Oscars mystery solved: What type of source material wins Best Adapted Screenplay?

There are many different types of existing works from which a film’s screenplay can be adapted, and the academy has honored scripts built from just about every source material imaginable. Voters typically reveal their preferences by consistently choosing scripts based on certain source materials over others. Examining the most recent Best Adapted Screenplay lineups is the most effective way of predicting the next one. Here is a list of the category’s nominees and winners, as well as their sources of origin, from the last five years:

2020:
Winner: “Jojo Rabbit” – Novel
“The Irishman” – Non-fiction book
“Joker” – Comic books
“Little Women” – Novel
“The Two Popes” – Play

2019:
Winner: “BlacKkKlansman” – Memoir
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” – Short stories
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” – Memoir
“If Beale Street Could Talk” – Novel
“A Star Is Born” – Existing films

2018:
Winner: “Call Me By Your Name” – Novel
“The Disaster Artist” – Non-fiction book
“Logan” – Comic books
“Molly’s Game” – Memoir
“Mudbound” – Novel

2017:
Winner: “Moonlight” – Play
“Arrival” – Short story
“Fences” – Play
“Hidden Figures” – Non-fiction book
“Lion” – Memoir

2016:
Winner: “The Big Short” – Non-fiction book
“Brooklyn” – Novel
“Carol” – Novel
“The Martian” – Novel
“Room” – Novel

Of the last 25 Adapted Screenplay nominees, nine of the scripts were adapted from novels, four from non-fiction books, four from memoirs, three from plays, two from comic books, and two from short stories. “A Star Is Born” is the odd one out, having been adapted from three previous versions of the film that were released in 1937, 1954, and 1976.

Adapting from a book of any kind is clearly advantageous, with works of fiction having a slight edge in terms of simply making the roster. When it comes to winning the award, fiction and non-fiction books are evenly matched, with two of each having won over the last five years (one of the non-fiction works being a memoir).

Over the last 10 ceremonies, scripts adapted from non-fiction books won four times (the other three being “The Imitation Game,” 2014,  “Argo,” 2013, and “The Social Network,” 2011) while screenplays based on memoirs won twice (the first being “12 Years a Slave,” 2014). Those based on novels won three times (starting with “The Descendants,” 2011). Of the five play-based scripts nominated in the past decade, “Moonlight” was the only one that prevailed.

Again, Oscar voters have indicated that, presently, adapting from a book is the way to go, and non-fiction works are slightly more likely to win. What does that mean for this year’s hopefuls? Drawing on our predictions, here is a 10-strong list of potential nominees and their source material categories, followed by an analysis:

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“Nomadland” (Non-fiction book)
“One Night in Miami” (Play)
“The Father” (Play)
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Play)
“News of the World” (Novel)
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (Existing film)
“First Cow” (Novel)
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Novel)
“The Mauritanian” (Memoir)
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Novel)

Firstly, the “Nomadland” script is in the best position, not only because it is leading our race, but also because it is derived from non-fiction. Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name was transformed into a screenplay by Chloé Zhao, who also directed and edited the film. The fact that “The Mauritanian” is based on a memoir (Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s “Guantanamo Diary”) keeps it in good standing as well.

Last year’s final novel vs. novel bout between “Jojo Rabbit” and “Little Women” evidently did not signal a continuing trend. Our list of 10 includes four scripts based on novels, but none rank higher than fifth place. Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies’s “News of the World” screenplay is in the best shape, being the only novel-based one in the group to earn a WGA nomination. Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” script remains an outside threat, with the critics darling having shown up in the prestigious USC Scripter award lineup.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” would be the 13th nominee in this category to be adapted from a form of existing audiovisual media. The first “Borat” was nominated here in 2007 because the titular character originated on British television, as did some of the characters in the 2010 nominee “In the Loop.” This source material category has produced just two winners: “Sling Blade” (1997), which was based on a short film, and “The Departed” (2007), which was adapted from a Chinese feature film.

This year’s lineup is likely to include several play adaptations, but whether one can win is another story. “Moonlight” (2017) being the first one to win since 1990 proved that it is still possible for films based on plays to score the gold, but it must be noted that Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original play was never published and was altered significantly for the screen. Kemp Powers’s “One Night in Miami,” Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” scripts are all essentially by-the-book adaptations of their extensively-performed plays of origin, with the former two being written or co-written by the initial playwrights.

“One Night in Miami” and “The Father” are in further trouble, as are “First Cow” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” because writers who adapt their own work have only been rewarded 17% of the time in Oscar history. McCraney was technically the last, although he only received story credit. The next most recent example goes all the way back to 2000, when John Irving won for adapting his novel, “The Cider House Rules.” 

In terms of breaking new ground, this year could mark the first time that multiple women compete against each other in this category. Zhao is poised to become the eighth female winner here and first since 2006 (Diana Ossana, “Brokeback Mountain”). The honor could also go to Reichardt or collectively to the three women who contributed to the “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” script (Jena Friedman, Nina Pedrad, and Erica Rivinoja). Zhao would also be the fourth woman to win for adapting another woman’s work, after Sarah Y. Mason (“Little Women,” 1934), Claudine West (“Mrs. Miniver,” 1943), and Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility,” 1996).

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