As always, the crowded Adapted Screenplay category ranges over source material from novels and plays to magazine articles. And late-inning eligibility changes can move some originals to adapted, and vice versa.
Never underestimate Anthony McCarten. He’s the Oscar whisperer: three Oscar-winners based on his scripts — “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” — have nabbed a total of 16 Oscar nominations. Thus, it should not have been a shock when his latest played well at the fall festivals. “The Two Popes” is a two-hander he adapted from his own play and pitched to Netflix, starring Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict. Oscar-nominated Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God” and “The Constant Gardener”) creates a riveting sparring match as the two men debate the future of the Catholic Church.
After improbably winning the Golden Lion in Venice, Todd Phillips’ controversial “Joker” wowed audiences but divided critics in Toronto before hitting big at the box office. Written by Phillips (who shared a 2004 writing nomination for “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”) and Scott Silver (who shared a writing nomination for “The Fighter”), this DC origin myth profiles a painfully frail clown and aspiring standup comic (Joaquin Phoenix) who desperately seeks attention and eventually gains strength through acts of violence.
Also extending the universe of a successful franchise is Josh Cooley’s “Toy Story 4,” written by Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton and new recruit Stephany Folsom, with input from the PIxar brain trust. Stanton didn’t believe “Toy Story 3” ended Woody’s journey, and the writers reunited Woody (Tom Hanks) with his sadder-but-wiser romantic interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who moves into the center of the action as a childless toy showing Woody how to survive in the outside world. The movie became an existential critique, blowing up Woody’s personal story to a global issue relatable to audiences everywhere.
Among the scripts adapted from novels are Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster saga “The Irishman,” adapted by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) from Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses.” Robert De Niro stars as Sheeran. “The Irishman” would mark Zaillian’s fifth Oscar nomination: he also shared a nod (with Jay Cocks and Kenneth Lonergan) for Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”).
New Zealand transplant Christine Leunens wrote the award-winning 2004 Vienna-set Hitler Youth novel “Caging Skies,” which was turned into a 2017 New Zealand hit play, and now, Taika Waititi’s black satire “Jojo Rabbit” (Fox Searchlight), which won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice award. This light-hearted but serious fable stars Roman Griffin Davis as a lonely young Nazi enthusiast whose imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi) winds up fighting for dominance with a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden by his activist mother (Scarlett Johansson) behind a wall in his house.
It’s not hard to see why actor-writer-director Edward Norton fell for Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel “Motherless Brooklyn” (Warner Bros.), narrated by a detective with Tourette Syndrome who spouts poetic riffs as he searches for the killer of his beloved boss and mentor (Bruce Willis). Norton adapted the book into a ’50s film noir set in New York, and runs with the lead character Lionel Essrog, supported by a gifted ensemble including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, and Alec Baldwin as a corrupted Robert Moses figure.
Oscar-nominated writer-director Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) adapted “Little Women” (Sony), the Louisa May Alcott classic about a mother (Laura Dern) with limited means raising four daughters while her husband is away at war, with help from wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan rejoins Gerwig as headstrong writer Jo, while Timothée Chalamet plays her best friend Laurie.
Adapted from magazine articles are Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (Sony) and Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” (Focus Features). Heller’s movie was adapted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster from Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire magazine article about his fateful meeting with children’s television host Fred Rogers. The New York drama stars Matthew Rhys as a dyspeptic journalist profiling iconic-sweatered Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks), the subject of Morgan Neville’s hit documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
While he usually develops his own material, Oscar-nominated auteur Haynes (“Far from Heaven”) was so impressed by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa’s script for “Dark Waters”– based on Nathaniel Rich’s 2006 New York Magazine article about former corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott’s fight against chemical polluter DuPont, –that he signed on to the Focus Features film immediately. Mark Ruffalo produced and stars.
Oscar contenders are listed in alphabetical order below; no movie will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
“The Two Popes”
“Toy Story 4”