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From Book To Film: Nominees For Adapted Screenplay


You know what they say: The book is always better than the movie. You can probably come up with exceptions but that old adage is a motivator for the people charged with turning books, plays, or television shows into movies in the first place, the screenwriters. What does it take to turn a story told in one medium into a hit film?

In the weeks ahead, we're going to explore that question with some of the nominees in this year's Best Adapted Screenplay category of the Academy Awards. The Oscars take place February 26th. And the five films nominated for this award take their inspiration from novels, a political drama that played on Broadway, and a true-life David and Goliath business story from the world of sports.




MARTIN: That's a scene from the film "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis's book of the same name. The other nominees are: "Hugo," "The Ides of March," "The Descendents," and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

To give us an overview of the category itself, we've called Sasha Stone. She's the founder and editor of the Awards Daily blog, and she joins us from NPR West.

Sasha, thanks for talking with us.

SASHA STONE: Oh, it's so nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: OK. So, looking back at the group of nominees for best adapted screenplay, they're really different movies. I mean the "Ides of March," this is a kind of political drama; "The Descendents," this family story; "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy;" and "Hugo," which is a kids' movie. Is that typical of the category to have such a broad range of movies?

STONE: It is typical in a way. But when you kind of drill down into it you'll see similarities, which is that they're all five male-driven storylines. And thematically, they're all about a central character who's kind of lost and searching, you know, to redefine himself in the world that he's living in. And they'll kind of follow that pattern.

With "Ides of March," it's a moral decision that Ryan Gosling has to make. And in "Moneyball," Brad Pitt is reinventing, you know, he's an outcast reinventing the rules of how they play the game of baseball. "Tinker, Tailor" is Smiley, you know, not sure of who's around him and who he can trust.

And in "The Descendents," George Clooney is discovering that his wife has been having an affair and now she's in a coma, and he has to sort of, you know, reinvent his parenting and who he is as a man and as a citizen of Hawaii, and what he wants for the future. And then, of course, in "Hugo," Hugo is living, you know, on his own in a train station and he doesn't know where his next meal is coming from, let alone where he's going.

And, so, in a way, they're all lost. They're all looking for something. And by the end, they're all sort of found.

MARTIN: At its most basic, what makes an effective film adaptation?

STONE: Well, the first thing you need is to be a strong Best Picture contender, because the adapted screenplay race is very closely married to Best Picture. It has less to do with a great adaptation, which is sort of what we hope it would be.

MARTIN: You would think.


STONE: And more to do with how successful is this contender in the race.


STONE: Sorry to have to tell you.

MARTIN: So, for the sake of argument, put aside the fact that all of these have to be really good films. Is there any criteria for judging an adaptation that requires some kind of analysis of how closely the ultimate screenplay mirrors the original source? Do people even think about that?

STONE: No, you'd so. They really don't. I think that the exception is here would be "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" which really is a very, very tight, very kind of admirable faithful adaptation to the John le Carre novel.


MARTIN: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" it was also a mini series, a television series. Right?

STONE: It was. It was a beloved miniseries and when people heard that they were making a movie out of it they thought, oh, it will never live up to the miniseries -why would they bother doing that? But Bridget O'Connor and Peter Strawn actually really wrote a great adaptation of the novel, and managed to condense it into movie length very, very well, I thought.

And the other really faithful adaptation is "The Descendents."


STONE: The author, Kaui Hart Hemmings, was allowed on the set every day and...

MARTIN: Is that normal?

STONE: No, they don't want the writer on set because they don't want to have every decision questioned. But in this case, Jim Burke, the producer had seen the unpublished manuscript of Kaui Hart Hemmings' "The Descendents" and fell in love with it. And therefore, he was motivated and Alexander Payne, the director, to really make sure that they were faithful to her original source material. And whether that means that will carry it to a win is a different question.

MARTIN: Sasha Stone is the founder and editor of the blog Awards Daily.

Sasha, thanks so much for talking with us.

STONE: Oh. Thank you, Rachel. I enjoyed it so much. Thank you.


MARTIN: Next week, we continue our look at this year's contenders for best adapted screenplay with John Logan. He wrote the screenplay for "Hugo." That lovely music we're hearing right now is from that very film.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.