Friday, June 17, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1998

The Contenders:

Gods and Monsters (winner)
Out of Sight
Primary Colors
A Simple Plan
The Thin Red Line

What’s Missing

I don’t do it often, but this is a case where I don’t object to the five movies we have. Whenever I do a screenplay award, I spend a great deal of time looking through various lists of releases from the given year. For 1998, every single film I examined that was released in 1998 that wasn’t on this list was written directly for the screen. Seriously, the best adapted screenplay I could find that wasn’t on this list was Blade. Let’s be honest: Blade is fun, but it’s not like it’s Oscar-worthy.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: Of the five nominations, Out of Sight feels most like the one that was included here to round out the field to five nominations. It’s not a bad movie, but it really doesn’t feel like one that belongs in the heady company of “Oscar nominee.” Its biggest problem is that it’s not sure what it wants to be. Is it a crime comedy with a romance thrown in? Is it a dark movie with crime elements, murders, and attempted rape? It’s kind of both, and so ultimately it’s neither of these things. It tries, but it just doesn’t get there. I’m not sure I’d replace it, but it’s clearly the film that belongs in the bottom position.

4. Primary Colors is a film that I like and with a cast that I like very much. It’s also a very smart screenplay, one that doesn’t assume that the audience needs to be spoonfed everything that happens. In fact, I think the only real failing of Primary Colors is that for those who have no interest in the reality of the American political system, the film is an immediate dose of soporific. It’s well-written, if a bit broad in places, but it’s a nomination I like quite a bit. It’s worth watching, especially in an election year.

3. With a little thought, it isn’t surprising that Gods and Monsters won. This is a well-written movie about a piece of the movie industry’s past, after all, and the Academy loves awarding things that are about themselves. I do like the film, much of that being the sensitive performance of Ian McKellen. There are a few awkward spots in the film, though, and these come directly from the screenplay. That’s not the sort of thing that should prevent the film from being nominated, but in the presence of two screenplays with fewer problems, it is the sort of thing that should keep it from winning.

2. It may be that I’ll get the most grief here for putting The Thin Red Line in second place, since this tends to be a film that is beloved by a great number of people. I’m not going to protest that. This is (I think) a great film. The screenplay is its biggest liability. There are too many times when The Thin Red Line wanders off in search of answers inside its own navel and inside the interior monologues of its characters. I thought about putting it in the top position, but I have to end up rewarding a screenplay that has just as many strengths and fewer weaknesses.

My Choice

1: I’m going with A Simple Plan. While much of the movie’s success comes from the performances, particularly those of Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton, it’s the screenplay that makes the entire thing work as well as it does. It’s a tight story that is perfectly paced to give us just enough information to stay with the characters as they descend into a hell of their own making with their eyes completely open. The strength of the screenplay is that we’re with them every step until we realize at the same time they do that every decision along the way has been the wrong one. It’s masterful, and it should have been awarded.

Final Analysis


  1. I've only seen A Simple Plan and Out of Sight, and I agree with you on both. A Simple Plan definitely deserved this (it also deserves recognition how it combines Macbeth into the plot and was a collaboration between Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers).

    1. The other films are worth your time. I think the horror geek in you would appreciate Gods and Monsters. The other two are far less your style.

  2. As much as I lovelovelove "Out of Sight" and would defend the wild swings in tone as intentional, I have to admit that it's the music, editing and direction (particularly the performances Soderbergh draws out of the cast) that make the film for me -- not the screenplay.

    I haven't seen "Gods and Monsters" or "The Thin Red Line," but "A Simple Plan" for the win seems right to me.

    1. In a lot of respects, screenplays are the hardest of these for me to do. It's not always easy to separate the script from the performances. Out of Sight is a decent movie. I think you're right that the tonal shifts are intentional. They just don't work for me.

  3. "Who did her hair? We're scientists not hairdressers."

    The Bride of Frsnkenstein is one of my favorite movies and I've seen it a bunch of times. And I never once wondered about the Bride's hair.

    Until I saw Gods and Monsters. Now I wonder about her hair every time I see it. However, it's not the only thing is Bride of Frankenstein that doesn't make any sense when you think about it.

    I've not seen A Simple Plan or Primary Colors. But both Gods and Monsters and The Thin Red Line have such great scripts that it's hard for me to believe that A Simple Plan is so much better that this bunch doesn't rate an "Oscar Did Okay."

    1. It really is a hell of a good screenplay. I recommend tracking it down--it's one of the best neo-noirs you're going to find. It's a very smart screenplay in every aspect.

  4. This is a quintet of fine films and I liked them all. But Gods & Monsters is the only one whose source material, Father of Frankenstein, I've read. It's a great adaptation and it's my favorite of the films with Primary Colors a close second so I'm happy with the academy's decision for once.

    1. I'm okay with that. In some sense, I'd have been okay with any of my top four winning, since they're all pretty good screenplays.

      When I get to Original Screenplay for this year, it'll be more interesting--there are a ton of great original ones from 1998.

  5. "The screenplay is its biggest liability. There are too many times when The Thin Red Line wanders off in search of answers inside its own navel and inside the interior monologues of its characters."

    Precisely why I could—not—stand this movie. Call me old-school, but a decent war movie should convey the grit and horror of war, the tenuousness of life, the evil of human violence, the moments of heroism, and the grim absurdity/insanity of it all. It shouldn't be an opportunity to showcase overly meditative, emotionally detached voiceover narration and overuse of slow-motion shots to turn war into nothing more than a lush dream. Sorry, man, but give me Stone, Kubrick, and Coppola over this nonsense. I actively hate this film. It's right down in the basement along with other megaturds like "Highlander 2: The Quickening."

    1. I think I remember you hating this. You're in the minority--it's my brother's favorite movie.

      Terrence Malick is an acquired taste, I think. He frequently does a lot of navel gazing, and it doesn't always work. I think it does in many cases--I like more contemplative stuff, but I need to be in the mood for it.

      Kubrick is an interesting menton here--Paths of Glory is a classic in terms of a film that shows the ultimate futility of war. If you haven't seen it, you might like a lot of The Big Red One. Samuel Fuller was a weird director, but a lot of his work is fascinating.