Best Adapted Screenplay Winners - Featured - StudioBinder-min

With the last 19 Oscar ceremonies behind us, we’re now well into the 21st century. Seems like a good time to look back at the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners and consider how they rank.

Before we do that, let’s remind ourselves: What is an adapted screenplay? The Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay is given each year to a script “based on material from another medium.”

That other medium being adapted is often a novel (The Lord of the Rings),  a stage production (Fences), or another film (A Star is Born). But it can also be a TV show (Downton Abbey), a comic book (Logan), a radio show (A Prairie Home Companion), or even a song (Last Christmas).

Regardless of their source material, all of the writers who became Best Adapted Screenplay winners had to face the same set of complicated decisions. How well they were able to balance these decisions factored into their ranking.

Characters

Sometimes characters or their storylines need to be cut to keep the focus on the overall plot. An alternative is to composite multiple characters together. 

Setting 

Screenwriters often change the location when the source material is a foreign film (i.e. Force MajeureDownhill), or the time period if it was written a long time ago (i.e. The OdysseyO Brother, Where Art Thou?). Sometimes changing the setting works, other times it’s best to leave things alone.

Plot

Finally, writers of adapted screenplays have to decide how much of the overall story might need to be cut, shortened, or combined into one thread. The screenplay has to be able to stand on its own without assuming the audience is familiar with the source material. 

When ranking the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners, I considered how well they achieved the above criteria, as well as:

  • The script’s faithfulness to its source material, where applicable. (With certain non-fiction source material, this factor is not included.)
  • Whether or not the adaptation improves upon or brings something new to the source material

Of course, there are plenty more measures of success for ranking these Best Adapted Screenplay winners. Let us know yours in the comments.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

19. The Departed (2006)

The Departed trailer

Adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, this William Monahan script is a straightforward Americanization of the story of an unwitting mole exchange between cops and criminals. 

Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a newly minted Boston cop with family ties to the Irish Mob, infiltrates the inner-circle of that mob’s boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Billy is unaware that Frank’s own mole, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), has already infiltrated the very precinct that Billy came from.

The Departed screenplay is loaded with memorable scenes but perhaps none are more gripping that Nicholson's performance when discussing a potential rat in the organization.

Here's an excerpt from that scene — you can read and download the entire script if you follow the link.

Read the entire script for The Departed

100%
Characters
50%
Setting
50%
Plot
100%
Faithfulness
75%
Final Score
  • A-List Cast
  • Good Bad Guy (Damon)
  • N/A
  • Full of Plot Holes
  • Emphasis on Accents
  • Nothing Original

Best Picture Winner

The Departed

Martin Scorsese finally won a Best Director Oscar for his work on The Departed. At the time, many felt it was more of a lifetime achievement award since he’d missed out on the trophy so many times before.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

18. Sideways (2004)

Why are you into Pinot?

Adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel of the same name and directed by Alexander Payne, Sideways is part road movie, part buddy comedy, part portrait of midlife crisis. 

Miles (Paul Giamatti) loves wine and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is super into being a dude. So, the BFFs head off the week before Jack’s wedding on a trip to Santa Ynez for “pinot, putting, and prowling bars.” 

For some reason, people got really into wine all of the sudden back in the mid-2000s. This film captures that whole, kind of pretentious mini-era really well.

75%
Characters
100%
Setting
75%
Plot
100%
Faithfulness
86%
Final Score
  • Sandra Oh!
  • Beautiful Scenery
  • Very True to the Book
  • Unlikeable Protagonists
  • Predictable
  • A Bit Slow

Best Baseball Movies

Conclusion

Miles disparages the then-popular Merlot and praises Pinot Noir in the film, which affected the actual sales of those particular varietals in real life.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

17. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind trailer

John Nash was a brilliant, Nobel and Abel prize-winning mathematician. He was also clinically schizophrenic. 

A Beautiful Mind was written by the great Akiva Goldsman and based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash (who’s played by Russell Crowe). But the film changes or omits a lot of important details about Nash’s career as he struggled with his diagnosis. 

At the time, A Beautiful Mind gave audiences a good introduction to what schizophrenia is like. But it hasn't really held up over the 20 years since it came out.
50%
Characters
100%
Setting
50%
Plot
50%
Faithfulness
63%
Final Score
  • Good Acting
  • Fair Into to Mental Illness
  • Math!
  • Kinda Cheesy
  • Formulaic
  • Doesn't Hold Up Well

Best Picture Winner

A Beautiful Mind

The real John and his wife Alicia divorced, but Alicia continued to be a stabilizing influence for him by letting him rent a room in her house. They remarried in 2001. Sadly, they were both killed in a car crash in 2015.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

16. The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network trailer

The very first scene in The Social Network script sets the whole story in motion. This keystone scene is a great example of Sorkin's rapid-fired dialogue that hits on deep character development with precision.

Here's an excerpt from that scene — you can read and download the entire script if you follow the link.

Read the entire script for The Social Network

According to Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network—based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires—Facebook originated when an angry incel wanted to get back at the woman who dumped him (in one of cinema’s most epic speeches).

50%
Characters
100%
Setting
50%
Plot
50%
Faithfullness
63%
Final Score
  • Great Score
  • Beautifully Shot
  • Jesse Eisenberg
  • Super Talky
  • Somewhat Confusing
  • Over the Top

Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay

The Social Network

Director David Fincher enlisted Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to compose the music for The Social Network, which won an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

15. The Big Short (2015)

The Big Short trailer

It’s tough to write a movie about data analysis. But Adam McKay and Charles Randolph did just that and won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Based on the book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film is about how a small group of investors managed to profit off the housing financial crisis of 2008. 

While at times a bit confusing, The Big Short manages to elevate a normally dull topic to the level of international espionage. And it helps audiences better understand what actually happened to cause the housing bubble to burst.

Still, millions of people suffered from what happened then, so it’s a little hard to root for the guys who made a profit from it.

75%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
100%
Faithfulness
94%
Final Score
  • Keeps Your Attention
  • Lots of Cool Cameos
  • Surprisingly Funny
  • At Times Confusing
  • Steve Carrell Over the Top
  • Unsympathetic Characters

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

The Big Short

The film uses cameos from such celebrities as Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez to deliver wonky explanations of complicated finance jargon.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

14. The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants trailer

The Descendants marks another road trip story for Alexander Payne, who co-wrote the script with Jim Rash and Nate Faxon. 

This time, our protagonists are Matt King (George Clooney) and his two daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who seek out the man that Matt’s dying wife had an affair with. 

In the beginning, Matt is as emotionally detached from his family as one could get. By the end, he and his daughters form an unbreakable bond.

75%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
75%
Faithfulness
88%
Final Score
  • Beautiful Location
  • Good Performances
  • N/A
  • Predictable
  • No Native Characters
  • N/A

Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

The Descendants

Sid is less dopey in the book. Matt’s wife is called Joan in the book, but in the film her name was changed to Elizabeth.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winners

13. Traffic (2000)

Traffic trailer

Traffic is based on the 1989 BBC series Traffik. While the original series dealt with heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s Americanized version moves the setting to the cocaine trade from Mexico and South America. 

Both incarnations have three interwoven storylines involving the producers and dealers, the users and distributors, as well as the enforcers and politicians.

75%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
75%
Faithfulness
88%
Final Score
  • A-List Cast
  • Great Editing
  • Holds Your Attention
  • Hasn't Aged Well
  • Color Filters Overused
  • N/A

Multiple Oscars Winner

Traffic

Steven Soderbergh was nominated for his work on Erin Brockovich in the same year but won for Traffic.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

12. The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game trailer

Like John Nash, Alan Turing was a genius with a dangerous secret that could end his career, if not his very life. Turing was a born cryptographer who was conscripted by the British government to crack the German Enigma code. 

Turing was also a gay man at a time when being gay could literally get you thrown in prison. Graham Moore’s script (based on the Andrew Hodges biography Alan Turing: The Enigma) does a good job balancing Turing the legendary code-breaker with Turing the human being.

But ultimately, the film is just another by-the-numbers biography elevated by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance.

75%
Characters
100%
Setting
50%
Plot
50%
Faithfulness
69%
Final Score
  • Cumberbatch is Riveting
  • Good Cast
  • N/A
  • Formulaic
  • Historical Inaccuracies
  • N/A

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

The Imitation Game

While some complained that the film downplayed Alan Turing’s sexuality, it was honored by the Human Rights Campaign for making audiences more aware that a gay man’s work was so crucial to history.

Academy Award Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay

11. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Sugar?

Joel and Ethan Coen adapted this thriller from the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is an almost superhuman hitman pursuing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the hapless poacher who stumbled on a drug deal gone bad and ran off with its abandoned $2 million purse.  

No Country for Old Men has stretches with very little dialogue and a couple of elements from the novel were dropped for the script. But the story is well-paced and suspenseful to watch.

One scene that hangs on every word of the dialogue is the now-iconic "coin toss" scene. Here's an excerpt from that scene — you can read and download the entire script if you follow the link.

Read the entire script for No Country for Old Men

50%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
75%
Faithfulness
81%
Final Score
  • Suspenseful
  • Beautifully Shot
  • N/A
  • Sometimes Confusing
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Picture Winner

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers won the Oscar for Best Director, as well as for their adaptation. The film also earned Best Picture honors that year.

Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay

10. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave trailer

John Ridley adapted 12 Years a Slave from the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. The film is an unflinching look at the experiences recounted in Northup’s memoir.

But the stunt casting—which brings in stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt for very small roles—are a bit of a distraction from the story and its message. 

The screenplay for 12 Years a Slave captures the nightmare of Northup's capture in disturbing detail. Look, for example, at this scene when he first wakes up in captivity. Even on the page, this is a chilling scene.

You can read and download the entire script if you follow the link.

Read the entire script for 12 Years a Slave

There’s also a lot of seemingly gratuitous violence. In one scene, for instance, slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) describes in gory detail what he’s about to do to Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). When it’s shown on camera moments later, the moment feels both unnecessary and unhelpful in terms of progressing the narrative.

100%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
100%
Faithfulness
100%
Final Score
  • Historically Accurate
  • Important Subject
  • N/A
  • Stunt Casting
  • Gratuitous Violence
  • Too Long

Best Picture Winner

12 Years a Slave

The film also won Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong’o.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

9. Precious (2009)

Precious trailer

Geoffrey Fletcher’s adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire is a tough watch. Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is raped by her own father multiple times and verbally and physically abused by her mother throughout the film. 

But then-unknown Sidibe was born to play her. Precious is the story of how its titular character finally finds people in her life who care about her and build her up instead of constantly tearing her down, which gives her the courage and confidence to tackle adult life on her own.
100%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
100%
Faithfulness
100%
Final Score
  • Fantastic Acting
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • Trigger Warning
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

Precious

Gabourey Sibide had no acting experience prior to making this film. She was perfectly cast and is phenomenal in the role.

Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Winners

8. Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Call Me by Your Name trailer

James Ivory’s script from André Aciman’s novel of the same name is a fairly typical coming-of-age drama. But a grown man having a secret sexual relationship with a teenager is pretty creepy, however mature that teenager is supposed to be and even without any nudity.

100%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
100%
Faithfulness
100%
Final Score
  • Pretty Actors
  • Pretty Scenery
  • No Gratuitous Nudity
  • Creepy
  • Formulaic
  • N/A

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

Call Me By Your Name

At 89, James Ivory was the oldest winner of any competitive Oscar with his win for this film, and Timothée Chalamet was the youngest Best Actor nominee since the 1930s.

Best Picture Winner

7. Argo (2012)

Argo trailer

Chris Terrio’s screenplay is based on Antonio Mendez’s true account of how he organized the rescue of six American embassy staff members from the Candian ambassador’s house in Tehran during the Islamic revolution of 1979. 

Mendez creates the legend that he is a Candadian filmmaker on a location scout for a sci-fi film called Argo and recruits actual film industry bigwigs to help. He’s given accommodations in the Canadian ambassador’s house and gains access to the Americans hiding there. 

Directed and produced by Ben Affleck, Argo is full of tension and suspense, despite the fact that we know how it ends.
50%
Characters
100%
Setting
50%
Plot
100%
Innovation
75%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Suspenseful
  • Great Cast
  • N/A
  • Vilifies Islam
  • Iranian Gov. Depiction
  • N/A

Multiple Oscars Winner

Argo

The film also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Editing.

Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Winners

6. The Pianist (2002)

The Pianist trailer

Polish musician Władysław Szpilman’s memoir of how he barely survived the Holocaust by hiding out in Warsaw was the basis for Ronald Harwood’s screenplay. The film is haunting and, at times, downright terrifying to watch. 

The chronology of The Pianist takes audiences through some of the most horrific images a person’s memory can consciously hold. One example: a scene in which Nazi soldiers throw an old man in a wheelchair off of a fourth floor balcony to the street below. 

The film is directed by the problematic Roman Polanski, though, which may be a dealbreaker for some people.

50%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
Plot
75%
Faithfulness
81%
Final Score
  • Captivating
  • Stays with You
  • Holds Up
  • Polanski's background
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Actor Winner

The Pianist

As a child, Polanski survived the Holocaust in much the same way. Orphaned after his mother died and his father was sent to a camp, Polanski escaped Warsaw and lived in a farmer’s barn until Liberation.

Oscar, Best Adapted Screenplay

5. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire trailer

Simon Beauby makes quite a few changes from Q & A, the novel his screenplay is based on—starting with the renaming of his lead characters. Other changes from the novel help to streamline the plot.

Young Jamal (Dev Patel) is about to become a millionaire on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but the producers of the show think he’s cheating somehow, so they have him arrested. Jamal explains to the police that certain moments in his life, told in flashbacks, are associated with the questions he’s been lucky enough to have been asked, making it easy for him to remember the answers.

It’s a simple story told with lots of energy and color that keeps you interested until its satisfying end.

50%
Characters
100%
Setting
75%
Plot
25%
Faithfulness
88%
Final Score
  • Great Soundtrack
  • Beautifully Shot
  • N/A
  • Lots of Controversy
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Picture Winner

Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle also won for Best Director and the film won Best Picture. But there was a lot of controversy about how the child actors were treated, as well as the film’s portrayal of extreme poverty in Mumbai.

Best Adapted Screenplay Winner

4. BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman trailer

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) really did infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan back in 1979, with the help of his narcotics colleague, known only as “Chuck” (Adam Driver’s “Flip Zimmerman” in the film). But Stallworth kept it secret until 2006, when he revealed his work in an interview with a local newspaper.

Spike Lee’s script moves the time period to 1972 and ramps up the tension and humor of Stallworth’s story. It also uses artistic license liberally to embellish quite a few things. 

Still, BlacKkKlansman is classic Spike Lee, finding humor in the most serious of circumstances and hammering home the message that we still have a lot of work to do against white supremacy.
50%
Characters
75%
Setting
50%
PLot
50%
Faithfulness
56%
Final Score
  • Funny
  • Great Score
  • Great Acting
  • Stereotypes
  • Historical Inaccuracies
  • N/A

Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee was also nominated for Best Director, and the film for Best Picture. Both were snubbed in favor of Green Book, a film which many argued had the exact opposite tone and message.

Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Winners

3. Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight Trailer

The first Best Picture Oscar winner with an all-black cast. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote the screenplay from McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. 

One of the most heart-breaking elements in the Moonlight script is Chiron's troubled relationship with his mother. In one of the most poignant moments, she attempts an apology for the years of neglect.

Here's an excerpt from that scene — you can read and download the entire script if you follow the link.

Read the entire script for Moonlight

The film is a quiet coming-of-age drama about Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), a young man struggling with both his sexuality and the drug addicted adults in his life. The screenwriters drew heavily from their own life experiences, elevating the film’s authenticity.

100%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
PLot
100%
Faithfulness
100%
Final Score
  • Beautifully Shot
  • Excellent Cast
  • Representation Matters
  • A Few Stereotypes
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Picture Winner

Conclusion

One of the reasons Moonlight is so important is because of its intersectionality of masculinity, black identity, and sexuality.

Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Winners

2. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings trailer

The third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy swept the Acade,y Awards that year despite the many changes screenwriters Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens made from the original novel. 

What makes this adaptation different from others is that the screenwriters incorporated elements that Tolkien had only included as backstory in the form of footnoted appendices. 

The history of Aragorn and Arwyn, for instance, only appears in the appendices in the original novel. But the script seamlessly incorporates the love story and ups the stakes for Aragorn’s character.

75%
Characters
100%
setting
75%
Plot
75%
Faithfulness
81%
Final Score
  • High Filmmaking Bar
  • Seamless Composition
  • N/A
  • Overly Sentimental
  • Too Many Endings
  • N/A

Multiple Oscar Winners

Return of the King

Despite the many changes from source to script, this film trilogy is about as close to reading the novels as you can get without actually sitting down and reading them.

Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Winners

1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain trailer

This is one of the all-time great love stories, based on the short story by Annie Proulx and adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Brokeback Mountain won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Director for Ang Lee and Best Original Score.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet as hired hands sent to graze a herd of sheep. Over their long weeks spent in isolation together, they begin a relationship. But once they’re off the mountain, they know it’s impossible to be together in the homophobic world of 1963 Wyoming. 

Both go on with their lives, marry women, and start families. Some years later, Jack finds Ennis again and the men reignite their relationship, which they can only maintain through periodic camping trips.

Ledger is fantastic in the tragic role of Ennis, and the film’s cinematography is gorgeous.

100%
Characters
100%
Setting
100%
PLot
100%
Faithfulness
100%
Final Score
  • Beautifully Shot
  • Excellent Acting
  • Beautiful Musical Score
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Director Winner

Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee’s skillful directing keeps this romantic tragedy rooted in realism without veering into maudlin territory.

You may think differently about this list. Let us know how you would rank these Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners in the comments.

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