Conventional wisdom suggested that adaptations of the biggest bestsellers would make up much of this year’s shortlist—barring, perhaps, the sourly gynecidal Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its nightstick-in-the-naughty-hole vengeance. So it’s something of a blessing that the 100-odd-page translations of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, whose own wisdom is quite conventional indeed, weren’t counted among those movies’ recognized achievements. The best-known tome to see its adaptation make it into the final five is John le Carré’s inimitable classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, just one reason this category boasts one of the 2012 Oscar season’s finest lineups. Since politics can never be ignored, it’s worth noting that Tinker Tailor has an extra edge here considering nominee Peter Straughan’s wife and co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, passed away before the film hit theaters. But then again, such a sad truth may be precisely what got the unsure hopeful over the nomination hump, and a second sympathy-boosted triumph doesn’t seem likely.
Despite some midpoint lulls, John Logan’s Hugo script elegantly translated Brian Selznick’s fantasy favorite, but it actually seems the weakest of the field, as writing is hardly what’s remembered most about that movie. Its markedly adult competitors are all supremely talky, especially the high-stakes stats analysis that is Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball screenplay. Back in the ring for a reason, Sorkin continues to carve out a niche for himself as an invaluable David Mamet descendant, resurrecting the lost art of the mainstream talking-room drama. He and Zaillian (the very man passed over for adapting Stieg Larsson’s doorstopper) will go up against Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, and George Clooney for the sharp-eared yet achingly cynical The Ides of March, a film that grips in the moment, but drifts from memory faster than Christine O’Donnell. In the end, it won’t be a spy standard, a film-buff fairy tale, a baseball gem, or an acidic campaign yarn that nabs the win. It’ll be Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton, and Jim Rash’s take on Kaui Hart Hemmings’s The Descendants, which boasted more humanity and harmonious parts than most greenlit scripts can ever hope to. Payne and Clooney may both be going home with less hardware than expected, but the writing that birthed their collaboration never had a changing wind to fear.
Will Win: The Descendants
Could Win: Moneyball
Should Win: The Descendants