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And the Oscar Winners Were…

By Kevin Nelson · March 28, 2022

Want to learn the craft? Read Academy Award-winning scripts.

The Oscars are the most coveted and prestigious awards in the film industry, so each year provides screenwriters with a cache of great scripts to read and study.

In honor of Hollywood’s most prized night, let’s take a look at some of the screenplays that have taken home the golden statue, and the writers who were heralded into history for their cinematic achievements in two categories: Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Scripts from this Article

Best Original Screenplays

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

After directing several tragic dramas, Alejandro G. Iñárritu wanted to switch things up. Birdman was conceived from a very personal place but sought to.

As he told Variety:

“I was just doing my work. It was a habit. I was stuck, half out of fear and half out of safety.”

With the help of Argentine screenwriters and cousins Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, who worked with Iñárritu on his previous film Biutiful, as well as playwright Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Iñárritu was able to approach these personal themes through a darkly comedic lens. Being that the writers worked from different places on the map, the writers mainly collaborated through Skype and email. 

Realizing that life is experienced without edits, Iñárritu framed the narrative by presenting it in a single shot. 

He went on to say:

“From the time we open our eyes, we live in a Steadicam form, and the only editing is when we talk about our lives or remember things. So I wanted this character to be submerged in that inescapable reality, and the audience has to live these desperate three days alongside him.”

The script took about a year and a half to finish, but in order to get to the final draft, Iñárritu did three weeks of rehearsals with the camera crew to iron out the last polishes.

Putting to rest the “we see” and “we hear” debate with the phrase used immediately, shows that writing rules should only be dictated by the writing style of the writer or the writers’ personal preferences.

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Her

Her was Spike Jonze’s first solo screenplay, born from an idea he had in the early 2000s when people could chat with a bot on instant messenger. It excited him until he realized how it worked, but the idea burrowed inside his head. As artificial intelligence became seemingly closer to reality than science fiction, Jonze imagined a world where people stop interacting with the people around them and become completely absorbed in their own virtual worlds. 

As he told The Guardian, Jonze was inspired by Charlie Kaufman:

“On Synecdoche, New York, which I was originally going to direct, he said he wanted to try to write everything he was thinking about in that moment – all the ideas and feelings at that time – and put it into the script. I was very inspired by that, and tried to do that in [Her]. And a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory.”

Most of the dialogue is between the main character, Theodore, and various virtual voices, whether he’s speaking with an operating system, recording letters for people, or calling sex chatlines. He deals with loss by resorting to isolation, inspired by Jonze’s split with ex-wife Sofia Coppola, until his character’s renewed love for life sends him back into the real world.

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The Hurt Locker

Mark Boal started out as a freelance journalist who embedded himself with troops and bomb squads during the invasion of Iraq in 2004. He wrote an article, The Man in the Bomb Suit, about bomb expert Sergeant Jeffrey S. Sarver that was published in Playboy

The experience would inform his screenplay The Hurt Locker, which would be directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The story is a fictionalized account of his time with bomb experts in the field. 

Much of Boal’s work touches upon the psychological impact of war that soldiers face when they return home. The Hurt Locker is a great character study informed by the writer’s own real-life experiences.

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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation was inspired by Sofia Coppola’s travels to Tokyo after dropping out of college in her twenties. After finding her way back to her roots with filmmaking, Coppola returned to Tokyo to promote The Virgin Suicides (NOT ON TSL).

Determined to write a film located in Tokyo, she settled on “romantic melancholy” between two lonely Western foreigners. It’s told from their outsider perspective as they navigate internal crises that touch on personal themes that resonated with Coppola’s life at the time. She was going through marital problems with Spike Jonze, which certainly found itself in her work. 

She initially wrote the narrative as a Fellini-esque series of vignettes, allowing for the plot to develop without traditional plot points. The series of events are connected by an emotional progression from one episode to the next using linear causality.

Oh, and here WE SEE another Oscar-winning script begin with WE HEAR.

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Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe was ahead of his time. He became the youngest contributor to Rolling Stone and his first cover story was based on his three weeks touring with the Allman Brothers Band at the ripe age of 16 years old. Almost Famous is a fictional memoir of his time covering some of the hottest rock bands in the land. It’s his love letter to music.

The band of Stillwater is an amalgamation of all the bands that trusted him to accurately portray him. Crowe also explores the perils of when that trust is broken. His real mother inspired the character of Elaine Miller, performed by Frances McDormand.

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Fargo

Ethan Coen & Joel Coen immediately grab the reader’s attention with a black card stating that the following is a true story. They grew up in a suburban midwestern town, so they found inspiration in various true crimes that occurred in small rural communities like the ones they so intimately know. 

The dark comedy is found in the Coen brothers’ collective ability to layer the expectations of a noir thriller with the distinct dialect and mild manners of the region. The characters play against the stereotypes of crime dramas, lending an authentic voice to the canon. 

In an interview initially published by Positif in 1996 with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, Ethan Coen explained: 

“When we begin writing, we need to imagine in a quite specific way the world where the story unfolds. The difference is that until this point these universes were purely fictional, while in the case of Fargo there was an air of authenticity we had to communicate. Since we come from the area, that helped us take into account the particular character of the place.”

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Pulp Fiction

It’s no secret that Pulp Fiction is considered one of the most important films of the 1990s. It broke all the norms and kicked off the heyday of inventive spec script sales.

Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avery intended on making Pulp Fiction as a short film but knew that they’d have a hard time getting it produced. So, they initially settled on a triptych feature with three separate stories featuring the same characters with all the makings of a crime story.

They went on to expand the storyline with a now legendary nonlinear story structure. The finished script was made up of seven narrative sequences centered around three main storylines. The narrative sequence is as follows:

  1. “Prologue – The Diner” (i)
  2. Prelude to “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
  3. “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
  4. Prelude to “The Gold Watch” (a – flashback, b – present)
  5. “The Gold Watch”
  6. “The Bonnie Situation”
  7. “Epilogue – The Diner” (ii)
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Thelma & Louise

If a story idea comes along and electrifies you, write it. Callie Khouri was coming to the end of her time as a music video. She was searching for a sign, a path forward. She dabbled with co-writing a sitcom spec but the passion wasn’t there. She kept praying on it until she had the idea one day while driving.

Khouri told Syd Field:

“And that’s when I got this idea: ‘Two women go on a crime spree.’ As soon as I had the idea I felt this strange sense of euphoria.

“The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I mean, what would make two seemingly normal women go on a crime spree? Why would they do that? Why would I go on a crime spree?…I didn’t want to write about two stupid women, or two evil women who go on a crime spree. I wanted to write about two normal women. The definition of women as presented in films and plays is so narrow, so limiting… Where are the real people?”

Khouri then began developing the characters, beginning with Louise. Khouri used her time as a waitress to form the character’s personality. She wanted Louise to be welcoming, fun, and lovable — making it easy for the audience to spend time with her. Khouri then thought about the crime. She knew it had to be murder, a crime they couldn’t escape from or justify — yet she wanted the audience to understand why a woman would do what she does.

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Best Adapted Screenplays

Precious

Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher never gave up on his dream. Always overachieving, Fletcher went to Harvard where he played football and then attended New York University’s Tisch Graduate Film Program. It took him over a decade to break into the industry with Precious, which earned him an academy award for his first produced screenplay. The success seemed to come overnight for the 49-year old, but it was anything but. 

After graduating, he continued to write screenplays and make short films — one of which was almost made into a feature by John Singleton. He worked a number of temp jobs for eleven years, and it wasn’t until he was teaching at Columbia and N.Y.U. when he got the chance to meet director Lee Daniels. He showed Daniels his work and upon learning about the directors’ interest in adapting the novel Push by Sapphire, got so excited that he wrote 15 pages for free and sent it to Daniels, where they began their work together.

Fletcher spoke with Vanity Fair about those years of trying to break in:

“…looking at those years now, to call it an abyss would be a disservice. All the years of struggling and knocking on doors, I wouldn’t trade it; it enabled me to be a better writer, and to identify with different characters more. And I never stopped writing. It provided a sense of hope, warded off the despair. I was doing all of the kinds of mental acrobatics you do to get through. But looking back, I do see more clearly that it was invaluable.”

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The Departed

The Departed is a crime thriller written by William Monahan and is based on the Hong Kong action thriller Internal Affairs, written by co-director Alan Mak and Felix Chong. Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B bought the rights for a Hollywood remake. 

To adapt the story for American audiences, Monahan based the antagonist on real-life gangster Whitey Bulger and set the location of the script in Boston, adding a sense of realism to the thin line between criminality and law enforcement considering Bulger’s ability to use his connections to the FBI to his advantage. 

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Epic fantasies aren’t often considered for Oscars, let alone win them — but the screenplay for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King written by longtime collaborators Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson is undeniably worthy as the final installment of the trilogy, and the gold statue.

This script is a must-read for anyone writing epic fantasy, and it includes one of the best battle scenes ever written. The war is split between two locations, Gondor and Mordor. The sacrifices made by characters that audiences had grown to love over the course of the first two films pack a strong emotional punch. The writers build up the suspense, ramp up the stakes, and fulfill the destiny of this trilogy. 

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The Silence of the Lambs

Along with epic fantasies, horror films are often underrepresented at the Oscars. Get Out was the first horror screenplay to win an Oscar in 27 years since Ted Tally’s Silence of the Lambs, which came 18 years after The Exorcist. Winning an Oscar for a horror screenplay is no small feat. Silence of the Lambs is a psychological horror based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris. It’s the second film featuring the character of Hannibal Lecter, following Manhunter.

The story is centered on a young FBI agent-in-training. She’s assigned to interview a serial killer for the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in hopes of solving cold cases, but he ends up aiding in her search for a demented active killer. 

The horror lies in the psychological mind games of Hannibal Lecter (partially due to Anthony Hopkin’s performance), and the grounded and terrifying reality of the subject matter. 

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Amadeus

The logline for Amadeus alone shows the power of a great concept:

The life, success, and troubles of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, the contemporaneous composer who was insanely jealous of Mozart’s talent and claimed to have murdered him.

Written by Peter Shaffer, Amadeus is a biographical drama told from the point of view of the subject’s greatest rival and antagonist. This perspective allows Shaffer to really approach Mozart’s life with charming humor with a lot of heart. At the center of one’s jealousy often lies admiration. The magnificent writing does justice to one of the greatest composers to ever live. 

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Every year, Academy members take a vote to decide on the winner for each category, and membership has expanded to include more diverse voters.

No matter who the award goes to, every single nominee is worthy.

Scripts from this Article