Monday, September 2, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 2003

The Contenders:

American Splendor
City of God
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (winner)
Mystic River

What’s Missing

2003 was one of those years where about half of the Oscars seemed to be predestined to go to Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which makes a lot of this kind of moot (and it’s worth saying that it didn’t deserve all of the Oscars). Cold Mountain seems like the sort of film that Oscar loves, and I’m a little surprised at the nomination. American Splendor was based on a comic book/graphic novel, which is going to probably leave out both Oldboy and X2. After all, we can’t have too many comic book movies nominated for something as prestigious as a screenplay. The Barbarian Invasions isn’t clearly adapted, but as a sequel, I think it belongs here. I’m honestly surprised at the lack of nomination for The House of Sand and Fog. I’m more surprised at the miss on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I didn’t hate Seabiscuit, but I didn’t think that much of it, either. I found it more boring than anything else, and far too long. While the performances in it are fine and the story is at least mildly interesting, it’s too much for the story it tells, and I have to suggest that at least part of that problem comes specifically from the screenplay. With Master and Commander and The House of Sand and Fog on the outside looking in, I can’t think of a single reason to include Seabiscuit in the list of five.

4. In truth, I honestly like the other four movies a great deal, so there’s some part of me that thinks all of them belong and none of the should be in fourth place. Having Mystic River here feels wrong somehow, because it deserves better. So why am I putting it fourth? Because it’s very much a story that has been told, at least in part, before. Admittedly, it’s a really, really good version of that story, intense and brutal and magnificently acted. I love me a good tragedy. But with a slate this good, I have to split some hairs.

3. City of God was simply released in the wrong year. One of the best movies of this century, this is a staggering achievement in film and deserves every bit of the acclaim it regularly receives. So why is it third? For a lot of the same reasons that Mystic River is in fourth. It’s an exemplary version of the story it tells, but it is a story of redemption and crime, and of escaping a terrible situation. Don’t get me wrong—this is a beautiful film and absolutely worth the time, but the story is just a very good version of what it is.

2. I love American Splendor for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the brilliant performance of Paul Giamatti. But I love it mostly for its screenplay because of how simply human it is. This is not the epic story of the Lord of the Rings or the tale of crime and redemption of City of God. There’s no heroism here, not real uplift. There’s just people trying to survive as best they can, having one or two extraordinary experiences in a life of ordinariness. In a slightly different year, I’d have loved to have seen this win.

My Choice

1. I said at the top that Return of the King didn’t deserve all of the Oscars that it won, but this is one that it genuinely earned. Jackson and company won these Oscars for the entire project of the LotR films, and along with Best Picture, I would argue that this is the Oscar that the trilogy deserved the most. Adapting that massive trilogy into something that is coherent and that holds up as beautifully as it does is an achievement that is almost unique. While the film shouldn’t have won Oscars for things like Best Original Song (really? Not Belleville Rendezvous?), to not win this would be unimaginable.

Final Analysis


  1. I'm sorry but I will disagree with you, respectfully, as I really think American Splendor should've won that year. I just love the hell out of that film as it was one of the first art-house screenings I went to and I had a great experience watching it as it would then lead to the ultimate discovery that would be my all-time favorite film in Lost in Translation. I love Return of the King and do felt it deserved its awards but part of me wishes things went another way. I also agree with you on Oldboy and Master & Commander as those were awesome adaptations.

    1. Return of the King in many cases won for the entire project rather than the specific film, and this is a case where I support that idea. This Oscar seemed (to me) to be not specifically for Return of the King but for Lord of the Rings.

      That said, I'd nominate American Splendor in pretty much every other year in its decade, and it would win in a lot of those years.

      I seem to like Master and Commander more than anyone I know. It's become an odd comfort movie for me--one that I can watch frequently as a sort of background noise

  2. I will agree with you, respectfully. :-)

    The Lord of the Rings is a towering cinematic achievement and deserved the win here. But I will also shout out to Master and Commander, because I agree, it's a great film.

    1. I don't know why that seems to be such a hard sell for so many people--Master and Commander is great, and the way it films battle sequences should be the new standard.