2016 marks an interesting year for the Oscars. We have the race conversation – is it the industry or the Academy’s fault that there are no black nominees? There are rising stars like Brie Larson in ‘Room,’ proving to have as much prowess as her seasoned peers. ‘The Revenant’ is essentially its own topic – is this finally the film for Leo? How did they manage to shoot the film in those gritty elements anyway? There’s sexuality and gender identity as seen in ‘Carol’ and ‘The Danish Girl.’ Returning directors, music in our movies, the great and powerful Pixar – the list can go on. Another interesting point, in considering the Best Picture category, is that all but one are completely or at least partly drawn from specific pieces of literature. Bearing in mind the strength of this year’s nominated pictures, maybe that’s a trick, that the film formula is, well, books.
Maybe it sounds like an easy way out (the story’s already there, isn’t it?), but the challenges of adapting or partly adapting films of this nature aren’t few. Writing a screenplay that will do a novel justice or accurately capturing history and those that lived it, it’s a feat. Where as original ideas have a the opportunity for rich consideration on a more nuanced level, adapted material has potentially greater opportunities to fail, if not just for garnering a reputation for failing to live up to the book. And the facts have to be straight, say in Tom McCarthy’s film ‘Spotlight’ for example, drawn and expanded from The Boston Globe’s book of research findings from 2002 titled ‘Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church.’ The entire film highlights these journalists’ investigations around allegations towards the Catholic Church in Boston, but validity doesn’t come into question for this important story and it resonates fully.
Save for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (directed by George Miller) that was not based on a book, though is still a re-telling of the previous films’ inspirations so not really an original on that level, the Best Picture category is a collection of literary re-imaginings. Inspired by the unfortunately true events and 2008 book by Michael Lewis titled ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,’ Adam McKay’s ‘The Big Short’ evokes the tumultuous housing and credit collapse through the stories of bankers and hedge-fund managers who caught on first and tried to grasp the financial opportunity. Partly based on lawyer James Britt Donovan’s 1966 insider’s take on the barter of spies during the Cold War titled ‘Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel,’ Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Bridge of Spies’ vividly accounts Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) defense of a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and the planning of an exchange of he and a captured American pilot by the Soviet Union. The script drafted by Joel and Ethan Coen and with Hanks and Rylance on their A-game, the film holds strong throughout.
A running favorite for its heart and relevance, John Crowley’s ‘Brooklyn’ takes the 2009 historical novel of the same name by author Colm Tóibin and translates this humble Irish emigrant’s (Saoirse Ronan) story of homesickness, love, and difficult choices to the screen. Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘The Revenant’ is another heavy contender, having us all threatening to boycott the Oscars if Leo doesn’t win. The film is based on the 2002 historical fiction book by Michael Punke about true figure and early 19th Century frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his trek for revenge after he survives a bear attack and helplessly witnesses the murder of his son. Also a big hit this year, Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ takes the popular sci-fi 2011 novel by Andy Weir and adapts to film with the likes of Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofer, and more. It reminds us once again, as in ‘Gravity’ and ‘Interstellar,’ that there are few things more terrifying than being abandoned in outer space.
Lastly, but arguably at the very top of the list, ‘Room’ casts Brie Larson as Ma caring for her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) born and raised in the confines of a storage container after she was kidnapped by Old Nick as a teenager. While we witness Jack interacting with the objects of the storage container that Ma has characterized to give Jack some semblance of a joyous childhood and then execute an escape that brings on the trials of a life they’ve been detached from, we’re so attached to their survival that we dare not let go. Based on the 2010 novel ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, the story weighs heavy on the senses and has perhaps the most emotionally climactic moments of any of the nominees.
Novels and literary accounts of real events make up seven out of eight of this year’s nominees for the top prize from the Academy. Now, as strong and evoking as these nominations are, if only we could commit to reading the actual books ahead of time…think of the knowledge.