From 'War Horse' to Dark Horse: Handicapping the Best Adapted Screenplay Race

Each year around this time, as the weather cools, speculation about the field of Oscar contenders heats up. Now that most of the major Fall Festivals -- Telluride, Toronto, Venice, and New York -- have anointed (and eliminated) many of the lower budget and/or independently produced players, a short(ish) list of likely nominees has emerged for each of the major awards. All but one, that is: Best Adapted Screenplay.

The field of viable competitors for the Best Adapted Screenplay award remains as wide and crowded as it has ever been. It's also overflowing with talented screenwriters doing some of the best adaptive work of their careers. By our count, there are no fewer than thirty films that have a realistic shot at nabbing a nomination. Herewith, we've attempted to capture a panoramic view of the field of contenders as it now stands.

At this point in the race, there are just two locks: "The Descendants" (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton, Jim Rash) and "Moneyball" (Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, Stan Chervin). The latter is important because it represents a successful collaboration between Zaillian and Sorkin -- two of the most influential and powerful dramatic screenwriters of our time. But it is the slightly less solid of these two films, primarily because both critics and audiences were more admiring than ardent in their response to the baseball-as-metaphor-for-life saga based on Michael Lewis' bestselling nonfiction tome about Billy Beane's revolutionary approach to coaching the Oakland A's. At this point you'd have to be a fool (or former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine) to bet against beloved filmmaker Alexander Payne's adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' tender tale of family trouble in paradise in which George Clooney delivers the most emotionally raw and resonant performance of his career.

The next tier down includes films that will likely be mentioned as likely nominees until the day the actual nods are announced, when one or two of these don't make the cut in favor of a dark horse (more on those later).

"War Horse" (Richard Curtis, Lee Hall)
It's been a while since Steven Spielberg rode into awards season on a big-budget dramatic weepie that looked as promising as this adaptation of Michael Morpugo's novel. Why? It's about a boy who goes to rescue his horse from the ravages of war. 'Nuff said. If early trailers are any indication, this film looks poised to combine the emotionality of "ET" with the dramatic battle sequences of "Saving Private Ryan."

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Eric Roth)
What happens when you combine Jonathan Safran Foer's iconic work of contemporary literary fiction set in the aftermath of 9/11 with an A-List dramatic screenwriter (Roth) and a filmmaker (Stephen Daldry) who has yet to make a film that doesn't enchant Academy voters? It would take force majeure (or perhaps a pair of lackluster '90s movie stars) to keep this film from playing a major role on Oscar night.

"Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Steven Zaillian)
Even if we weren't a diehard Millennium-ite (we are) and David Fincher fanatic (guilty as charged), we'd still be certain that this adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestseller will yield one of the most indelible films of the year. We're especially eager to see how the alchemy emerges from Zaillian's thoughtful, precision-crafted writing, Fincher's flame-throwing filmmaking, and Stieg Larsson's bleak view of man's innate depravity.

"The Help" (Tate Taylor)
There is something kind of deliciously oxymoronic about the juxtaposition of this paragon of literary and cinematic uplift with the existential bleakness of the previous entry. But that's what makes (Oscar) horse racing, right? In fact, though this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel about Southern domestic discord may have disappeared from box office charts, Dreamworks will do everything in its power to make sure it doesn't fade from Oscar voters' memories using the same successful template that production team used in fueling the successful Oscar run of 2003's sentimental favorite, "Seabiscuit."

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan)
Based on one of  John LeCarre's most exalted espionage thrillers, this cerebral Cols War story of a retired spook (played by Gary Oldman) pulled back into duty to smoke out a mole comes with a high pedigree of European filmmaking not unlike that of last year's Oscar juggernaut, "The King's Speech." This suspicion was confirmed when rave reviews began pouring in after this film's Toronto premiere.

    Finally, there is no shortage of worthy and interesting films filling the stable of dark horse contenders with the potential to stage a come-from-behind upset. At least three of those are movies that might have made it onto our shoo-in in a normal year: "A Dangerous Method," Christopher Hampton's adaptation of John Kerr's nonfiction examination of the psycho-drama that played out between Freud, Jung, and their patient/acolyte, Sabina Spilrein; "Drive," Hossein Amini's elegant minimalist rendering of James Sallis' neo-noir novel; and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," which is a testament to the yeoman's work Steve Kloves' has done as the true custodian and sole filmmaker to work on all seven adaptations of  J.K. Rowling's novels, each arguably better than the last. The box office success and number in the title of this film makes it all too easily dismissed by Oscar voters who have their "serious movie" blinders on at this time of year. But that doesn't make its deft storytelling any less worthy.

    Any of the following list of long-shots should not be ruled out of Hollywood's annual exercise in ego-fluffing. In fact, with the right combination of luck, timing, and savvy marketing spin, any one of them has the essential ingredients of a Best Adapted Screenplay winner. Now that we've laid out an overview of the playing field, it's your turn to weigh in with your thoughts on which films stand the likeliest shot at nabbing a nomination and which ones are most deserving of the recognition. We both know the difference. Prognosticate away.

    And now for the other current occupants of Oscar's dark horse corral: "The Ides of March" (George Clooney and Grant Heslov), "We Bought a Zoo" (Cameron Crowe, Aline Brosh McKenna), "Hugo" (John Logan), "Albert Nobbs" (John Banville, Glenn Close), "My Week with Marilyn" (Adrian Hodges), "Carnage" (Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza), "We Need to talk About Kevin" (Rory Kinnear, Lynne Ramsay") "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret Unicorn" (Joe Cornish, Steve Moffat, Edgar Wright), "Coriolanus" (John Logan), "The Rum Diary," (Bruce Robinson), "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" (Simon Beaufoy), "360" (Peter Morgan), "The Skin I Live In" (Pedro Almodovar), "Water for Elephants" (Richard LaGravenese), "The Adjustment Bureau" (George Nolfi), "Submarine" (Richard Ayoade).

    • Steve

      Nice article. Just one mistake. Steve Cloves did not write all of the screenplays for the Harry Potter movies. Michael Goldenberg did the fifth one, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

    • Clay Phillips

      I took it,from the way it was phrased,that he was simply the only person to work on all of the movies,rather than he wrote them all by himself.
      Either way,there are some really great pieces up for the little bald guy this year.One of the best years of work overall in quite some time.Kudos.

    • Ken

      O Lord, spare us another Aaron Sorkin Oscar acceptance speech! His self-serving temerity invoking the late, great Paddy Chayefsky and "Network" as some kind of cultural equal to his own work on "The Social Network" was breathtakingly egotistical. It's left a bad taste in my mouth since last February.

    • Ken

      O Lord, spare us another Aaron Sorkin Oscar acceptance speech! His self-serving temerity invoking the late, great Paddy Chayefsky and "Network" as some kind of cultural equal to his own work on "The Social Network" was breathtakingly egotistical. It's left a bad taste in my mouth since last February.

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