Monday, March 19, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1953

The Contenders:

The Cruel Sea
From Here to Eternity (winner)
Roman Holiday

What’s Missing

There are some great stories from 1953 films, and a lot of those came from adapted screenplays. I genuinely like most of the nominations, but think there’s some room for improvement. We can start with the films that would never get nominated: The War of the Worlds and House of Wax, which was a straight riff off Mystery of the Wax Museum. We can also generally get rid of the movies that seem to come with that veneer of European-ness on them. In this case, those are both the excellent The Earrings of Madame De… and The Wages of Fear, which has the best final hour of its decade. I could maybe see a nomination for The Big Heat, and I’m still a little surprised that Julius Caesar didn’t get a nomination. The big miss, though, is Stalag 17.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I hate Lili in every possible way that I can hate it. All of that, or at least almost all of that stems from the story. Our title character is about 16 but appears to have the mind of a 7-year-old and appears to be unable to distinguish between real people and puppets. I’m not kidding—she has deep and meaningful conversations with puppets, not seeming to realize that there’s someone behind the screen. And despite this, two men more than twice her age find her so appealing that they fight over her affections. It’s not just weird, it feels like someone engaging in pedophilia without doing so technically. Ick.

4. I liked The Cruel Sea, but I find that it does have an issue that affects how I feel about the screenplay. Certain genre benefit greatly from specific connection to the characters. I think that often helps a horror movie, and it generally helps war movies as well. Connecting with the characters gives us some skin in the game when a character is in danger (which is all the time). The Cruel Sea, for as good as it is as a war movie, doesn’t give us clear characters to latch onto. Sure, it’s sad when someone dies in this film, but the connection is much less than it should be, and that comes from the screenplay.

3. I said at the top that I like most of these nominations, and in this case, that means making real choices on the rest of these placements. Putting Shane in third feels somehow wrong for a film that is this iconic in its genre. It’s possible that I’m putting Shane here because it’s been more or less cursed via familiarity. So much seems to have come from it that it’s hard to remember how much credit it might deserve. Of course, so much of its success comes specifically from Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur and Van Heflin, and as good as they are written, their performances aren’t in the screenplay.

2. The thing that constantly surprises me about From Here to Eternity is just how much it attacks the idea of military culture less than a decade after the American military won major wars on two massive fronts across the world. There’s a ballsiness to this that is almost sobering when it’s understood just how risky that could be. This is a movie that doesn’t think much of the military at a time when the military was still very much made up of heroes recently returned from war. I respect that about it, and I understand its win, even if I’d go elsewhere.

My Choice

1. While it’s not a hard and fast rule for me, I tend to like my romances when they end up a little downbeat. Roman Holiday does the seemingly impossible, giving us a romance where our two characters don’t end up together but walk away with not much regret and no ill feelings. It’s rather sweet and beautiful and surprisingly tender. It doesn’t hurt that it gives us both Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, who make it all work. But really, it’s such a lovely story, such a beautiful little fantasy that feels honest and never feels fake. I genuinely care about the characters and want them to be happy, and I end up satisfied with an ending that works for them and for the film. Stalag 17 would make this a tighter race, as would The Wages of Fear and The Earrings of Madame De…, but Roman Holiday is still my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. Well of all the films that have won the Oscar for Best Picture From Here to Eternity is perhaps my favorite very closely followed by All about Eve and The Best Years of Our Lives so obviously that would be my choice. An awful lot of that is because of the screenplay’s ability to make all the characters and situations so real and well defined, which as you pointed out is a weakness in The Cruel Sea. When something happens to anyone in the film you feel for them, or at least feel a definite way about what has happened to them, because you have a sense of who they are. Of course the flock of masterful performances has a great deal to do with that but it starts with the script.

    I like both Shane and Roman Holiday very much but not enough to say that the wrong film won.

    I’m not that crazy about Stalag 17 but it would be a much tougher decision and I might chose a different outcome if The Big Heat or The Wages of Fear had been nominated. I loved The Earrings of Madame D… but its screenplay would place 5th or 6th out of the choices available.

    The only film I’d consider outside of those already mentioned is Man on a Tightrope with Fredric March and Gloria Grahame (who had a very good 1953 until she apparently pissed someone off and was shoved into Prisoners of the Casbah directly after The Big Heat) which was adapted from a Neil Paterson novel.

    1. For me, From Here to Eternity is just about top-third, but it's been a good four years since I've ranked the Best Picture winners. It's a film I respect a lot more than I like it. That said, I like Roman Holiday enough that I think it should have won, but I'm not terribly put out by From Here to Eternity winning.

      Long story short, if I had to create my own list of five, From Here to Eternity would probably make the cut, but it wouldn't win.

  2. As usual I have some difficulty recognizing whether a screenplay is original or adapted, so I do not know which other movies I would throw in. I liked The Big Heat quite a bit, but whether it was due to the screenplay, the direction or the cinematography is not so easy to sort out.
    Given the nominees available I would also go for Roman Holiday, though, again, the reason I like it is a combination of several factors, not least the two leads.
    From Here to Eternity is a movie I respect more than I like and I suppose it took some guts to write an anti-military screenplay at this time, but to me it does feel as if the story drags at times and that is largely due to screenplay.

    1. Yeah, that's the trouble I often have. The Adapted/Original posts in this series take me the most time, because I have to check each film that I think is worthy of a nomination.

  3. Shout out for War of the Worlds. While it's the special effects that are ground-breaking, the screenplay is solid and updates the nineteenth century novel in interesting and thrilling ways.

    1. Agreed. The movie works pretty well and is pretty close to the original story despite multiple decades between when it was written and when it was filmed.