adapted screenplay

2019 Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards, to be given out during ABC’s televised ceremony on Sunday, February 24. The Oscars will cap off a months-long awards season featuring industry veterans, newcomers, and as always, endless debates about who deserves to go home with the golden statue.

New York Film Academy (NYFA) takes a closer look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology of six Western-themed vignettes, adapted from a variety of sources, including original short stories the Coen brothers had been developing themselves over the past couple decades. One vignette is based on the Jack London story All Gold Canyon while another is adapted from The Gal Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White. The Coen brothers previously won in this category for No Country for Old Men, and have won and been nominated for several Academy Awards in their careers, including a win for Best Original Screenplay in 1997 for Fargo.

BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, an NYPD detective who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz adapted Stallworth’s own memoir into a screenplay along with details they gleaned from interviewing him. Director Spike Lee and collaborator Kevin Willmott worked on the script as well before shooting. This is the first Oscar nomination for Watchel, Rabinowitz, and Willmott. Lee has five nominations in total, including one for his Do the Right Thing screenplay, as well as an Honorary Oscar awarded in 2016.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is adapted from the 2008 memoir of the same name by Lee Israel, and chronicles Israel’s time forging letters from dead authors and playwrights, which eventually led to her being sentenced to probation and house arrest. This is the only screenplay credit for Jeff Whitty, who co-wrote Tony-winning Avenue Q. Nicole Holofcener has previously written Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money, Please Give, and Enough Said. This is the first Oscar nomination for both writers.

If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins

If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted from the 1974 novel by renowned author James Baldwin, a love story set in Harlem. Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the film, following up his 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight. For Moonlight, Jenkins was nominated by the Academy for Best Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won the latter.

A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

A Star is Born is adapted from the original 1937 film of the same name and its two remakes. This is the first Oscar nomination for Will Fetters, who previously wrote Remember Me. It’s the seventh nomination for director and star Bradley Cooper, who has four acting nominations and two Best Picture nods. Eric Roth is a veteran screenwriter with five total nominations for his work—all adaptations—including a win in 1995 for Forrest Gump. Roth’s other credits include The Insider, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Horse Whisperer, and Ali, among many others.

Check out the New York Film Academy Blog after this year’s ceremony for a full list of the 2019 Oscar winners and losers!

Anatomy of an Adapted Screenplay

Novels are terrific, but there’s something about the silver screen that transforms great ideas into pure theatrical magic. And many incredible films exist because a screenwriter was inspired to adapt a story from another medium. Today, we’ll look at how you can tackle this process yourself. But finding your inspiration is only the first step. Here are some crucial tips to keep in mind as you adapt your screenplay.

Great Adaptations

First, understand that the adapted screenplay is an artform, with many great examples to look to for inspiration and insights on craftsmanship.

Beloved films like “The Shining,” “Fight Club,” “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” all started out as books before a talented screenwriter turned them into adapted screenplays. Also, think “Twilight.”

And books aren’t the only inspiration for adapted screenplays — don’t forget plays, short stories, poems, and more! There is a long and successful history of adapting all kinds of literature into screenplays…

Plays inspired many film classics: “12 Angry Men,” based on the play of the same name; “Pretty Woman,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”; and “West Side Story,” based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

But literature doesn’t have to be long to inspire a film. “Story of Your Life,” a science fiction short by Ted Chiang, was recently adapted into the Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film “Arrival.” And the Oscar-nominated 1939 classic “Gunga Din” was based on a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.

Sources for adapted screenplay material don’t have to end with books, plays, and poems. Need we mention all the films successfully adapted from comic books?  

Follow The Story

Your first step is to learn the source material inside-out, identify the main characters, and trace out their story lines. Passion for the story is the most important driver behind adapting a novel into a screenplay. You can make a list of key characters, crucial scenes, and major themes, but don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Remember: your goal is to tell this story as a film, and you’re looking for ways to drive the action forward.

This is your brainstorming phase. Draw charts or diagrams. Storyboard. Write lists. Do whatever it is that helps you connect the dots in your own brain as you begin to shift your mind from interacting with this story as consumer, to becoming the storyteller. Your job at this phase is to organize your source material and begin to identify the shape your story will take on screen.

Adaptation Means Change

Sometimes you have to shed subplots or minor characters in order to keep the story rolling along. Or, use your imagination to fill in gaps. After all, you’re adapting one story form into another, and it has to fit into the structure of a 120-page screenplay. Think of The Harry Potter series, and how screenwriters had to carefully curate which characters and subplots could participate in the the story of a two-hour time film.

This can be a hard judgment call, so how will you know when to change something? A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t drive the story forward, you’ll have to change it.

Jane Anderson, scriptwriter for HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, explained how screenwriters know when to twist a plot or kill off a character: “Once you know your theme and who you’re meant to follow, then it becomes very clear [what to cut or eliminate]. You have to decide, as a dramatist—how do I want to tell this story?”

Show Don’t Tell

It’s ever-so-tempting to translate those beautifully written sentences into voice-overs, but you must resist the urge! Remember that your audience wants to see the story and not hear it; they can hear the story on tape in Grandpa’s 1986 Chevy truck or download it on iTunes to listen at the gym. As a screenwriter, you know that you’re speaking a visual vocabulary. If you must use voice-overs to tell your story, limit it to the best lines in the book.

Once you have these tips in mind, choose your favorite novel or short and story and feel free to begin

adapting it for the big screen! What are your favorite adapted screenplays? Let us know in the comments below!

Learn more about the craft of filmmaking at NYFA’s Screenwriting School.