March 2, 2014

Best Adapted Sequel

by Mark Paglia

It may not be the most exciting Oscar category, but this year “Best Adapted Screenplay” may be the most unusual. As has been noted elsewhere, this year’s nominees are notable for their source material: Before Midnight is included because it is a sequel, and the other four are all based on nonfiction books. In every other year, nominated screenplays have been adapted from novels, plays, and short stories as well1.

This being only a single year, it would be rash to declare that Hollywood has turned its back on novels and henceforth will only be adapting biographies, memoirs, and nonfiction for the screen. So rather than focus on this year’s heavy dose of nonfiction, I’d like to consider the exception in the slate of nominees: Before Midnight.
Before Midnight falls under the adapted rather than original screenplay category because it is a sequel. This logic strikes many as arbitrary, but thinking about this particular nominee has brought me around to the Academy’s point of view. The most obvious reason for denoting certain films as adaptations is to ensure credit is given to the sources of inspiration; original screenplays can be hackneyed or derivative, but not outrightly plagiaristic2. However, this motivation doesn’t apply to Before Midnight, since the same writers created the source material. So what else separates an adapted screenplay from an original one?

Adapted screenplays, on a practical level, function differently from original ones. An adaptation starts with preconditions and restrictions. Sure, characters can be changed or dropped (e.g. Jurassic Park) or different storylines brought to prominence (There Will Be Blood versus Upton Sinclair’s Oil!). Nevertheless, some of the source material inevitably remains. If it didn’t, what would be the point of working with a source material in the first place? Presumably screenwriters adapt works because they like some of the elements of those works, even if said elements hem in the resulting screenplay. It’s rather akin to a creative writing exercise that requires one to work a particular phrase or object into a story. The goal is to create a story that flows in a manner indistinguishable from a wholly original one, but the writer takes a very different path to get there. So too are adapted screenplays subject to the same Hollywood demands for marketability and accessibility to audiences as original screenplays; the adapted ones also get additional restrictions from the source material.

In Before Midnight, the screenwriters are not free to have Jesse and Celine do absolutely anything. The characters are already trapped by the previous two films. Not only have their personalities been delineated in the previous works, but Before Midnight comes loaded with specific questions that must be addressed. What happened when Jesse (presumably) missed his flight? How did he divorce his wife? How did they choose whether to live in France or the States? One of the more strained (in my opinion) scenes in Before Sunset involved answering the question from Before Sunrise of whether or not Jesse and Celine had sex during their nighttime stroll. Richard Linklater and his co-writers knew the audience was curious for an answer, and in that instance shoehorned it into Jesse and Celine’s banter. Rather than, say, mentioning “what we did that night” with a knowing look, Jesse and Celine have a disagreement whose only purpose is to force them to declare unambiguously to the audience, “Yes, we had sex, definitely.” Before Midnight executes better, opening with a scene that tacitly brings us up to date (Jesse’s son lives in New York, they live in France, etc.) and then teasing out the details until the film’s climax. To go back to my earlier creative-writing analogy, Before Sunset left the required line of dialogue sticking out awkwardly, whereas its sequel managed to camouflage it by starting out with oblique references that gradually build to a fully fleshed-out history of Jesse and Celine’s relationship.

In both cases, important aspects of the screenplay are predetermined by the previous installment(s) of the series. If the films did not fill in these blanks, they would not really be sequels, nor would the characters feel like Jesse and Celine. Which is all to say that Before Midnight is different from the (hypothetical) film that would result if Linklater et al. decided to write an original script about a Franco-American couple’s day in Greece. There would be similarities, yes, and shared influences and allusions, but our hypothetical original screenplay would not be the story of Jesse and Celine. And while a film about a random couple walking and talking can be enjoyable--this is exactly what Before Sunrise was--a major part of the pleasure of the series comes from watching two people grow and change and not change over time. This demands continuity in the characters, which requires that the sequels obey the strictures set down by previous installments. Properly done, it turns adaptation into art. Which is the whole reason for having the award in the first place.

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1 In fact, in many years the nominees have been exclusively adapted from novels and plays. By my count, there have only been two previous years in which no novel adaptations were nominated: the first Oscar ceremony in 1928 when all three nominees were based on plays, and 1936, which featured plays, short stories, and biography as source materials. What is more, movies based on novels and other literary inspirations are almost wholly absent from the rest of the Oscar categories this year. Of all the feature films nominated in all the categories this year, August: Osage County and the Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown are based on plays; nominations in the technical categories went to The Book Thief, The Great Gatsby, and the second installment of The Hobbit, plus The Lone Ranger and Iron Man 3, whose literary merits are slightly more suspect.

2 I know, original ideas don’t spring into writers’ minds from nothingness. Still, we recognize a distinction between having influences and copying another’s work.

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