Oscars: 39 Screenplays That Matter
It's all about the story as this season's contenders range from the Coen brothers' World War II POW biopic ('Unbroken') to not one but two sets of writers turning to the world's best-selling book, the Bible, for their inspiration
This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's shaping up as the year of the biopic as some of the season's most highly touted awards hopefuls focus on great men of art and history, from landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in — what else? — Mr. Turner to code-cracker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. But this year's screenwriters also decided it was time for some less-famous women to get their due: Primitive artist Margaret Keane emerges from the shadows of her husband, Walter, in Big Eyes, and Cheryl Strayed finds a kind of feminist salvation conquering the great outdoors in Wild.
The adapted screenplay category, which includes such films as the wartime survival saga Unbroken and the crime thriller Gone Girl, is especially competitive. But don't discount the original screenplays, since there's plenty of variety on that front, from the growing pains in the quietly observed Boyhood to the midcareer crisis that drives a Hollywood star to try to conquer the Broadway stage in the hallucinogenic Birdman. Of course, Hollywood certainly does like to stretch the meaning of the word "original": Both Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah, though they retell biblical stories, qualify as original as far as the industry is concerned.
World War II provides the setting for two of the season's most prominent biopics, but they couldn't be more different. Unbroken, written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson and based on Laura Hillenbrand's inspirational book, tells the ultimately triumphant tale of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete, U.S. Air Force pilot in the Pacific theater of war and Japanese prisoner-of-war survivor — and it's big in scope and emotion. The Imitation Game, on the other hand, looks at the war from inside Bletchley Park, the U.K. mansion that housed the British intelligence service's top-secret efforts to crack Germany's Enigma code. First-time feature screenwriter Graham Moore, adapting Andrew Hodges' exhaustively researched book, focuses on Alan Turing, the eccentric genius now regarded as the father of the modern computer, who was persecuted for his homosexuality and committed suicide. Another British genius, physicist Stephen Hawking, is front and center in Anthony McCarten's screenplay for The Theory of Everything, based on the memoir by Hawking's first wife Jane Hawking, Travelling to Infinity — My Life With Stephen.
Jon Favreau's gastronomic journey across America in Chef provides a tonic for moviegoers looking for a good time. And Richard Linklater lends an equally optimistic point of view to his coming-of-age story Boyhood. Other movies tackle more problematic, personal issues but still allow their characters to emerge triumphant. For Wild, Nick Hornby adapted Cheryl Strayed's memoir about how she overcame a troubled past by taking a challenging 1,000-mile hike along the Pacific Coast Trail. A longtime gay couple copes with some of the problems of aging in Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias' gentle, bittersweet screenplay for Love Is Strange. And in The Judge, written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, from a story by David Dobkin and Schenk, a hotshot attorney finally makes peace with his judgmental old dad. Several films confront the hot-button topic of race without giving way to despair: Paul Webb's screenplay for Selma portrays Martin Luther King Jr. at key moments in the civil rights movement he inspired. Modern-day race relations get the satiric treatment in Justin Simien's campus-set Dear White People and are examined through the prism of a custody battle in Mike Binder's Black or White. Aiming for laughs, Theodore Melfi creates a comic curmudgeon in St. Vincent, while Chris Rock nails some of the absurdities of showbiz in Top Five.
What does it take to be an artist? Damien Chazelle's screenplay for Whiplash looks at the commitment required from a young musician, while Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner captures the price a great artist, painter J.M.W. Turner, paid for his art. Birdman, written by Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, puts Michael Keaton's washed-up movie star at the center of New York's theater scene, while Big Eyes, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, looks at pop painter Margaret Keane's battle to be taken seriously.
It wasn’t all fun and games at the movies this year. The American West is grim, especially for women, in The Homesman, which Tommy Lee Jones wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver from Glendon Swarthout’s novel. War proves to be pretty much hell as one of the last battles in World War II plays out in writer-director David Ayer’s Fury, and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle takes aim in Iraq in American Sniper, Jason Hall’s adaptation of Kyle’s memoir. In a semi-comic trip back to ’70s Los Angeles, Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, which adapts Thomas Pynchon's novel, finds corruption just about everywhere its private eye looks. And on the other side of the continent, in New York City circa 1981, J.C. Chandor discovers A Most Violent Year, in which a war breaks out among independent oil suppliers as, for one couple, the American dream goes down the drain.
By the '90s, things aren’t any happier at the Pennsylvania estate of millionaire John du Pont, the setting for Foxcatcher, written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman — this is one sports movie that doesn’t end with a victory celebration. Modern marital relations are mercilessly dissected in Men, Women & Children, which Jason Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson based on Chad Kultgen's novel, and Gone Girl, which Gillian Flynn adapted from her own best-seller. The bets go sour in William Monahan's The Gambler, adapted from the 1974 film. And Dan Gilroy offers up a tour of a lurid, after-dark L.A. in Nightcrawler.
Some of the year’s most vivid characters just aren’t easily classified: In Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, working from Lisa Genova's novel, create a college professor forced to face a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. The circumstances are no less dire in Rosewater, Jon Stewart's adaptation of Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy's book about Bahari's 118 days of imprisonment on charges of spying in Iraq. Steven Knight set himself an even more restrictive challenge in writing Locke — the movie takes place almost entirely inside a BMW, with its title character fielding calls as his life unravels. While Locke basically is a solo act, Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman serve up a two-hander as they juggle the emotional demands of a couple of damaged siblings in The Skeleton Twins. And in Pride, Stephen Beresford's screenplay finds room for a whole town full of colorful characters, telling the story of a group of gay activists who came to the aid of striking English miners.
At first glance, they’re as light as air, but these screenplays also harbor some darker moments. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson turns out an original script, based on a story by himself and Hugo Guinness, that conjures up a fictional Mittel-European resort hotel. But amid its comic complications — a possible murder, an art theft and a prison break — it also offers an elegy for a long-vanished civilized way of life. In the fairy-tale mashup Into the Woods, James Lapine, adapting the 1987 Broadway musical he wrote with Stephen Sondheim, follows such emblematic figures as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella as their wishes come true but then goes on to explore what happens when everyone doesn’t live happily ever after. And Woody Allen travels to the south of France for his latest, Magic in the Monlight, in which a magician and clairvoyant face off.
How do you make a movie based on nothing but building blocks? Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s screenplay for The Lego Movie, based on a story they wrote with Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, solves that problem by creating a Lego universe that’s watched over by real-life humans. And in How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dean DeBlois further develops the Scandinavian world of flying dragons he first visited in the 2010 original.
By going back to ancient biblical days and then moving forward to the furthest reaches of space and time, writers found ways to test the limits of what can be created onscreen. In Noah, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel take inspiration from the book of Genesis for their imaginative spin on the story of the coming of the great flood that nearly wiped out mankind, while Exodus: Gods and Kings, written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian, takes its cues from the second book of the Bible as it recounts Moses' showdown with Egyptian pharaoh Ramses. Peering into the future of the universe, Interstellar, written by brothers Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, speculates about the beginnings of a future exodus in which mankind is forced to consider migrating to another solar system as the Earth is coming to an end.