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Adapted Screenplays Probe Human Side of Stories

Variety logo Variety 2/7/2017 Malina Saval
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Emotions run high in weighty, character-driven feature films.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Arrival

Writer: Eric Heisserer

The challenge faced by Heisserer in penning “Arrival” was to adapt Ted Chiang’s award-winning 1998 novella “Story of Your Life,” which touches on issues of determinism, linguistic relativity, and Fermat’s principle of least time — all worthy elements for science fiction literature, but perhaps a bit too difficult to translate into a major motion picture. The solution: build the speculative elements around an emotional core — linguist Amy Adams’ grief over the loss of her daughter — and use that yearning for connection as a hub from which radiates the more overarching and altogether timely themes of communication, tolerance, and compassion toward entities whose viewpoints appear to clash with ours.

Fences

Writer: August Wilson

“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” So says Stephen McKinley Henderson’s character Bono. That helps to summarize the late Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 drama, brought to vivid life by actor-director Denzel Washington. There are a lot of fireworks on-screen, as expected with a cast that includes Oscar nominee Viola Davis and Wilson veteran Henderson. But it’s the complexity of Wilson’s script — penned before his death in 2005 — that provides the fuel for their performances. Wilson’s dialogue retains its crackle and searing insight as it plumbs the raw, often unspoken places in the everyday struggles of the human spirit — dashed dreams, forced humility, and, ultimately, our need for redemption and acceptance.

Hidden Figures

Writers: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder

In the 1960s three female, African-American mathematicians performed the calculations needed to launch the first successful space missions at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. It’s a story that was relatively unknown and now forms the basis for “Hidden Figures,” which has garnered three Oscar noms, including one for adapted screenplay. Co-penned by Melfi, who also directed the film, and rookie scribe Schroeder, who interned at NASA in high school and whose grandparents worked there as well, the uplifting and inspiring drama was adapted from the book, published in 2016, by Margot Lee Shetterly. A rousing crowd-pleaser espousing the importance of female empowerment, “Hidden Figures” has grossed more than $100 million at the box office, thus far. While not a frontrunner in the screenwriter category, that Schroeder’s first Hollywood gig has garnered her (and Melfi) an Oscar nomination signals a bright career ahead.

Lion

Writer: Luke Davies

For Australian poet and novelist Luke Davies, the greatest hurdle in adapting Saroo Brierley’s astonishing memoir, “A Long Way Home,” wasn’t the story itself, which detailed the author’s separation from his mother in India, adoption by an Australian couple, and the search that led to Brierley’s reunion with his parent a quarter century later. Those elements were powerful enough to translate their emotional resonance into a visual presentation. But it was the search for Brierley’s mother, conducted largely online, that posed the concern of making a computer screen the focus of attention on a movie screen. Davies avoided this sterile image — an inert staple of crime and espionage pictures — by making the search a component of the quest and not the solution. The search provides a means for Brierley (played by Oscar nominee Dev Patel) to express his desire to find a crucial missing component in his life. This modest shift in focus gives “Lion” a layer of resonance that helps to fuel the deep connection that audiences are experiencing with the film.

Moonlight

Writers: Barry Jenkins (screenplay) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)

What makes a script truly original? To the WGA, “Moonlight” — based on a never-produced play by co-nominee Tarell Alvin McCraney (“In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) — was absolutely an original. To the Academy, it’s adapted. Regardless, “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age story that focuses on an African- American boy (then man) as he’s both shamed by and explores his homosexuality — is easily the most original script of the year. Spare in dialogue, strong on atmosphere and silent portent, we observe how Chiron’s still waters run deep as we follow him through three key stages in his life. Competition in the category is fierce, but Jenkins’ treatment stands out. The writer-director’s quiet confidence helps craft an intimate yet unflinching story.

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