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Rewriting history

Drama-filled real-life stories, a range of novels and other sources have been shaped into compelling screen stories by the writers running for best adapted screenplay. Jeremy Kay reports.

This season has corralled a lively field of candidates in the best adapted screenplay category and competition will be fierce. Early buzz coalesced around two renowned contenders and the focus is on which three screenplays will fill the remaining slots when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 25.

The Social Network and 127 Hours would appear to be the front runners. Emmy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin thrilled with his work on the former, an intellectual barrage of near relentless dialogue about Mark Zuckerberg and the invention of Facebook. Many have marvelled at the sustained pace and quality of The Social Network, while some have hailed it a zeitgeist-defining film.

There is no shortage of words at times in Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy’s script for 127 Hours, channelled through a virtuoso solo performance by James Franco as the trapped climber Aron Ralston who eventually severs his arm in order to escape.

These two very different films reflect the broader range on offer this year.

Further notable work includes Rabbit Hole writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s meditation on grief, while Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have done Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 crime novel Winter’s Bone proud. Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt lends his Oscar-winning expertise to Toy Story 3, while Ben Affleck and associates render an atmospheric Boston crime tale in The Town.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: LEADING CONTENDERS

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

SCREENWRITER Aaron Sorkin

What’s the story?

Sorkin, the Emmy-winning writer of The West Wing whose feature credits include A Few Good Men, has never been nominated for an Oscar. That should change given the positive response to The Social Network, which has earned Sorkin a Golden Globe nomination. The writer pours all his intellectual faculties into this anti-establishment tale about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the forces which swirled around him. Incidentally, Sorkin has stressed that his script was inspired by, not adapted from, Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires.

127 HOURS

SCREENWRITERS Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy

What’s the story?

Boyle has never been nominated for a writing Oscar but Beaufoy won the adapted screenplay prize in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire and was nominated in 1998 for The Full Monty. Their achievement here is writing a feature of climber Aron Ralston’s remarkable survival story in which there is only one character. The film has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination in the screenplay category.

RABBIT HOLE

SCREENWRITER David Lindsay-Abaire

What’s the story?

Adapting from his play of the same name, Lindsay-Abaire has crafted a story which defies expectation. The resulting chronicle of a married couple tortured by the accidental death of their young son does not overly concern itself with death. Instead it prefers to dwell on the raw and at times almost comical desire for understanding and self-expression that preoccupies the child’s parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Lindsay-Abaire previously wrote screenplays for Robots and Inkheart and has never been nominated for an Oscar.

WINTER’S BONE

SCREENWRITERS Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

What’s the story?

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 crime novel of the same name, Winter’s Bone is a slow-burner of a missing-person mystery. Like the stark Ozark Mountains-setting in the US Interior Highlands, the film is hostile to frivolity and demands patience. The strongly drawn characters — particularly the young lead played by Jennifer Lawrence — and economy of language lend Winter’s Bone an authority which adds to the story’s mystique. A nomination would be a first for both writers.

TRUE GRIT

SCREENWRITERS Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

What’s the story?

The brothers present their own take on Charles Portis’ source novel in a script comprising rich dialogue and salty banter — very much of its era. The Coens have been nominated four times and won best adapted screenplay in 2008 for No Country For Old Men and before that in 1997 for their original screenplay, Fargo.

NEVER LET ME GO

SCREENWRITER Alex Garland

What’s the story?

The versatile Garland turns his talents to Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative work of fiction about friends who grow up at a school which has a secret mandate. The themes of loss of innocence and the urge to live a meaningful existence are writ large, even if the reveal comes much sooner than in the novel. Garland, a regular Danny Boyle collaborator, has never been nominated for an Academy Award.

THE TOWN

SCREENWRITERS Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard

What’s the story?

Affleck shared the original screenplay Academy Award with Matt Damon in 1998 for Good Will Hunting and the question is, will he get to share honours a second time? The mature handling of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves results in a credible ensemble piece which paints an engrossing picture of a community’s deep roots in crime.

THE WAY BACK

SCREENWRITERS Peter Weir, Keith R Clarke

What’s the story?

Weir earned a nomination in 1991 for his original screenplay Green Card and could be in the running with this sweeping adventure. It would be a first nomination for Clarke, who co-adapted Slavomir Rawic’s story about an escape from a Siberian gulag and the ensuing journey. The story balances multiple characters and keeps audiences engaged with a steady flow of human and environmental obstacles.

SHUTTER ISLAND

SCREENWRITER Laeta Kalogridis

What’s the story?

Laeta Kalogridis, whose writing credits include Alexanderand Pathfinder, adapted Dennis Lehane’s novel for the screen, and the result was one of director Martin Scorsese’s biggest ever box-office hits. Kalogridis cleverly worked Lehane’s dark and twisting narrative into a screenplay which fed audiences enough information to keep them guessing right through to the climax and its spectacular reveal.

THE GHOST WRITER

SCREENWRITERS Roman Polanski, Robert Harris

What’s the story?

Adapted from Harris’ thriller about a ghost writer who is caught up in intrigue after he accepts a commission to collaborate on a former prime minister’s memoirs, this is a gripping ride from start to finish. Neither Polanski nor Harris have earned Oscar nominations in the writing categories. Polanski’s legal issues may derail his campaign.

OTHER CONTENDERS

Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script for Fair Game could get attention. It is adapted from outed CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir of the same name, and her husband and former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s The Politics Of Truth.

Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders and William Davies’ adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s popular children’s books How To Train Your Dragon has also earned admirers.

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