Reading the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar category: The book isn't always better

Winters-BoneImage Credit: Sebastian MlynarskiAs a huge nerd, the Oscar category I anticipate most each year is Best Adapted Screenplay. There’s something uniquely creative and scholarly about deconstructing a book line-by-line, condensing several scenes into one, inventing devices to lend greater truth to the narrative, and building with images the unspoken words that authors have the luxury of telling readers outright. I like imagining how beaten, dog-eared, and annotated the screenwriter’s copy of the source material must be, and the adapter’s inevitable hours of turmoil of having to sacrifice beautiful scenes for the ruthless economy required of a good film.

It bothers me when people say, “The book is always better than the movie.” It’s a blanket statement I think people say to sound smart, but it’s simply not true (unless you’re talking about Harry Potter). The Devil Wears Prada the movie was leagues better than the charmless book by Lauren Weisberger. The Godfather films will long outlast Mario Puzo’s pulpy potboiler. In the hands of screenwriters and directors who aren’t afraid to take risks, a film adaptation can elevate the source material into a new stratosphere.

As a whole, the nominated adaptations this year—aside from Toy Story 3, which is included in the category as a sequel—stand up well to the source material, or in the case of the likely winner, The Social Network, far exceeds it. The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich focused on the tabloid-ready elements of Mark Zuckerberg’s story and wildly speculated about events. The film version arguably took even more liberties, but through incisive dialogue, sensitive characterization, and economic storytelling, the film achieved its own thematic, if not factual, truth.

The Coen brothers didn’t mess with the Charles Portis classic True Grit—that faithfulness might have contributed to the slow pace of the first act—but Portis’ language and strong heroine in Mattie Ross translated seamlessly to screen. Aron Ralston’s riveting 127 Hours, which doesn’t lend itself to the typical three-act structure of film, undoubtedly presented a challenge to Simon Beaufoy, but he and director Danny Boyle told the story of Ralston’s solitary journey with the right mix of exuberance and horror.

While Aaron Sorkin would certainly be a deserving winner for The Social Network, in a perfect world, I think Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini’s stunning adaption of Winter’s Bone would get the recognition it deserves. Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel was spare, haunting, unforgettable, and underappreciated. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a physical reaction to a book. The desperation I felt for Ree Dolly, the heroine, almost constricted my throat. I watched the film version with reservations—in my mind, I was protective of the novel—but I was blown away. I wouldn’t say the film improved upon the book, but rather, it revealed the limits of my own imagination, which is what good adaption can do. The film imagined the abject poverty of the Ozarks with more dignity and respect than I could. Characters I thought of as monsters in the book came through with such humanity on screen—their restraint told you so much about who they were and their strict code of conduct. The mythic overtones I gathered from the book—Ree Dolly as a modern-day Antigone—were fully captured in Granik and Rossellini’s treatment.

How do you think this year’s nominated adaptations stack up next to the book versions?

Comments (24 total) Add your comment
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  • Bree

    “It revealed the limits of my own imagination, which is what good adaption can do.”

    I love this! I may quote you on this forever. This is exactly why I love film adaptations of books even though I am a bookworm. A good adaptation always blows me away with just how much MORE the story can be than what I imagined as I was reading it. Thank you for putting that into words so succinctly!

    • Michael

      Agreed. That is a great way of saying that.

    • Payel

      I think Christopher Waltz did a fantastic job with the August caearcthr. I wasn’t super excited about the movie’s treatment of August, because without pointing out the mental illness part of him, it just made him come across more evil than I think the book intended that caearcthr to be. I’ve seen that guy in Inglorious Basterds, and he does play the villain well. He has that look about him that makes him just… skeevy. But honestly, even though they didn’t mention that August had the mental illness, I don’t think anyone else could have played him better. Now, about the Jacob-Robert comparison? I don’t think he was the right actor for the part. He did very well, don’t get me wrong, but he is not who I would have seen playing Jacob if you asked me before the cast list was released.

  • Raymond

    Here’s the entire Winter’s Bone screenplay:

    Girl: I need to find my daddy, we fixin to lose our home.
    Scary Local: Girl, you best not be comin’ ’round here askin’ questions.
    (Repeat 14x)

    • alex

      Thank you!

      • anoymous

        LOL, yeah that movie was pretty boring.

      • Lincoln

        LOL LOL LOL. That is EXACTLY right. Right on, Raymond.

    • E

      It also featured the quote, “I already told you once with my mouth,” which my friend and his girlfriend now say to each other constantly. As a joke, I swear!

    • FTS

      Yeah, where do you live?

  • Mason

    About some book adaptations in general.
    Movies that are better then the book Lord of the Rings. This was my favorite book when I first read it. I loved the movies. When I went back to the books I realized I prefered the movies.
    The Princess Bride there is no reason to read this book. The characters are not loveable and the premise is annoying where as the movie is magical.
    Books that are better then the movie. Gone with the Wind. I dislike this movie strongly because of how powerful and gritty the book is. I wish that the movie could be remade casting a sharp light on the rampant racism in the book and with a sharper, stronger and more bitter Scarlett.
    Any movie version of Frankenstein. None of them hold a candle to Mary Shelly’s original classic.

  • DJ

    The movie Revolutionary Road was much more heart-breaking than the book.

    • Michael

      I agree. Leo and Kate brought a real depth to it.

  • lucas

    Social Network seriously deserves the win (I saw all the nominees).
    My favourite adapted stories have to be Fight Club, 2001: A space odyssey (if that’s really considered ‘adapted’) and especially, The Road. I know it was not very popular but the combination of the book and movie make for a perfect story. The movie captures the horror and despair of their situation as a captivating thriller; the book captures the beauty of the father-son relationship.

  • Brett

    I have been a big fan of Entertainment Weekly for years now(especially because of Owen and Lisa’s contributions).

    But this may be the best singular piece I’ve read from EW yet.

    Cheers for that, Stephan.

  • Ethan

    This definitely makes me want to read the book of Winter’s Bone

  • Kamilah

    This category is a great one for all the reasons listed…and while I agree the Social Network is incredibly good- it is important to note that many of the themes richly explored in the movie (the tensions between privilege and intelligence in a community like Harvard for ex.)is expertly explored by Mezrich

  • Lisa

    This is a great idea for a post, and it was very carefully and intelligently written. I’m really glad EW has a wide range of different voices. I loved this, especially as someone who’s seen all the nominees. Kudos!

  • misgrogo

    i feel the exact same way about winter’s bone, even though i never read the book. Now I want to! This is the type of story id want to see in the actual magazine.

  • Bethany

    Great piece. I think you could have given a little more focus to 127 Hours, though. It surprised me how much I liked that movie.

  • Robert

    The book is better than the movie 90% of the time, but yes there are exceptions. You list some good ones.

  • Jenny

    I wouldn’t say the book is ALWAYS better than a movie, but usually it is. There are some exceptions, of course- sometimes film captures what a book cannot- but I almost always prefer the book when I read it. Maybe that’s just my personal preference though. I like to be able to use my own imagination and view the story in my own way rather than someone else’s. I mean, how many times have I sat through a movie and thought, ‘that’s not how I would have ever imagined that scene/character.’ Also, I think a movie (which is usually contained to just a couple hours) just can’t capture some of the inner most details that make a book great. That’s the big one for me where books take a huge lead. I respect that some people prefer movies, but for me I’d rather read the book.

  • rod Griffiths

    I agree Winter’s Bone was stunningly good, though immensely depressing. I listened to the people coming out of the theatre, they were all saying ‘No way I am going there.’
    One has to ask, why make a film about miserable people taking every opportunity to make their lives even more miserable?
    Nevertheless, if you have to make a depressing film then I doubt if anyone could have made it better.

  • Jalal

    OK I am confused on why The King’s Speech was not considered adapted. Yesterday, Tom Hooper in his speech talked about how he made the film because his mother saw the stage version.

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