In the real world, copying somebody else's written material for your own personal gain is called plagiarism. In the movie biz, it's called adaptation.
Since 1940, the Academy Awards have distinguished the adapted screenplay in its own category, honoring films whose scripts were derived primarily from books, plays, and short stories. But the occasional Best Adapted Screenplay nominee can credit its source to other media — such is the case for this year's nod, the true story thriller Argo.
Ben Affleck's directorial feature, written by Chris Terrio, was actually born from a WIRED magazine article by journalist and film producer Joshuah Bearman in 2007. The piece, titled "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran," was a chronicling of CIA operative Tony Mendez's unorthodox plan to retrieve a group of American diplomats from a hostage crisis in Iran in the late 1970s. Bearman penned the article following the declassification of the CIA documents describing the events.
Argo's company in this year's Best Adapted Screenplay category draw from more traditional sources: the scripts for Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook each comes from its eponymous novel, written by Yann Martel and Matthew Quick, Respectively; Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner cite the nonfiction book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin as the source for their biopic Lincoln; and the story of Beasts of the Southern Wild writer/director Benh Zeitlin was inspired by his co-writer Lucy Alibar's own play, Juicy and Delicious. Heck, even Argo does accredit some hardcover material with the machination of its script alongside the aforementioned original article (Bearman's book The Great Escape, in which he expands on the topic, and Agent Mendez's own account of the event, his memoirs The Master of Disguise). The category has housed a great majority of projects with roots in the forms of book and play. But there are a handful of interesting outliers, spanning from 1931 all the way to the present...
Skippy (1931): Predating the separate Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay categories, the family-friendly Jackie Cooper starrer was adapted from the syndicated comic strip of the same name.
Mrs. Miniver (1942): The romantic drama about the dawn of World War II drew from a series of columns in Great Britain's The Times newspaper, wherein the titular character Kay Miniver was created.
Boomerang! (1947): The true story of this film noir was first chronicled in a Reader's Digest article by journalist Fulton Oursler (under the pen name Anthony Abbot).
Marty (1955):The classic romantic drama was the first of several films to be adapted from a teleplay — Paddy Chayefsky wrote both the big and small screen versions of the story.
I Want to Live! (1958): Another film noir drawn from true events, this film extrapolated its story about a woman on death row from letters penned by the basis and namesake for its main character, Barbara Graham. A second source for the movie came from a collection of newspaper articles from journalist Ed Montgoomery.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): The life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence was chronicled in this classic epic, thanks to the adaptation of the collective writings from the hero himself.
Pennies from Heaven (1981): Ever since Marty, a handful of films has earned nominations for adapting television movies to film; this was the first, however, to earn a nod for adapting a television miniseries (the 1978 BBC drama of the same name).
The Insider (1999): Another film drawn from a magazine article, this time from Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair piece "The Man Who Knew Too Much," about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, played in the film by Russell Crowe.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Classing up the list a bit is this Coen Brothers comedy, which adapted its script from Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.
Ghost World (2001): The first film to earn a nomination for a script adapted from a graphic novel came from Daniel Clowes, who turned his own comic book Ghost World into this comedy-drama.
Shrek (2001): In the same year, this blockbuster animated film pioneered the category's nomination of a script with another type of source: picture book (William Steig's Shrek!).
American Splendor (2002): The brilliant comedic biopic drew its material from the works of subject Harvey Pekar and his wife and fellow comic book author Joyce Brabner (American Splendor and Our Cancer Years, respectively).
Before Sunset (2004): Richard Linklater's screenplay was considered an adaptation, due to its use of characters from the preceding film Before Sunrise, which was written by Linklater and Kim Krizan.
A History of Violence (2005): Another graphic novel adaptation — screenwriter John Olson brought John Wagner and Vincent Locke's A History of Violence to screen with this picture.
Borat (2006): It might surprise you to recall that the Academy recognized this bawdy film with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination; the film was considered an adaptation of the character developed by Sacha Baron Cohen for his small screen venture, Da Ali G Show.
In the Loop (2009): In the same vein, Armando Iannucci transported his The Thick of It hero Malcolm Tucker to the big screen in this satirical film.
District 9 (2009): Cutting it a little close to home, this sci-fi drama/parable for human intolerance and oppression was actually adapted from another movie — a short film titled Alive in Joburg.
Toy Story 3 (2010): Borrowing the characters from the original Toy Story, a new assortment of screenwriters vied for the Oscar in this magnificent threequel.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros; Fine Line Features]
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.