Friday, April 19, 2024

Fiction Becoming Reality: The Rise Of “American Fiction” In Best Adapted Screenplay

With final voting underway for the 96th Academy Awards, the race for Best Adapted Screenplay is down to the wire. Momentum for writer-director Cord Jefferson’s feature directorial debut “American Fiction,” based on the 2001 novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, has been building for some time. The film won the Critics Choice Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and over-performed with Oscar nominations (reaching Best Supporting Actor for Sterling K. Brown and Best Original Score for Laura Karpman). Plus, the film won the BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay (its only nomination from the British Academy) and the Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. “American Fiction” is currently second to “Oppenheimer” for the most Adapted wins across all precursors and could very well surpass it by the end of this season.

Given the competition “American Fiction” faces in other categories (Best Picture, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Score), Best Adapted Screenplay would be the likeliest place to win. The majority of the film’s buzz being concentrated on the writing can also work to its advantage, especially when considering the chances of the fellow Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. “Oppenheimer” has maintained frontrunner status in Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, and Original Score. The Academy will take plenty of opportunities to award this epic, and if voters are extra keen, the film’s screenplay being swept up in the haul is not entirely out of the picture. This is Christopher Nolan’s year, after all. His reshaping of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” as a first-person narrative is an impressive feat.

However, Nolan’s forthcoming Best Director win could be enough for voters to look elsewhere in Best Adapted Screenplay. Recent Oscar history has shown the Academy’s growing tendency to spread the wealth in this category whenever Best Picture and Best Director winners match. Apart from “CODA,” “Moonlight,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Argo,” each Best Adapted Screenplay winner over the last thirteen years has come from a non-Best Picture winner. More telling to consider is that none of the winners during this time period have matched with a Best Director win for the same film. By comparison, during the 2000s, a whopping eight Best Director winners have had their films also win Best Adapted Screenplay. The sweeping sentiment around “Oppenheimer” somewhat harkens back to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” winning eleven Oscars (including Best Director and Adapted Screenplay), not too far off from “Oppenheimer’s” projected eight. Plus, the passionate consensus around this being Nolan’s year is slightly reminiscent of Martin Scorsese finally winning his Oscar for Best Director; “The Departed” had the winning combination of Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

Beyond “American Fiction” and “Oppenheimer,” Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” adds a compelling layer to the category. Once upon a time, “Barbie” was considered the likely frontrunner to win Best Original Screenplay until the Academy Writers branch announced that the film must compete in Best Adapted Screenplay instead. Outside of the Oscars and the Golden Globes (which merge original and adapted), all of the “Barbie” screenplay nominations have been original. Best Original Screenplay seems to have been an easier path for “Barbie;” however, the film has not performed too well in terms of winning that category. “The Holdovers,” “Past Lives,” and “Anatomy of a Fall” are each ahead in total precursor wins, plus “Anatomy of a Fall” has the winning combination of BAFTA and Golden Globe.

Going into the final stage of award season, the switch to Best Adapted Screenplay has presented a more significant challenge for “Barbie” to overcome. What makes the category more exciting to predict at the Oscars is that we do not have a complete picture of where “Barbie” stands, as we have only seen the film compete in Best Original Screenplay. “Oppenheimer” and “American Fiction” may be leading in Best Adapted Screenplay precursor wins, but not in direct competition with “Barbie.” Suffice it to say, this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay race is still up in the air. But at the very least, the compelling narrative for these three films has nearly ruled out the possibility of the category being a five-way race. Dark horse contenders “Poor Things” and “The Zone of Interest” are not topping winner prediction lists.

Out of all the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees, “American Fiction” emerging victorious would continue a recent Academy trend. Over the past thirteen years, seven Best Adapted Screenplay winners were for films that won only in this category. Apart from “American Fiction,” the chances of the other nominees running into this scenario are slim to none. “Oppenheimer,” of course, is this year’s award season juggernaut with multiple projected wins, and “The Zone of Interest” has cornered International Feature Film. “Poor Things” and “Barbie” have the potential to win at least two wins (the former in Best Production Design and Lead Actress; the latter in Best Costume Design and Original Song). “American Fiction” is the only contender that fits the bill of a lone screenplay win. As a neat parallel to last year’s winner “Women Talking” (writer-director Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel), “American Fiction” would mark the second year in a row that an MGM release wins Best Adapted Screenplay.

The heavy presence of “Oppenheimer” in multiple categories and the uncertainty around how “Barbie” will perform in Best Adapted Screenplay leaves room for “American Fiction” to find strength in its recent screenplay wins. The fact that writing plays a large part in the storyline of “American Fiction” could also resonate heavily with the writers’ branch. The protagonist, Thelonious’ Monk’ Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright), is a novelist who navigates through a publishing industry that looks to define his identity and profit from stereotypes. Through a satirical lens, the film explores the cultural challenges of representing Black lives.

There is something to be said for the momentum “American Fiction” has found within the industry, from winning the TIFF People’s Choice (a reliable path towards winning at least one Oscar) to having a consistent presence among critics’ groups and televised awards. While the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Awards will take place after the Oscars this year, the upcoming USC Libraries Scripter Awards (which “Women Talking” won last year) could add another winning boost to Cord Jefferson’s name. “American Fiction” has only been rising in estimations and finding surges at the most opportune times. The film won Best Screenplay at last night’s Film Independent Spirit Awards over such nominees as “Past Lives” and “The Holdovers.” The Spirit Awards may not have as much influence on the Academy as other televised ceremonies. Still, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Jefferson gave an award-winning speech the weekend before final Oscar voting closes.

What do you think will win Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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