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Oscars 2021: Best Adapted Screenplay Predictions

Oscar voters love real-life stories, and this year brings biopics on Billie Holiday, Tammy Faye, and Aretha Franklin.

"Dune"

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

As usual, the Adapted Screenplay category is more crowded than Original, although there could be some switches this year. Contenders are a varied bunch, with movies of all shapes and sizes adapted from plays, novels, memoirs, or documentaries. Some could get lost on VOD during this pandemic year, some may make it to festival play and theaters before this year’s two-month delayed Oscar deadline. Others will push later into 2021.

Among the novel adaptations, auteurs have the advantage with Academy voters. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049”) and Eric Roth co-wrote their two-part screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling 1965 science-fiction novel “Dune” (December 18, Warner Bros.). Oscar Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides and Timothée Chalamet is his son Paul, who travel to spice planet Arrakis. Zendaya also stars with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard.

Set in the post-Civil War era, “News Of The World” (December 25, Universal) is adapted by directing nominee Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) and writing nominee Luke Davies (“Lion”) from the novel by Paulette Jiles. Tom Hanks reunites with his ”Captain Phillips” director, a traveling newsreader who returns an orphan (Helena Zengel) to her family.

Four-time Oscar nominee Charlie Kaufman took home the win for writing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He now directs dark drama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (September 4, Netflix) which he adapted from Iain Reid’s novel about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who arrives with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) at his parents’ isolated farm, and starts to question everything. Toni Collette and David Thewlis costar.

Original Screenplay nominee Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) and Michael Koryta adapted his novel “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (October 23, 2020, New Line/Warner Bros), about a murder witness (Nicholas Hoult) who is pursued into the Montana wilderness by twin assassins. He tries to survive with the help of a survival expert (Angelina Jolie) as a wildfire threatens to torch them all.

Writer-director Ramin Bahrani follows up HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451” with another adaptation, India rags-to-riches tale “The White Tiger” (Netflix), based on the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, who Bahrani has known since they attended Columbia. The story tracks a low-caste Bangalore driver who climbs out of poverty as a chauffeur who kills his boss and steals his money to become a businessman.

Two of George Clooney’s eight Oscar nominations were for co-writing “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Ides of March.” This time, with sci-fi thriller “The Midnight Sky” (Netflix), Clooney directs a script by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) based on the book by Lily Brooks-Dalton about an isolated Arctic scientist (Clooney) trying to prevent a NASA spaceship from returning to Earth after a global disaster.

Autumn de Wilde’s assured new take on “Emma” (Focus) arrived in theaters just before the March lockdown. Eleanor Catton (“The Luminaries”) adapted the Jane Austen classic. Anya Taylor-Joy carries the witty comedy of manners with Johnny Flynn as her romantic foil.

Theater adaptations

Debuting at Sundance and relaunching at the fall festivals was “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) which French playwright-turned-director Florian Zeller adapted from his popular stage play (“La Pere”). Anthony Hopkins plays an imperious old man who tussles with his daughter (Olivia Colman) as he struggles to keep track of his changing surroundings.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix) was adapted by actor-writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Lackawanna Blues”) from the 1982 play by August Wilson, the only one of his ten Pittsburgh plays set in Chicago. George C. Wolfe directs, Denzel Washington produces and Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey, with Colman Domingo and the late Chadwick Boseman playing members of her ’20s jazz band.

Regina King makes her feature film directing debut with “One Night in Miami” (Amazon Studios), adapted by Kemp Powers from his Olivier Award-nominated play. Right after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeats heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964,the boxer meets with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.,) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to figure out ways to make their voices heard in the segregated South. The movie broke out big at Venice and Amazon plans a major campaign push.

(From L-R): Director/Writer Chloé Zhao, Director of Photography Joshua Richardson and Frances McDormand on the set of NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

(From L-R): Director/Writer Chloé Zhao, Director of Photography Joshua Richardson and Frances McDormand on the set of “Nomadland”

Fox Searchlight Pictures

True Stories

Playing four fall festivals including Venice, Toronto and New York is Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” (Searchlight), a follow-up to the Chinese multi-hyphenate’s 2017 breakout feature “The Rider.” After directing Marvel’s “Eternals” (2021), Zhao returned to exploring America with a road movie adapted from Jessica Bruder’s memoir. Two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) plays a woman hit by the 2008 recession who drives around the country in a van.

If Searchlight releases the film in time, “Next Goal Wins” (Searchlight) is written by Adapted Screenplay Oscar-winner Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”) and Iain Morris from the 2014 British documentary about the coach (thrice-nominated Michael Fassbender) of the American Samoa soccer team, who suffered the worst loss in World Cup history, losing to Australia 31-0 in 2001. Elisabeth Moss costars.

Also based on a non-fiction film is “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight), which TV writer Abe Sylvia (“Nurse Jackie”) adapted from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary about televangelists Tammy Faye Bakker (producer-star Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield). “The Big Sick” director Michael Showalter is at the helm.

Hillbilly Elegy” is adapted by Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) from J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Oscar-winner Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) directs Gabriel Basso as Vance, who is raised by his Appalachian family in Ohio, as well as long overdue actresses Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who total 13 nominations between them.

Lee Daniels returns to film with biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Paramount), adapted by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks from the novel by Johann Hari, and starring Andra Day as the brilliant and troubled jazz singer. Natasha Lyonne will portray Tallulah Bankhead.

Respect

“Respect”

YouTube/screenshot

Coming in January is long-in-the-works Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” (MGM), which the singer was helping to develop right up to her death. Having directed several television episodes since “Eclipsed” scored six Tony Award nominations, including best director, Liesl Tommy is directing Jennifer Hudson as Franklin, from her youth singing in her father’s church choir through her career as a Grammy-winning music star. Stacey Scott Wilson (“Fosse/Verdon”) and Oscar-winner Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise” and ABC’s “Nashville”) wrote the script, with Tradecraft producer Scott Bernstein (“Straight Outta Compton”) and songwriter-producer Harvey Mason, Jr., producing.

Contenders are listed in alphabetical order. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.

Frontrunners
Eleanor Catton (“Emma”)
Charlie Kaufman (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”)
Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”)
Florian Zeller (“The Father”)

Contenders
Ramin Bahrani (“The White Tiger”)
Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (“News of the World”)
Suzan-Lori Parks (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”)
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Taylor Sheridan and Michael Koryta (“Those Who Wish Me Dead”)
Mark L. Smith (“The Midnight Sky”)
Abe Sylvia (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)
Vanessa Taylor (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth (“Dune”)
Taika Waititi and Iain Morris (“Next Goal Wins”)
Stacey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri (“Respect”)
Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)

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