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Oscars 2021: Best Adapted Screenplay Predictions

Oscar voters love real-life stories, and this year brings features about jazz singers Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday. Constantly updated.

"News of the World"

“News of the World”


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. 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.” This time he directs twisty 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.

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 steals his young boss’s money to fulfill his destiny.

Jonathan Raymond adapted “First Cow” (A24) from his novel with director Julia Reichardt, who won Best Film from the New York Film Critics Circle, which will move the film higher on screener piles.

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 with Christopher Hampton 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 is mounting a major campaign push.

“Pieces of a Woman” (Netflix) was adapted by Kata Wéber from her play; the movie stars Venice Best Actress-winner Vanessa Kirby as a woman who loses her first baby after a traumatic home birth.


Unexpectedly, Sacha Baron Cohen is back with political agitprop “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (Amazon Studios), a hilarious yet poignant father-daughter comedy that could be an Adapted Screenplay contender. The script is credited to nine writers, including Baron Cohen. Thirteen years back, that was the only nomination for “Borat,” and history could repeat. The writers branch tends to recognize the degree of difficulty for a raunchy comedy (see: “The Hangover,” “Bridesmaids”).

(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 was 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.

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

Sacha Baron Cohen & collaborators (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (“News of the World”)
Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”)
Florian Zeller (“The Father”)
Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)

Ramin Bahrani (“The White Tiger”)
Eleanor Catton (“Emma”)
Charlie Kaufman (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”)
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)

Long Shots
Julia Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond (“First Cow”)
Kata Wéber (“Pieces of a Woman”)

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