December 9, 2008 / 8:21 AM / 10 years ago

Oscar organizers face original dilemmas

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Three years ago, the Academy surprised a lot of people when it ruled that “Syriana,” Stephen Gaghan’s interlocking tale of interlocking oil interests, was an original screenplay and not an adapted work.

U.S. director Stephen Gaghan attends news conference to present his out of competition film 'Syriana' at the 56th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 10, 2006. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

The most surprised was Gaghan himself, who had worked off Robert Baer’s memoir “See No Evil” and already had seen the Writers Guild of America categorize it as adapted.

The original/adapted question has always been slippery, especially as screenwriters’ sources of inspiration and material grow ever more complicated.

This year brings a toboggan down another mudslide.

Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for his script adaptation of “Forrest Gump,” based his script for the upcoming Brad Pitt movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short-story.

Paramount is campaigning “Button” as an adapted screenplay; the script’s idea, it reasonably argues, comes from a short story by Fitzgerald, which in turn was based on a concept from Mark Twain. That’s adaptation.

The Academy will go along with the bid and classify it as adapted, insiders say. Still, an argument could be made for the script’s, well, originality.

The script is a “based-on” only in the loosest sense — the movie takes the concept of a man aging backward but uses few of the story’s particulars or characters.

Meanwhile, in the other direction, a host of historical pictures — including “Milk,” “Changeling” and “W.” — will be classified as original by the Academy, though they do draw from various records, news accounts or books.

“Milk’s” Dustin Lance Black interviewed primary sources. “Changeling’s” J. Michael Straczynski researched newspapers and court records. “W.” scribe Stanley Weiser combed through the literature and in interviews referenced tomes like Michael Isikoff’s “Hubris.”

This kind of haziness is why the Academy’s writer’s branch, according to insiders, is considering amending its rules to lay out some more specific criteria beginning next year.

The question is, what should those criteria be?

The acquisition of rights won’t work; the Academy already has decided that if producers purchase a book to avoid a legal headache, that isn’t sufficient to render a script adapted. And besides, that would mean an adaptation of a public-domain work could still be considered original.

Another way to go: consider adapted any script that takes a concept from another art form. But that would be a decidedly loose standard and make inventive work like “Clueless” (which drew superficially from Jane Austen’s “Emma”) an adaptation even though the WGA and all right-thinking people considered it an original.

The most effective standard might be to go page-by-page and determine how much material actually derived from somewhere else. But on any historically based movie, the Academy would then be in the impossible position of poring over every scrap of research.

Given this madness, it’s no wonder the adapted screenplay Oscar has changed names more often than the Fed changes bailout plans. The award has alternately been called “Screenplay adapted from other material,” “Screenplay based on material previously produced or published” and, for an award that sounds like it would have a place on the Psychic Friends Network, “Screenplay based on material from another medium.”

There’s a philosophical question here: What constitutes an original when so much has been done before? But lest this all seem like angels on the head of, um, a pen, consider how it also affects the race.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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