Though many critics are desperate for more “original” movies, it’s important not to forget just how much creativity can be found while using an existing work as a jumping off point. The nominees for best adapted screenplay this year come from stories that were originally novels, novellas, plays, and comic books, but what they all share is great ingenuity in making a film out of something that was once in a completely different format.
- Arrival: Science Fiction writer Ted Chiang wrote the short story “Story of Your Life” in the late 90s and won a Nebula award for it. Almost twenty years later Eric Heisserer, a writer mostly known for writing bad horror movies, found himself adapting the story even though it didn’t really fit into any commercial trends. The result was a big budget Hollywood movie with a wacky time travel idea along with themes about communicating across cultures and the challenges of finding peaceful solutions in crises.
- The Handmaiden: Sarah Waters is a Welsh author who specializes in writing lesbian fiction set in Victorian England… not exactly the most commercial genres, but there’s clearly some coolness to be mined from it as evidenced by Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, which is an unconventional adaptation of Waters’ novel “Fingersmith.” Chan-Wook re-locates the action to Korea during the Japanese occupation but maintains a lot of the book’s feminist leanings and general wildness. The result is a twisty and sexy good time.
- Moonlight: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” is an experimental bit of theater in which we see a character at three stages of his life and these three segments all play out simultaneously. They never really found a way to make this work on stage, but for his film adaption called Moonlight Barry Jenkins simplified things by having the three acts play out one after the other but kept much of McCraney’s raw honesty and insights into the conditions facing young men like Chiron.
- Our Little Sister: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s screenplay for his latest film Our Little Sister is actually adapted from a manga by Akimi Yoshida called “Umimachi Diary” but lacks all the science fiction and wackiness that western audiences tend to associate with all things anime. Instead it’s a restrained little drama that ignores the conventional rules of three act screenwriting and instead just lets the audience peak in on the lives of four people over the course of a year. In doing so the film creates four well fleshed out characters who are all believable and interesting.
- Silence: Martin Scorsese reportedly read Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” in the late 80s and had been trying to make it into the film ever since. It’s easy to see why Scorsese would be interested in the film given his well-known struggles with his Catholic upbringing. Rather than hand the project off to someone like Paul Schraeder or Terence Winter Scorsese opted to write the film himself along with a guy named Jay Cocks whom he had previously collaborated on in writing The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. Together they made a very intelligent movie that juggles a number of very weighty themes in a way that American movies rarely do these days.