Here we are again. Stuck in the doldrums of late January/early February, affectionately known to some—and by some, I mostly mean me—as, “the place where films go to die.” It’s that time of year when most of the Hollywood machine is focused on each studio’s Oscar run. The well regarded offerings of last December and their autumn brethren are shouldered in an extended or second release into theaters alongside the likes of the latest M. Night Shyamalan head-trip and a reboot of a remake of a J-horror classic. It’s awards season folks; the Oscars are here. The Academy Awards are still the high water mark for films and the most recognizable achievement to the average movie goer., and it thus falls to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select a crop of the best cinematic offerings from the past calendar year. However, there is a trend to their selection process that I find troubling, and which is a threat to originality in cinema in the long term.
Since the Academy expanded its selections from five to a maximum of ten nominations in 2010, there has been exactly one year in which the nominees produced from an original screenplay outnumbered those from adapted sources or true stories: 2010 itself. That year six out of the ten nominations were created from original screenplays. It’s worth noting that when I mention and “original” screenplay I mean one in which the story was not adapted from any sort of novel, short story, memoir, or real events. The previous year before the Academy widened the nomination amount, 2009, none of the five nominees where created from an original script.
You may be thinking to yourself, what’s the issue here? Isn’t there a “Best Adapted Screenplay” category for precisely this reason? And the answer on one level is yes, there are many great films created from adapted sources. Either one of what are generally regarded as the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane or The Godfather, are adaptations. The problem is one of translation. Adaptation films have become formulaic and started to rely on the audience’s prior knowledge of similar films. Leonardo DiCaprio’s moments in front of his howling office workers in The Wolf of Wall Street immediately recalls Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in front of the masses, which itself was adapted from imagery straight from the Third Reich. The language of adaptation films is starting to become stagnant. Additionally, a film that has been adapted from a novel or story is limited in its story telling ability. There is an unspoken responsibility to the readers of the original production to maintain certain amounts of faithfulness to their source. The result is that adapted works not only encourage an understanding of cinema as a secondary genre to literature, but also that they just do not push the limits of cinema as a medium in the way that original works do.
I first became aware of this in 2014 when Gravity lost to 12 Years a Slave. Gravity was an original piece written by its director Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas. 12 Years a Slave was adapted from the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup. Gravity was created almost entirely digitally; specific technology was even created in order to achieve the correct lighting of a human in space. The effects artists had to relearn animation without natural weight or a horizon line. It’s a film that features only three speaking characters, the majority of which is carried in a solo performance by Sandra Bullock. Gravity has three single shot sequences each clocking in at over seven minutes each, one finishing at the sixteen minute mark. 12 Years a Slave is certainly an important film, and a timely one: I in no way wish to take away from the importance of telling Northup’s heartbreaking story of injustice and suffering. But, from a filmic standpoint – seen in terms of what it means for the filmmaking art form – Gravity was the more important film. Gravity, through its originality, pushed the boundaries of cinema and moved the medium forward, which is something to which the Oscars ought to give more recognition.
Gravity’s best picture loss aside, the spread of actual best picture winners from adapted sources against those of original work is actually evenly distributed. Since the expansion in 2010, the ratio of winners from original scripts to adapted screenplays is 50/50. However, this is a bit misleading when we consider the fact that, as stated above, the amount of films from adapted sources that have been nominated for Best Picture far outweighs original projects. What the Academy is in effect saying, to the layperson and young future filmmakers, is that, “these are the best types of films; if you want to get here these are the films that you need to watch, these are the films you need to make.” This is a scary thought, as any lack of diversity is a recipe for stagnation.
This year is no different. Once again there are four original offerings out of the nine total nominations. The good news is that the two films that are the apparent front runners, Moonlight and La La Land, are both original projects, and one could also point to Manchester by the Sea. This is in sharp comparison to last year, when The Revenant and Spotlight where miles ahead of other films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, which would have been my pick. And the inclusion of a film like Hacksaw Ridge, an independent film that follows the “biopic is best” style of filmmaking give cause for concern. Still, the evolution and development of both Moonlight and La La Land give me a good amount of hope moving forward that we may see a trend of more original films being made in the coming years. I’d like to see a world in which the amount of original projects at the Oscars far outweighs the biopics and adaptations. Film would do well to distance itself from the novel and memoirs; it is not, as the Academy’s choices would sometimes have you believe, the kid brother of a more senior art form. It needs to be allowed to grow and breathe on its own, to develop quirks and a personality. The innovative filmmakers are out there; they need recognition and encouragement.