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‘Moonlight’ Has 8 Oscar Nominations, But An Adapted Screenplay Win Is Almost Guaranteed

"Moonlight" looks like an almost-sure thing for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but BAFTA-winner "Lion" also makes a strong case.

Barry Jenkins Moonlight

Barry Jenkins

Daniel Bergeron


Don’t abandon hope, “Moonlight” lovers.

On Sunday, the BAFTAs shut out “Moonlight,” which had four nominations. Among them, writer-director Barry Jenkins competed in the Original Screenplay category against eventual BAFTA winner Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester By the Sea”). These two also compete at the Writers Guild. On Oscar night February 26th, when “Moonlight” has eight chances to win, it should take home at least one Oscar in another category, Best Adapted Screenplay.

The BAFTA for Adapted Screenplay went to Australian writer Luke Davies for “Lion.” But at Saturday’s USC Scripter Awards, which have accurately predicted the adapted category for the last six years, “Moonlight” beat “Lion.” On Oscar night, “Moonlight” should do that again.

Here’s how the Adapted Screenplay Oscar race shakes out.

Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders in "Moonlight"


Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24

Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”)

The Academy moved two scripts, “Moonlight” and “Loving,” from Original to Adapted. Technically, the play Jenkins adapted with McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” was never produced. But the Academy, unlike the Writers Guild of America, decided that Jenkins did adapt the moving Miami-set coming-of-age triptych from another source. That puts “Moonlight” at the top of the race for Adapted Screenplay.

READ MORE: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey: How the Year’s Great Discovery Became an American Cinema Milestone

Frustrated that various follow-ups to his 2009 debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” weren’t getting anywhere, Jenkins was looking for the right movie to make with producer Adele Romanski. “We whittled it down to stuff we could produce and control to keep the budget low, but also have it cinematic and personal,” Jenkins told Eric Kohn last fall. “We were just like, ‘All right, fuck this. Let’s figure out something we can do where other people can’t fuck with us.’”

Jenkins remembered being impressed by “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” about a gay black man’s struggles with bullying and his drug-addicted mother. “I’m a guy from the projects who got together with a playwright from the projects to make a movie about a gay black kid from the projects,” Jenkins said. “The whole point of making it was for people who might’ve grown up under similar circumstances.”

Luke Davies – Adapted Screenplay – “Lion”

Photo by David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Luke Davies (“Lion”)

Also in the hunt is another heartfelt true story, Garth Davis’s WGA-ineligible “Lion,” adapted from the book by Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel), who lost his family when he was five and found them 25 years later via Google Earth.

READ MORE: ‘Lion’: 7 Ways Garth Davis’ Tearjerker Dodged Melodrama to Get Oscar Buzz

See Saw producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman (Oscar-winner “The King’s Speech”) discovered an article about Australian emigre Saroo Brierley, who had lost his family at the age of five in Calcutta and, 20 years later, found them again via Google Earth. They nabbed the rights to Brierley’s memoir, “A Long Way Home,” by flying directly to Australia to meet the man and his adoptive parents to win their trust. They hired L.A.-based Australian poet-novelist-critic Luke Davies, who’d they’d worked with on the 2006 adaptation of his autobiographical novel, “Candy,” which starred Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish.

“The story was mythic, primal and simple,” Davies told me in December. “I didn’t mean the adaptation was simple, but the basic emotional and structural elements of the story were like a myth. It felt ancient. If you try and discover what must be a universal human experience, it’s the vulnerability of an infant’s need for safety and security.”

The trick was to tell that story without descending into sentimentality. “It felt raw and strong and powerful,” said Davies. “The story of the 5-year-old boy in peril was emotional in a way we as an audience might feel.”

Eric Heisserer Daniel Bergeron

Eric Heisserer

Daniel Bergeron

Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”)

Another WGA nominee is “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s brainy sci-fi encounter between an empathetic linguist (Amy Adams) and alien visitors with unclear intentions. The movie is accessible, smart, suspenseful, and moving, that rare mix of brain-twister and intimate drama.

Heisserer (“The Thing”) had such a visceral reaction to Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” that he kept pitching the screenplay. “I was in tears,” he told me at a February Santa Barbara Film Festival writers panel (video below). “I hugged everyone within walking distance, took a long breath, and thought, ‘How can I get this to more people and broadcast it to a larger audience?’” He wrote it on spec.

READ MORE: ‘Arrival’ Could Never Have Been Made By A Studio: Here’s Why

“Story of Your Life” was a nonlinear and cerebral story on an emotional topic: a mother’s feelings for her daughter. Heisserer infused it with dramatic narrative. “It had no conflict,” he told me last November. “My first major change was to bring the aliens to our front door and have them land in various places around the world, add a ticking clock and global tension.”

He also inserted graphics of the heptapods’ visual language into the script. “Countless times I’ve been told to dumb it down,” he said. Thankfully, he didn’t.

“Hidden Figures”

Ted Melfi, Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”)

“Hidden Figures,” which Ted Melfi and Allison Schroeder adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s historical nonfiction book proposal (“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race”), has been kicking it at the box office ever since it opened Christmas Day. Director Melfi shaped former NASA employee Schroeder’s draft, adding more material about the home lives of the trio of African-American women mathematicians.

“I knew from the beginning that I would focus on these three women and their friendship,” Schroeder told IndieWire in December. “We needed to see a movie where women lifted each other up. That was step one.”

“It has everything in a movie you’re not supposed to do in Hollywood — female leads, math, the female leads are black,” Melfi said. “It’s all these things where they say, ‘You’ll never make money.’”

“Hidden Figures” is at $131 million domestic — and counting.

READ MORE: Why ‘Hidden Figures’ Is the Inspiring Awards Season Contender We Need Now

August Wilson


August Wilson (“Fences”)

Also grabbing a WGA nomination was the movie version of the playwright’s Pittsburgh drama “Fences,” a Christmas hit from Tony-winning director-star Denzel Washington.

Seven years ago, producer Scott Rudin sent Wilson’s screenplay to Washington. The star had seen James Earl Jones, Courtney Vance, and Mary Alice in the original production, and realized if he wanted to play disgruntled former baseball-player ‘Troy Maxson, he’d better get cracking. So he starred on Broadway in 2010 opposite his “Antwone Fisher” star Viola Davis, as his long-suffering wife Rose; they both won Tonys.

READ MORE: Denzel Washingon Interview: The Director Reveals How He Opened Up ‘Fences’

Washington skirted the hazards of “opening up” a play by chasing honest emotions. A two-time acting Oscar winner, Washington directed himself in this intimate drama, along with Davis.

“I was here to serve August Wilson first — before anybody else,” Washington told me last month.  “That’s the deal. I like it. August Wilson wrote a masterpiece. It works on the stage and it works on film. I was determined; I had decided. I was going to film what he wrote. There are a lot of different versions of it, and I had to work through this and that, and boil it back down to what he wrote … The story, he wrote it; it’s there. August was constantly telling me, the play tells me what it wants and doesn’t want.”

1. “Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)
2. “Lion” (Luke Davies)
3. “Arrival” (Eric Heisserer)
4. “Hidden Figures” (Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder)
5. “Fences” (August Wilson)

READ MORE: 2017 Oscar Predictions

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