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A look inside the novel-free best adapted screenplay category for this year’s Oscars

August Wilson, shown in a 2003 image, adapted his play "Fences" for the screen before his death in 2005.
August Wilson, shown in a 2003 image, adapted his play “Fences” for the screen before his death in 2005.
(Alexander Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re both an avid reader and a committed movie buff, you can pass the time before the 89th Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 26 by dipping into the sources of the adapted screenplay nominees. But you won’t be reading any novels.

Two nonfiction books, two plays and one short story inspired the Oscar nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay: “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Lion” and “Moonlight.”

For the first time since 2013, none of the nominated screenplays this year is based on a novel. Here’s more about each of the nominees.

“Arrival”

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It’s not often that a screenplay based on a short story (“Arrival”) makes the cut — the last was in 2008, when “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was nominated.

“Arrival,” written by Eric Heisserer, is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the Nebula Award-winning tale of a linguist recruited by the government to communicate with aliens.

In an article for The Times, Heisserer called Chiang’s story his “favorite science fiction piece,” and said the writing process was difficult because of the story’s advanced subject matter, much of which deals with linguistics and physics.

“The script itself was a challenge like no other,” Heisserer wrote. “I was writing for characters much smarter than myself, facing their own greatest challenges. Ted’s story offered me some groundwork, but I had to find drama and conflict within the linguistic theory to sustain something for a feature film.”

Chiang told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that he was pleased with the adaptation. “I don’t think any number of novels featuring linguist protagonists will have the same impact as a major motion picture with a protagonist as a linguist,” he said. “The fact that the movie turned out as well as it did, I think, is almost literally a miracle.”

“Fences”

The screenplay for “Fences” was written by the author of the play it’s based on, August Wilson, who died in 2005. The film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been in the works for a long time, and Wilson was adamant that the movie be directed by an African American. (Denzel Washington both directed and stars in the film).

In a 1990 interview in Los Angeles, Wilson criticized movies about African Americans directed by whites, saying, “White people have set themselves up as custodians of our experience.” He added, “I’ve asked Paramount to hire a black director for this film. Until the industry is ready to hire a black to direct DeNiro or Redford, blacks should at least be able to direct their own experience.”

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“Hidden Figures”

The film “Hidden Figures” takes its inspiration from Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 history, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder wrote the screenplay.

Schroeder’s grandparents worked for NASA, and she interned at the agency as a high schooler. Author Shetterly, whose father spent his career at NASA, praised Schroeder, with whom she shared her research. “She was very, very interested in getting this right and really putting the spirit of the real people onto the screen,” Shetterly said. “A lot of what I learned working with Allison was what it takes to adapt a literary work for film. Everyone thinks they know how to write a screenplay, but it’s a real craft. It’s not easy.”

“Lion”

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Australian writer Luke Davies wrote the screenplay for “Lion,” based on the 2014 memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose. The book and movie tell the true story of an Indian boy, Brierley, who was adopted by an Australian family when he was 5 after being separated from his mother and brother and living on the streets. About 25 years later, Brierley — played by Dev Patel in the film — used Google Earth to try to find the town where he was born. The book “A Long Way Home” was an international bestseller.

“Moonlight”

One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year is the coming-of-age drama “Moonlight,” written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” McCraney, a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, worked on the project while at Yale Drama School but thought it would be unproducible on stage.

McCraney praised Jenkins’ adaptation and said he was shocked at the film’s success. “I always knew that it would be better served as a film than a play, but I always thought that it would be something kind of small and independent,” he told NBC.”Let’s just say I could not have expected this to happen.”

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Jenkins told The Times he was also taken aback by the ecstatic reaction to his movie. “It’s all sort of a blur,” he said. “Having grown people cry in my arms at screenings is a surreal experience. I’m still processing whatever the hell it is that’s happening with the film right now.”


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