The Oscars celebrate excellence in the world of filmmaking, and the people who write the stories and scripts are a huge part of it.
Variety exclusively reported “Barbie” would be campaigned for best original screenplay for the upcoming awards season rather than in adapted screenplay as had been presumed. The decision brought about some interesting debate on social media, and even some Academy members contacted me directly with questions and opinions about it. But it’s not a black-or-white question. The categories in which a movie competes aren’t always as clear as you’d think, as seen through the history of nominees and winners.
Let’s start with the existing definitions. What does it mean to be an original script vs. an adapted one? As most people know, an original work creates an entirely new narrative, while an adapted one transforms pre-existing material into a screenplay.
“Barbie” scribes Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have clearly achieved a high degree of originality with their inventive fable, seemingly giving them a clear shot at original screenplay. On the other hand, adapting a book, movie or established IP can often be a tribute to the art of transformation. Some of the all-time great winners such as “Schindler’s List” (1993) are recognized for the skill and finesse it required to take an existing work, such as a novel, play, or even another screenplay, and adapt it for the silver screen.
Before anyone else weighs in, here are some questions to consider: Is Barbie original or adapted?
Read: Variety’s Awards Circuit for the latest Oscars predictions in all categories.
Why are biopics based on historical figures allowed to compete in original?
During our time in school, I’m sure many of us read about historical figures like the first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, and the famed stuttering monarch King George VI, with the help of numerous books, movies and TV shows covering their time on Earth. Nonetheless, two films focusing on their lives — “Milk” (2008) and “The King’s Speech” (2010) were allowed to be nominated and win best original screenplay at the Oscars, as they weren’t considered to be based on just one source.
“This is a gray area,” Robert Hamer, associate writer of Awards Radar, tells Variety. “In ‘Milk,’ the suggestion that Dan White may be closeted is an original idea input by Dustin Lance Black. One of my favorite original screenplay winners, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘RRR’ are original because it’s historical fiction, and I think it applies.”
Hamer has a point, but too many historical inconsistencies make the road for “Barbie” unclear.
Look at Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), which tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima and is based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, yet was recognized for original screenplay. But its English-language counterpart “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on the novel of the same name, competed for adapted prizes (but wasn’t nominated).
What about movies that “pay homage” to earlier motion pictures? Why was Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning revenge Western “Django Unchained” (2012), with the DNA of the Italian film “Django” (1966), not considered “based on previously published material”? Although not nominated, other biopics such as the Winston Churchill vehicle “Darkest Hour” (2017) also campaigned for original (not nominated).
The “every sequel is adapted” issue.
If the first movie in a franchise is nominated (or campaigned) for best original screenplay, any subsequent films that follow are typically relegated to the adapted category. I don’t think I wholeheartedly agree with this notion.
The most prominent example is Rian Johnson’s whodunit mystery series “Knives Out” (2019), nominated for original, and last year’s hit sequel “Glass Onion” (2022) being recognized for adapted screenplay. That’s due to the central detective character Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) returning to the film, although it does not reference its successor, and is a brand-new case to unpack.
Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed “Before” series that follows the relationship of Jesse and Céline (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) series has managed two adapted nods for its two sequels — “Sunrise” (2004) and “Midnight” (2013) — despite the inaugural “Sunrise” (1995) failing to get nominated. Even though the characters are portrayed in an earlier film, does that not make the concept or new marriage issues they’re facing original?
What does “previously produced” actually mean?
Films like “Moonlight” (2016) were booted to adapted screenplay. Even though co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” was never published, the Writer’s Branch committee kicked the movie from original to adapted, where it eventually won. I’m actually open to that line of defining works.
Regarding “Barbie,” it would help whatever the committee decides to be clear about its reasoning. Is the decision based on the existence of the toy itself? Or is it because of the 47 previous Barbie movies — mostly straight-to-video kids fare — before Gerwig’s box office smash?
Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” (2005), based on the memoir “See No Evil” by Robert Baer, was moved from adapted to original, given the film’s numerous differences from the source material. That didn’t stop the Academy from keeping Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln” (2012), loosely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” or Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” (2007), based on the 1927 novel “Oil” by Upton Sinclair in adapted. Many who have read “Oil” say the only similarities between the movie and the book are the main character’s name, Daniel Plainview, and his oilman profession.
The “established IP” debates.
The “Barbie” script is credited as “based on ‘Barbie’ by Mattel’ — a doll made by a toy company, not a book or play. Now, as a person who is often passionate about calling out “category fraud,” as the definitions currently being stated, I’m not passionate about either choice.
But the argument regarding established IP isn’t always followed. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s “The Lego Movie” (2014) was campaigned for original and has Lego toys and Batman in the movie. Pixar’s “Toy Story” creates a fresh concept with Woody and Buzz going from enemies to friends, but the film includes classic toys like Mr. Potato Head, the plastic green army men, and a piece of Barbie’s leg. The seven screenwriters receive nods.
But what makes an IP “established” anyway? The first “Borat” movie was campaigned and nominated for adapted screenplay because Sacha Baron Cohen’s character was featured on episodes of his TV series “The Ali G Show.” There is the added wondering about how we classify the improvised moments and how that constitutes “screenwriting,” but that’s a discussion for another time.
I’d also argue this ties into the “Zola” question as well. The Janicza Bravo dark comedy based on the Twitter (now called “X”) thread about a girl’s impromptu road trip was campaigned for adapted, which cited the tweets and the magazine article that was written about it. How does social media fit into the future of screenwriting?
Original story vs. original characters?
The answer to this debate likely lies in two potential solutions.
Is it time to bring back the three separate screenplay categories? From 1927 to 1956, the Academy had three categories for scribes – screenplay (original), screenplay (adapted), and the now-defunct best story.
The best story category closely resembled modern film treatments or prose documents describing the plot and characters. Could this category be revived by awarding “concepts” and “plots” of movies rather than the actual dialogue?
Woody Allen was allowed to be nominated for original screenplay for the Cate Blanchett Oscar-winning vehicle “Blue Jasmine” (2013), even though the movie makes no qualms about being framed after Tennessee Williams’ famous play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Could this potential third writing category be a more appropriate fit since it reinvents the story rather than calling it a “new work?”
The second answer is the simplest. This isn’t a one-sentence definition category any longer. Writing has evolved, and life experiences mimic so many different things. It would be incumbent upon the Writer’s Branch to put clear barriers and rules in place that qualify movies in their respective races.
The final and most daunting question is, will the “Barbie” original screenplay campaign stick?
We won’t know until the nomination ballots are revealed. However, Variety did conduct an informal poll with 10 AMPAS members of the Writer’s Branch, asking: Is Barbie an original or adapted screenplay?
Five said adapted, three said original, and two declined to weigh in because they had not seen the film. My gut says this will get the 11th-hour kick to adapted, but no one knows for sure. We’ll continue to follow along.