Adaptation is a fascinating exercise. Particularly when it comes to translating written word to the visual medium of film, so much more consideration needs to be placed into the kind of audience a film is catering to rather than that of a book. Pacing, casting, cinematography, and tone all need to be taken into account when writing a screenplay, and sometimes those concerns clash with staying slavishly loyal to every detail of a book, particularly because the way we consume narratives through reading isn’t temporally bound as is the limited runtime of a film. This is why the Best Adapted Screenplay race interests me so much come Oscar Season; it’s one thing to create a work specifically designed for the cinematic experience, but it’s wholly another to take a previously existing work and retool it for a visual narrative.
Is fidelity or the lack thereof the primary indicator of a film adaptation’s quality? Of course not, particularly as far as the below rankings are concerned. But hey, let’s just pretend that it is for a second if for no other reason than to highlight the particular difficulties each of these productions had in translating their source material. So without further ado, here are the Oscar nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay, ranked by their fidelity to their source material.
Logan is a really strange example in this year’s race, mostly in that it’s adapting a larger X-Men mythos rather than any one particular story. This means that if we are going to count it as an adaptation of a particular work, we really have to stretch how that is defined. The proclaimed inspiration for Logan is the Mark Millar and Steve McNiven storyline Old Man Logan, but the plots of the two stories could not be any more different. Logan is specifically a story of fatherhood, while Old Man Logan is primarily about reclaiming one’s place as a hero through vengeance. Tonally, the stories are also quite different, and the only thing the film borrows is the notion of an old man Logan as a figurative cowboy in a desolate post-hero dystopia. Old Man Logan features no Laura, no X-24, and a whole lot of edgelord reimaginings of Marvel heroes and villains, so Logan is much better off for having drawn inspiration from more than just this story. But as a direct adaptation, there isn’t much more to say than that Logan doesn’t really qualify.
4. Molly’s Game
Molly’s Game is another weird example in the adaptation game. Ostensibly, it is an adaptation of Molly Bloom’s memoir by the same name, but Aaron Sorkin goes one step further in building the film’s narrative arc around a framing device that takes place after the memoir had already been published and was being used against Bloom by the U.S. government. This places a heavier emphasis on Sorkin’s fascination with Bloom as a consistently underestimated and overly encumbered businesswoman, but by treating the actual content of the book as material for explanatory flashbacks the film feels more like a supplement than a true adaptation. There are, of course, minor details switched around, primarily the names of those who Bloom’s poker game serviced, but Sorkin’s screenplay recontextualizes Bloom’s story from one of a woman who played with fire and got burned to a story of a savvy woman held back by the very men she provided a service to. The success of that translation is debatable, but the directness of the adaptation is loose in intent, if not in detail.
3. The Disaster Artist
Greg Sestero’s memoir about the making of The Room was always going to be ripe for film adaptation, given how eccentric a character Tommy Wiseau is and the improbable circumstances surrounding the creation of one of outsider cinema’s all-time cult hits. The problem with adapting The Disaster Artist isn’t so much that one needs to change the compelling thrust of the narrative—the relationship between Sestero and Wiseau is a life-bonding bromance rarely seen in real life—but rather that there are so many compelling details that could merit mention but are just so much tangential trivia. Minor details, like the sequence of events and the advent of cult acclaim for The Room happening instantaneously, are toyed with for narrative expediency, but many wilder parts of Sestero’s book are left out of the film entirely, such as his theories about Wiseau’s origins or the eerie parallels between his relationship with Wiseau and the film The Talented Mr. Ripley. These elements would have been difficult to translate on-screen, and the film certainly doesn’t suffer for the tighter focus on the aspects of the story that actually matter, but the film isn’t as much of a direct adaptation as a result.
2. Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name’s fidelity suffers for two reasons: sex and nostalgia. The sexual part of the equation is fairly simple to quantify, for while the sex between Oliver and Elio is explicitly portrayed in the book, the film demonstrates their sexual relationship more through subtle implication than direct visual confirmation. The bigger issue, though, is with how each story treats its epilogue. Whereas the film sticks to the relative present and focuses on Elio’s more immediate longing for a summer romance that was all too short, the book flashes forward to two periods in Elio’s and Oliver’s future, where the pair reunite and reminisce over their regrettable departure from one other. Now, maybe these scenes will act as inspiration for Luca Guadagnino’s planned sequels, but for now Call Me By Your Name concludes on a somber note that is similarly heartbreaking but isn’t quite the same one that André Aciman’s novel envisioned.
This may be a symptom of having not read the book for a while, but my recollection is that Mudbound is about as close an adaptation I’ve ever seen, at least on a structural level. Of course there are lines of dialogue and individual moments that are unique to each version, but as a whole the saga of the McAllans and the Jacksons remains largely the same, right down to the unflinching bleakness of the racial tension that drives the two families. The largest modification is to the very end of the story, in which the film’s Ronsel chooses to reunite with the child he conceived during his time in the war, whereas the book’s Ronsel opts for the opposite. It’s a minor detail in light of the number of characters in the narrative whose roles and endings are left unchanged, and it’s easy to see why that change might feel necessary, considering how dark the end of this story already is. It just goes to show that no matter how faithful an adaptation is, there’s almost always some way in which a filmmaker will try to elevate the material to make it their own.