise. Initial feelings that the movie might be too dark for the Academy have given way to a groundswell of enthusiasm for the film, one of the very few specialty releases this year to have caught on with audiences.

The Coen brothers will compete with Ronald Harwood, another Oscar winner, whose script for Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is drawing far more enthusiasm than his script for New Line's "Love in the Time of Cholera," adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic. "Butterfly" is based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist who was paralyzed following a stroke; and while it is in a foreign language, that is unlikely to impede its chances: Pedro Almodovar, after all, won a screenplay Oscar for his Spanish-language film "Talk to Her" in 2003.

Christopher Hampton, another London-based playwright-turned-screenwriter, will contend with Focus Features' "Atonement," based on Ian McEwan's novel. Hampton made some radical changes to his script when the director who was first attached to the project, Richard Eyre, exited and was replaced by Joe Wright. The result has worked out for all those involved.

One of the best-known American books in recent years, Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage), has won over fans with the movie version written and directed by Sean Penn. Penn has been angling for years to be taken seriously as an auteur as well as an actor, and this project has helped bring that shift about, though fans of the book found Penn's portrayal of his leading character more undilutedly positive than Krakauer's.

Another movie star, Ben Affleck, has drawn praise for his adaptation of Dennis Lehane's noir-ish "Gone Baby Gone" (Miramax), written with partner Aaron Stockard. It's Affleck's first movie screenplay since he won an Oscar for 1997's "Good Will Hunting," and the picture has drawn fans who were initially skeptical about Affleck's ability to pull it off.

Other contenders include screenplays by Paul Thomas Anderson (Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood," adapted from Upton Sinclair's "Oil!"); James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling (Focus Features' "Lust, Caution," from Eileen Chang's story), Aaron Sorkin (Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War," adapted from George Crile's book), Steven Zaillian ("American Gangster," adapted for Universal from an article by Mark Jacobson); John Logan (for his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" for DreamWorks/Paramount); and Terry George and John Burnham Schwartz (Focus Features' "Reservation Road," adapted from Schwartz's book).

In a year with relatively few female writers doing adaptations, in the running are Leslie Dixon for New Line's "Hairspray," based on the stage musical that itself was adapted from a John Waters movie; Sarah Polley with Lionsgate's "Away From Her," her adaptation of Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain"; and Robin Swicord with Sony Pictures Classics' "The Jane Austen Book Club," based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.

Documentary

A number of major documentaries will compete for the WGA's documentary screenplay award, only the fourth time the award has been presented. At press time, the WGA had not ruled on which of the documentaries actually qualified for the writing award, but insiders say some of the prime contenders include Michael Moore's health-oriented "Sicko" (Lionsgate/the Weinstein Co.) as well as ThinkFilm's acclaimed African-set documentary "War/Dance" and its "In the Shadow of the Moon," about the Apollo astronauts.

Two Darfur-themed movies will also compete: Warner Independent's "Darfur Now" and International Film Circuit's "The Devil Came on Horseback."

Alex Gibney, who won the WGA Award for 2005's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," is back with ThinkFilm's "Taxi to the Dark Side," his controversial film about an Afghan taxi driver who was arrested by American troops and died after extreme interrogation.

Spike Lee is also in contention with his domestically oriented picture about Hurricane Katrina for HBO, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."

Two Chinese-based documentaries are drawing praise: PBS' "Please Vote for Me," a comedy about a third-grade class election; and ThinkFilm's "Nanking," about the 1937 Rape of Nanking.

On the home front, the Documentary Group's "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" follows soldiers returning from the war in Iraq, while Magnolia Pictures' "No End in Sight" looks at the course of the war to date.

Less political films include Sony Pictures Classics' "My Kid Could Paint That," about a putative child prodigy; the Weinstein Co.'s "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song"; and the nature documentary from Paramount Vantage, "Arctic Tale."

British filmmaker Tony Kaye enters the sweepstakes with his abortion-themed "Lake of Fire" for ThinkFilm, while at the other end of the controversy spectrum, "Helvetica" centers on the font of that name.
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