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The difference between the Oscars’ Adapted and Original Screenplay categories, explained

Why does the Academy categorize some true stories as original screenplays and others as adapted screenplays?

The Writers Guild of America dubbed Moonlight an original screenplay. Why did the Oscars call it an adapted screenplay?
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At the Oscars, what's the difference between original screenplays and adapted screenplays?

On its face, the answer is easy: Adapted screenplays are based on other works, while original screenplays are based on the writer's own idea. In practice, the distinction is a bit more complicated.

In 2016, the winner for Original Screenplay, was Spotlight, a film based on a true story. And yet because the script was based on research conducted by screenwriters Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, it counted as an “original” work. If it had been based on a single primary source, like 2016 Adapted Screenplay winner The Big Short (which adapted a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis), it would have had to compete in the Adapted category.

Both of the true stories nominated for screenplay awards in 2017 — Lion and Hidden Figures — were nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category, because both are based on books about those true stories: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose, and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. (Indeed, the book of Hidden Figures and the screenplay for the film were being written concurrently, blurring the lines between “adapted from” and “written alongside.”) The 2018 Adapted Screenplay category similarly has a couple of nominees adapting true stories, in the form of Molly’s Game (an adaptation of a memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom) and The Disaster Artist (which began life as a behind-the-scenes account of the making of cult film The Room, co-written by one of its stars, Greg Sestero).

Why make this distinction between original and adapted works? Because film studios or producers often buy the rights to specific books or magazine articles, and then hire screenwriters to turn them into scripts.

Making things even more confusing is the fact that the Adapted category is where all sequels compete by default. Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) both ended up there, because they were based on characters from 1995’s Before Sunrise. The same is true for adapted screenplay nominee Toy Story 3 (2010) as a follow-up to original screenplay nominee Toy Story (1995). Even though the stories and scenarios of those films were completely original, the Academy counted the sequels as adapted because their characters had appeared in prior films. And while 2018 Adapted Screenplay nominee Logan is technically part of the long-running series of X-Men movies starring Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, it also loosely adapts comics series Old Man Logan, making it both a sequel and an adaptation of sorts.

All of which brings us to two of the most confusing nominations in recent memory.

The first is Whiplash's nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015. The Academy decided to categorize the movie as Adapted because director and writer Damien Chazelle (who’s also the guy behind La La Land) made a short film from one of the script's scenes before making a feature. But even though the script for the feature version of Whiplash predates the short film version, the Academy still ruled that the feature is "based on" the short.

The second involves 2017 nominee Moonlight, which the Academy deemed an adapted work, even though its studio, A24, pushed for its inclusion in Original category. (It was nominated as an original screenplay at the Writers Guild awards.)

Though the film is based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the play was never produced. Screenwriter Barry Jenkins retained its LGBTQ themes and its basic structure — three vignettes in three different timelines — but reshuffled the vignettes so they took place chronologically.

In the play, the vignettes overlap, suggesting the characters in each one are three different men — before ultimately revealing they’re one and the same. The movie keeps the vignettes separate, making it explicit immediately that this is the same man, at three different stages of his life.

The Writers Guild ruled these changes sufficient to make Moonlight an original screenplay, but the presence of the play was enough to shift the film into the Adapted category at the Oscars — where it ended up winning.

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