Writer's Showcase: 8 Oscar-winning Adaptations

Marlon Brando in The Godfather/Image © 1972 - Paramount Picture
Marlon Brando in The Godfather/Image © 1972 - Paramount Picture

Year after year, excitement overtakes us when the time for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar arrives. This is partly because it means we’ve finally gotten to the big nominations and the damn thing is almost over, but also because we love screenwriters. They get little attention in the overwhelming Oscar hoopla and even less respect. That “do not play off” list the Academy orchestra likely receives? Writers aren’t on it. Even last year’s winner, Aaron Sorkin, one of Hollywood’s most renowned writers, got string-sectioned during his acceptance speech. Shameful!

The two screenplay categories generally yield the most interesting nominations, shortlisting deserving work that otherwise wouldn’t get a look-in, such as 2001’s Best Adapted Screenplay nominee “Ghost World” or 2004’s Best Original Screenplay winner “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” This year’s Original crop proves no exception, selecting a range of films from blockbuster comedy “Bridesmaids” to Iranian drama “A Separation.” While the Adapted picks are less radical, it’s still an intriguing contest: the Hawaii-set “The Descendants,” the cinematic fable “Hugo,” the political drama “The Ides of March,” the sabermetrics narrative “Moneyball,” and the espionage thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” We’re outnumbered by the “Descendants” fans around here (who doesn’t want to see Jim Rash — the Dean of NBC’s “Community” — on stage?), but we’re pulling for the “Tinker Tailor” husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor to win for their complex, technically accomplished adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel.

The Best Adapted Screenplay has been part of the ceremony since the Academy Awards began in 1929, rewarding some of cinema’s greatest (and most quotable) motion pictures. (Of course, there have been questionable choices as well: “The Story of Louis Pasteur” over “The Thin Man”? “The Country Girl” over “Rear Window”? “Forrest Gump” over “The Shawshank Redemption”? “Sling Blade” over “Trainspotting”?) In honor of the Academy Awards this weekend, we’ve highlighted one adaptation from each full decade of winners (thus excluding the 1920s and the 2010s).

This is harder than it looks (the 1970s is a dogfight), so feel free to discuss your favorites below.

“It Happened One Night” (1934)
The first film to sweep the five major Academy Awards, Frank Capra’s film is considered the first screwball comedy — and it is delightfully, dizzily screwy. Based on the short story “Night Bus,” Robert Riskin’s script follows a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a reporter who wants her story (Clark Gable) on a bus trip. Honorable mention should go to 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” which won the adaptation Oscar in possibly the most competitive year in the category’s history.

“The Philadelphia Story” (1940)
George Cukor directed Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in Donald Ogden Stewart’s adaptation of the successful play. Featuring some hilarious comic set pieces, this romantic farce concerns a socialite’s upcoming wedding, her ex-husband’s plan to ruin it, and a hack journalist in search of scandal. It was remade in 1956 as the musical “High Society.”

“All About Eve” (1950)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed this interpretation — the What Makes Sammy Run? of Broadway — of the short story “The Wisdom of Eve.” With an ensemble cast led by Bette Davis (in one of her best roles), this tale of an aging theater star and her young, backstabbing acolyte offers a complex narrative of nuanced characterization and bitchy wit.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
Horton Foote’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s bestseller is a master class in screenwriting. The story of a race-based trial’s impact on a small Alabama town as seen through the eyes of a young girl, the film does justice to the drama and humor of the novel and features a flawless performance from Gregory Peck as the heroic yet human Atticus Finch.

“The Godfather” (1972)
The 1970s were an incredible era in filmmaking and trying to pick just one picture is a near-impossible task. But Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, co-adapted with author Mario Puzo, represents the ambition and the bravado of his generation. Despite numerous homages and parodies, the influential Mafia drama remains a powerful look at family dynamics.

“A Room with a View” (1986)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s version of the E.M. Forster novel was part of her longtime collaboration with Merchant Ivory. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, the romantic drama of a young English woman transformed by Italy was an influential hit, almost single-handedly creating the model for future English period films.

“L.A. Confidential” (1997)
Still underrated (it unfortunately went up against the “Titanic” juggernaut), Curtis Hanson (who also directed) and Brian Helgeland’s script streamlined James Ellroy’s crime novel without losing its complexity. Buoyed by a strong ensemble cast, this story of how corruption touches the lives of three police officers evokes classic Los Angeles noir of the mid-century.

“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
Ang Lee directed Larry McMurtry (a previous winner for adapting his own novel Terms of Endearment) and Diana Ossana’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s deceptively simple short story. Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, this emotional drama about a secret love affair between two men is an artfully told, quietly compelling work.