[AWARD SHOWS] Screenwriting Originals Showing Up
- No need to adapt
Powerful original screenplays are plentiful this Oscar season. Why
has it taken so long?
By Jay A. Fernandez, Special to The Times
To paraphrase Three 6 Mafia: It's hard out here for an original
screenplay. What with all the great literary works, graphic novels
and biographies (plus the occasional epic fantasy trilogy) begging to
be translated to the big screen, the adapted screenplay Oscar
nominees have hogged all the glory in recent years. But 2006 -- with
all due respect to the newly triumphant Democrats -- may become known
as the Year of the Original Comeback.
Though the potential adapted contenders look as robust as ever this
year, screenwriters have also fielded a strapping squad of powerful,
idiosyncratic original screenplays that collectively seem to
represent the culmination of the post-9/11 creative incubation
period. There's just more heaviness to them -- screenwriters have
fashioned stories that are deeply felt and personal but that also
resonate with national and global moods.
"In this moment, it would be very hard to make a movie that wasn't
acutely aware of the chaos and complexities of people sharing the
same geographical space but not the same spiritual space, the same
privileges, the same ideals, the same languages," says writer-
director Anthony Minghella, who's just written his first original
screenplay, "Breaking and Entering," in 15 years and who has won
Oscar nods for adapting the novels "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The
"That's the urgency of our time," Minghella says, "and any writer
who's starting from a blank page is inevitably going to be
It's not just the extremely literal tragedies depicted in Paul
Greengrass' and Andrea Berloff's elegiac scripts for "United 93"
and "World Trade Center" that carry this extra weight. In both
dramatic and comedic ways, "Babel" (Guillermo Arriaga), "Little Miss
Sunshine" (Michael Arndt), "Volver" (Pedro Almodóvar), "The Pursuit
of Happyness" (Steven Conrad), "Bobby" (Emilio Estevez), "The Queen"
(Peter Morgan), "Stranger Than Fiction" (Zach Helm) and "Catch a
Fire" (Shawn Slovo) -- Oscar contenders all -- roil with enough loss,
anguish, outrage, dislocation, desperation and isolation to sound
like an early U2 song. (You may notice something else consistent
about these original screenplays: Each has a single credited writer.)
"If there's a passing fashion for this, I'm delighted," says Morgan,
who's also likely to get an adapted nomination this year for "The
Last King of Scotland," co-scripted with Jeremy Brock. "I like to
think it's a return to '70s-style filmmaking. In the last two or
three years there's been a real explosion of filmmakers making more
adult, sophisticated, intelligent stuff."
Arndt adds that screenplays are acting more like novels. "It's very
heartening to see films that make the effort to go out and understand
how the world actually works," he says. "That's always been the
mission of novels. As a medium, screenplays are less conducive to
that sort of exploration of the broader world. I think it's great now
that screenwriters in the post-9/11 era are ambitious enough to want
to go out into the world and describe it in a way that a novelist
The recent malaise in original screenplays can be partially
attributed to a Hollywood system obsessed with creating marketable
products, often by turning to preexisting material -- magazine
articles, plays, video games, novels, old TV shows, nonfiction books,
other films -- for inspiration.
"Scripts don't get movies made," says Christopher McQuarrie, who won
the best original screenplay in 1995 for "The Usual Suspects." "What
makes a movie now is a package, a brand, a remake or some preexisting
material. A graphic novel that has sold 30,000 copies is considered
more bankable than a well-written story no one's heard of before. The
strong showing of adaptations might have its roots in [this]. With
more adaptations, you'll have a bigger pool from which to draw the
five 'best.' "
Arndt points out that the weight accorded novels or other
prepublished material just goes with the territory. "It's pretty
depressing for people who are trying to write directly for the
screen," he says, "because anyone can buy the rights to a book, and
you immediately have more prestige or credibility than you do with an
"If you were to write 'Brokeback Mountain' as an original script," he
adds, "you would have a harder time getting people to take it
It's an odd dynamic for these writers, most of whom prefer to write
originals. "A lot of writers think that they have a gallon of ink,
and every writer is afraid he's going to run out of that gallon of
ink," says Arriaga, who has turned down many offers to adapt books
and remakes. "Of course, I'm very scared that it will happen to me.
So if I only have one gallon of ink I'd prefer to write things that I
really believe in. I'd never hesitate to write an original, because
it's the only thing I know how to do."