Which Best Adapted Screenplay Nominee Is The Best Adaptation?

Judging the Academy's picks by their fidelity to the source material.

Confession time: I get really into the Academy Awards adapted screenplay race. I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's the bookworm in me that butts heads with my love of cinema so that I fill both hobbyist needs at once, but knowing the source material of a potentially fantastic adaptation really enriches the experience for me. That being said, the worth of a film should be judged on its own merits, not based purely on its fidelity to the original text, and there are plenty of films that are as good as or exceed the books they are based on by avoiding pure devotion to the written word.

But what if we decided that we wanted to judge the Academy's picks not purely as films, but as adaptations, and fidelity to the source material is how we gauge the film's worth? Well, I've read all the original texts for the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees—well, almost all of them, but more on that in a second—and I think that fairly qualifies me to present for your consideration a countdown of which of these five films is the best adaptation.


So here's that caveat I mentioned a moment ago. I have not read In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the play on which Barry Jenkins's screenplay for Moonlight was based. But there's a good reason for that: the play has never been published or produced, which is why Moonlight's inclusion in this category is a pretty big cheat on the part of the Academy. In fact, the Writers Guild of America deemed Moonlight to be an original work, not only since In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is an unpublished work, but also because Jenkins reportedly made such extensive edits to the basic outline of McCraney's play that it functionally isn't even the same story. By this definition, any screenplay could technically be an adaptation of its first draft! The choice by the Academy to deem Moonlight an adapted screenplay seems primarily a political one, so that it doesn't have to compete with the likes of La La Land and Manchester By The Sea for Best Original Screenplay. Sure, it makes Moonlight the obvious winner in its category, but it's disingenuous to the film's origins and does a disservice to the films that actually were adaptations. If we're going to judge these films as adaptations of their source material, Moonlight has to be the weakest contender, even if it is—at least in my ever so humble opinion—the best film to receive a nomination.


A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly is a perfect bit of Weinstein Oscar bait to adapt for a feature film, but it also has some major issues in translating to an engaging experience on-screen. Lion consequently comes across as a strange hybrid of faithfulness to the source material and manufactured melodrama that is completely disingenuous to true events. The first half of the film, which depicts a young Saroo growing up on the streets of Calcutta after being separated from his family, is actually a very accurate and emotionally engaging interpretation of the events that Brierly depicts in his memoir. However, when the film transitions to the adult Brierly’s quest to rediscover his lost family after his adoption by an Australian couple, the film starts making things up that, if they truly did happen, weren’t a part of Brierly’s telling in the book. It’s completely understandable why though, as the crux of Brierly’s journey is that he spent years systematically scanning India with Google Earth in order to find his long lost hometown. On its own, watching Saroo stare endlessly at the screen of his laptop doesn’t make for very interesting cinema, so the film necessarily contrives drama with his family and girlfriend in order to add external conflict. It’s an understandable move on the part of the filmmakers, but it makes Lion a poorer adaptation as a result.


Hidden Figures is actually another surprisingly tricky case, mostly because the source book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly in a non-fiction account of a group of people, and therefore doesn’t rely on a traditional arc to convey the stories of the black women computers who worked for NASA. Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn are all real people, and the film does a great job of demonstrating their accomplishments within their fields, but the timeline of events, the women’s relationships to one another, and the particular prejudices they faced and their reactions to them are mostly inventions to provide a narrative structure to their accomplishments. Kevin Costner’s character is actually an amalgamation of various figures of white authority within NASA, and the actual achievements of the women in question were spread out across time and a variety of programs within the agency. And yet, without becoming a documentary, that sort of story doesn’t translate well to the screen, so the film does away with pure accuracy in favor of archetypal expediency, which does a good job of carrying the spirit of the protagonists’ achievements, but doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality as depicted in the book the film was based on.


Arrival presents an interesting case in that it is an adaptation of a short story rather than a novel. The film follows the outline of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” quite faithfully in its representation of the aliens’ appearance, how linguist Louise Banks communicates with them, and the ultimate consequence of how learning to read the alien language affects Louise’s worldview. The depiction of how Louise’s memories of her daughter affect her in particular moments is also quite the inspired way to implement the story’s anachronistic timeline, so in those respects, Arrival is actually one of the most faithful adaptations on this list. That is, save for one thing: the film’s stakes-raising plot concerning the destabilizing effect the aliens have on international relations and the race for each nation to discover the aliens’ true intention is entirely invented by the screenplay. The change makes a lot of sense, considering it is a logical expression of how real world governments would likely react to the presence of an extraterrestrial force and creates an element of tension in a story that would have otherwise been better suited as a short subject than a feature length film. So judging by fidelity to the source material, half of the time Arrival is spot on, and it only loses points for adding content, as enriching as that content may be.


Of course, Fences is the obvious winner in being the truest adaptation, but only because it has everything going for it. The film is an adaptation of the great American stage play of the same name, and the adaptation was written by August Wilson, who just so happens to be the playwright responsible for the original text. As far as I was able to discern, the film lifts the dialogue directly from the page of the play, and it only deviates slightly with respect to showing a few settings outside of the stage production’s singular house and backyard. What’s interesting about Fences as an adaptation, though, is while it is as accurate a translation of the play to film as one could ask for, the story is still structurally built as a staged experience. This consequently leads to long monologues from the performers and an overall lack of diversity in setting, despite the film’s best efforts, and the film is a weaker experience because of it. Fences may be the most accurate adaptation of this year’s nominees, but it’s also the nominee that feels the least like a fully realized movie because of the fidelity to its origins.

So what do you think? Do you disagree with my rankings? Does judging a work by its accuracy to the original text actually mean anything, or is it just a fun mental exercise? Share your thoughts in the comments.