It’s both unfair and too easy to shake out predictions for this category based on what is most likely to appeal to the Kindle Fire set. But with Harvey Weinstein’s apparent disinterest in backing his own Coriolanus for anything taking out the only viable candidate in Olde English, this category is left without its usually stuffy literary pedigree. So be it. The plot points of Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are complicated and abstract enough to count as an organizational form of iambic pentameter. Though any Oscar voter who hasn’t read John le Carré’s book is likely to come away from the movie with more questions than answers, the script’s economy (by necessity, mostly) won’t be ignored. Similarly, the efforts of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (both previous winners) to make baseball statisticians’ math-jizzing sound as clever as the pentateuch of Saint Benjamin Hecht will be regarded by fellow writers as the screenwriters’ equivalent of striking paydirt with a Tumblr blog showcasing stock photos of smiling women eating salad.
On the waning side of clever, The Help might be an ungodly, bloated mess, but the script by Tate Taylor (who will no doubt get an added boost from the perception that he’s probably a lost cause in the director category) should play especially well to those who try to get one chapter in on each commute on the bus or subway. As any number of previous nominees in this category show, some voters even seem to prefer that lumbering, lurching quality that lets show every scar left behind by the adaptation. Which is one of the main reasons the surging The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may end up getting sidelined here. The efforts of Zaillian (again) to make a script as sleek as David Fincher’s visuals unfortunately had the side effect of making the novel’s central mystery only a shade more complicated than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. On the flip side, Cameron Crowe’s inability to wrap We Bought a Zoo up in less than four false endings benches him, too, which is especially sorry during a year in which animals couldn’t be more Oscar friendly what with every other Oscar blogger currently campaigning for Uggie the dog to snag Andy Serkis’s annual “wishful thinking” supporting actor bid. (Let’s just pretend Spielberg’s horse wasn’t just sent to the glue factory by the guilds.)
Given the lack of any major competition beyond old men counting their balls and young women writing about black women pooping, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash would’ve probably been easy contenders for The Descendants no matter what, but they should also be thankful they have the added insurance that about 0.004 percent as many people have read the original novel as have read either The Help or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Without the burden of comparison, Payne’s often risible middle-American caricatures (developed, for the first time, without the writing assistance of Jim Taylor) and their either unpredictable or, if you prefer, baffling behavior probably seem a lot more organic.
That leaves one slot for the taking. Common sense says it’s a toss up between Eric Roth’s detail-obsessive job on Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, George Clooney’s continuing bid to turn himself into an “aw, shucks” Paddy Cheyefsky-next-door (The Ides of March), or Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear’s elliptical theme-and-variations approach to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. But none are carrying any Oscar heat, and so it’s really Hugo’s slot to lose, despite being arguably the most director-centric movie in the Oscar race this year.