The written foundations of the films of 2003 are intriguingly
diverse, ranging from the monumentally epic to the subtle and
deeply personal. The righteous king’s return to power is
magnificent and glorious to be sure, but so are the floundering
careers of a pitifully mundane comic writer and an equally
pathetic, aging actor.

This year’s Oscar screenplay showdown is between writing
that is monolithic, either historically or in scope and sheer
force, and that which is contrastingly more subdued and
nuanced.

The jointly written adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of
the Rings” finale, “The Return of the King” is
surely the colossus of the bunch. Director and co-screenwriter
Peter Jackson and his writing corps managed to fairly faithfully
translate the final chapter of the greatest fantasy ever told.
Although the film, like its predecessors, sometimes relishes action
sequences more than the book did, it nonetheless transports
viewers, through well-crafted dialogue and characterizations, to
Middle Earth and captures the sheer majesty of the trilogy’s
splendid conclusion. Look for Jackson and his cadre to bring home
yet another trophy here.

Also in the category of adapted screenplay,
“Seabiscuit” transports triumph to the American
landscape. The story has been criticized by some for its
overwhelming patriotic undertones and sometimes excessive underdog
spirit, but it has also been lauded by many as a powerful sports
epic, on a similar plane with “Rudy.” Chris
Cooper’s supporting role has been nominated, and the script
utilizes secondary characters, like William H. Macy’s
announcer figure, very well to craft a fitting mood.

“Mystic River” and “City of God” are
both forcefully emotional stories that thrive because of their
utterly brutal frankness. “River” has a masterfully
crafted script that employs the skills of its ensemble cast under
the careful directorial hand of Clint Eastwood. The
characters’ pain from the betrayals and deceit is nothing shy
of excruciating.

“City” tells its story of gang-affiliated youth in
the ruthless ghettos of Rio de Janeiro with a similarly painful
candor. Dialogue is relegated on the agenda for the sake of raucous
camerawork and scene choreography, and the frenetic pace of many
scenes is immeasurably more valuable than words could be.

“American Splendor” gravitates decidedly away from
any sort of grandiose spirit and focuses instead on the fascinating
life of a hapless file clerk and comic book writer. It conveys the
quirkiness of writer Harvey Pekar with sharp humor and fresh style
and, if nothing else, ought to be praised for transforming an
autobiographical comic book into one of the year’s finest
works.

The Best Original Screenplay showcases more of the year’s
subtle scripts; it could be said of the category that mood and
atmosphere reign supreme. “Lost in Translation” is
perhaps the epitome of mood-oriented filmmaking, and the
semi-autobiographical script by director and writer Sofia Coppola
has been lauded endlessly. It showcases brilliantly the intriguing
interplay between an aging and more subdued Bill Murray and the
young and attractively mysterious Scarlett Johansson. It’s
also the most likely to win this year.

“In America” takes a poignant look into immigrant
life in the United States and also relies heavily on director Jim
Sheridan’s autobiography for source material. The finely
orchestrated scenes and awesomely believable characters make for an
often gut-wrenching story that ultimately concludes with satisfying
warmth.

“The Barbarian Invasions” looks at the deeply rooted
family conflict between a dying, socialist professor and his young,
financially successful son, an investment banker by trade.
“Invasions” has received critical acclaim for its
remarkably touching storytelling, blended effortlessly with
well-placed moments of humor.

“Dirty Pretty Things” and “Finding Nemo”
round out the category of Best Original screenplay. It would be a
challenge indeed to find two more starkly contrasting films:
“Dirty” is a somber tale of murder and intrigue with a
look into the life of illegal immigrants in the United States;
“Nemo” is Disney and Pixar’s animated goliath
that absolutely took the summer months of cinema by storm. The
former is an atmospheric, mood-driven tale of murder with salient
undertones; the latter is a hilarious, pleasant, but often perilous
underwater journey home for a young fish. Both “Nemo”
and “Dirty” are vying for the same award, and their
many noticeable differences are representative of those present in
the screenplay category at large.

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