Some of the greatest screenplays every written have originated from other source material. And whether it be from a novel, a play, a short story or even a comic book, the art of adapting a piece of writing for the screen has become an art form unto itself.
The Academy Awards are one of the few to recognize such an achievement, and have since given the Oscar to some of the most beautifully crafted script adaptations in cinema history.
Here’s a look at the 25 best Oscar winners in the Best Adapted Screenplay category:
25. No Country for Old Men
Two of only a handful of writers to win in both screenplay categories, the Coens have woven a much darker tale than they had the first time around with “Fargo.” In “No Country for Old Men,” the writing/directing duo takes their audience through a dangerous manhunt when a desperate man discovers a stash of money and suddenly finds himself being relentlessly pursued.
Aside from creating one of the most haunting villains in recent film history, the Coens have also elevated their material through a profoundly harrowing theme. While the main plot revolves around money and the psychopath who’s after it, the real story revolves around the aging sheriff who becomes disillusioned with all the horror he sees happening around him. With that, the film’s ambiguous ending somehow makes complete sense when placed in the grand scheme of things.
24. Forrest Gump
Chronicling the entire life of a mentally handicapped man may seem like a difficult task and possibly even a dreary one. But thanks to Eric Roth’s highly entertaining script, the life of Forrest Gump becomes a sharp, intelligent journey into an extraordinary life that places our titular character in, among other things, every major event of the 20th century.
Forrest Gump is in fact a deceptively simple protagonist. As the entire world is seen through his eyes (Vietnam, Watergate, Elvis’ groove), there is no denying that his impact on everything he encounters is nothing less than unforgettable. The story provides a wildly unique perspective on some of the most significant events in history, and the fact that Forrest sees things so simply gives us fresh, unexpected insight into things we’ve seen a million times over.
23. The Exorcist
There’s a reason that “The Exorcist” became one of the few horror movies to break into the Oscar race. Aside from its haunting performances, taut direction and darkly beautiful cinematography, this story of an ordinary woman struggling with the fact that her young daughter might be possessed by the devil is filled to the brim with classic moments.
When one examines the endless stream of cheap knock-offs that emerged after “The Exorcist,” the genius in William Friedkin’s masterpiece becomes even more apparent. What separates this film from the others is, above all else, the heft William Peter Blatty’s script gives to the characters and their plight.
This isn’t merely an attempt to scare the viewer with a few scenes (though it absolutely does); this is an attempt to break the viewer, both in strength and in faith, through a harrowing look into the deteriorating lives of ordinary people that lingers long after the final frame.
22. The Bridge on the River Kwai
Epic is hardly an appropriate enough word to describe the war films of director David Lean. Clocking in at almost three hours, this tale of duelling army colonels is epic much more in the power of its timely themes than it is in its running time. As the construction of the titular bridge forces British POW’s to aid their Japanese captors, the brutal effects of war are never more evident than they are here.
The story may seem somewhat simple at first, with two colonels arguing over the rules of the Geneva Convention; but the fact that this element of the plot takes up such a huge part of the film is absurdity at its most brilliant. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” doesn’t just take us through the construction of a bridge, but through a battle of wills that becomes even bigger and more disturbing than the war itself.
Alexander Payne’s trademark humor is at its best in his critically-adored “Sideways.” The plot is a rather low-key concept, whereby a middle-aged writer goes on a wine-tasting trip with his best friend the week before the latter gets married and, amidst a series of shenanigans and romantic encounters, begins to question what exactly it is he’s doing with his life.
Though not particularly noteworthy on the surface, “Sideways” benefits greatly from its wonderfully sardonic tone. The dialogue is rich in humor, but also in character, with each quip succinctly revealing something poignant about its characters while never once faltering on its primary goal of making the audience laugh. It’s a story in which even the darkest moments in life have an element of hilarity, and Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor thankfully never let us lose sight of that.
20. Dangerous Liaisons
Remade over a decade later as “Cruel Intentions” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe, “Dangerous Liaisons” proves that its story is just as applicable to modern times as it is to its setting of 18th century France. As two aristocrats wager on whether or not a naïve virgin can be seduced, the tragic effects of their bet may prove far greater than the reward.
Christopher Hampton wrote a very unabashed script in which sex is treated so lightly that it in fact becomes dangerous. The plot continuously infuses the act of seduction with increasingly higher stakes that make the malevolent endeavors of the film’s characters all the more engaging as the story progresses. What starts out as a sinister game suddenly turns into something much more significant, and the results become more destructive than any of the players could’ve anticipated.
19. The Best Years of Our Lives
William Wyler’s knack for crafting poignant human dramas has never been more evident than it has in this multi-story post-war film about the lives of three veterans readjusting to civilian life upon returning home from the WWII. It’s a story that’s been told numerous times since, but as is usually the case, the first one set a standard that no other movie has managed to meet.
The story succeeds in presenting three different men dealing with three different struggles while nevertheless capturing the essence of what the war has done to all of them. Whether the problem is physical, emotional or psychological, the viewer follows along as each veteran slowly overcomes his respective tragedy in what ultimately becomes the most sympathetic and rewarding journey any post-war drama has had to offer.
Of all the television series spawned from films, “MASH” undoubtedly makes the most sense. Tracing the fun-loving lives of an army medical team, Robert Altman’s comedic masterpiece is utterly devoid of an actual plot. Instead, Ring Lardner Jr.’s script simply presents one gag after another in a mercilessly hilarious series of what could only be described as episodes.
But what prevents this plotless look into the Korean War from being tiresome and inane is how sharply the script emphasizes the absurdity of war and the people involved. Our protagonists don’t simply engage in immature pranks and games for the sake of having fun, but because it may very well be the most meaningful experience to be had in such a tragically meaningless war.