On the 'Barbie' Screenplay Controversy
Should 2023’s biggest hit be eligible for Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards?
Should 2023’s biggest hit, Barbie, be eligible for Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards?
A few days ago, I would not have thought this a divisive question. Because. Well. Eight minutes into the movie, this credit appears onscreen:
So that seems pretty cut and dry.
But even if that credit didn’t appear onscreen as part of the opening credits, Barbie’s status as an adapted screenplay would still be inarguable. Directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she wrote with Noah Baumbach, Barbie may be telling an original story - but it wouldn’t exist if not for a line of dolls manufactured by Mattel.
Even if, in some alternate reality, Barbie dolls didn’t exist and Gerwig still somehow came up with a similar movie about a fictional doll, Barbie simply would not be the same movie we’ve all seen and loved. As film critic and screenwriter Drew McWeeny put it on social media, the movie’s narrative hinges entirely on that fact that Barbie is an iconic household name:
And yet, this has become a divisive issue.
Last week, Variety reported that the film “has been deemed an adapted screenplay by the Writers Branch executive committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, despite campaigning for original screenplay.”
Then, over the weekend, director/writer/producer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, This is 40, other movies that don’t have the number 40 in the title), who has no association with Barbie, fired off this declaration:
Further muddying the waters: the Writers Guild of America has deemed Barbie an original screenplay for the purposes of its OWN award nominations. (The Academy and the WGA have disagreed on a screenplay’s status in the past, with films such as Moonlight, Syriana, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.)
The argument that Barbie is an original screenplay, though not completely illogical, mostly evinces an issue with the name of the Academy’s award, not the Academy’s classification of Barbie as being ineligible for Best Original Screenplay.
Because in the most literal-minded, superficial terms, Apatow and the WGA are correct. Barbie was not “adapted” from any pre-existing narrative.
Thing is, Best Adapted Screenplay is not a literal-minded designation.
In fact, Best Adapted Screenplay was not originally called Best Adapted Screenplay.
Best Adapted Screenplay was originally called Best Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. It was rechristened in 2002.
And unless you wanna get into the semantics of what the word “material” means and whether or not toys are “another medium” separate from cinema, Barbie is patently based on material from another medium.
If the Academy REALLY wanted to make things crystal-clear for the people sitting in the cheap seats, they would call the award Best Screenplay Based on Pre-Existing Material and/or Intellectual Property.
But they don’t called it Best Screenplay Based on Pre-Existing Material and/or Intellectual Property. They call it Best Adapted Screenplay.
Why do they call it Best Adapted Screenplay and not Best Screenplay Based on Pre-Existing Material and/or Intellectual Property?
Well, I’m not consulted on these decisions, so I can only speculate, but my guess would be that it’s because Best Screenplay Based on Pre-Existing Material and/or Intellectual Property doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way.
Which, notably, is believed to be the reason they stopped calling it Best Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium in the first place.
The thing about the Academy Awards is, yes, it’s partially about honoring good work, and yes, it’s largely about stroking egos, but ultimately, it’s #1 purpose is - SHOCKER! - to make money for the movie industry.
The hope is that the nominated and winning movies will attract new business based on their prestige: maybe you had no intention of seeing Parasite or Moonlight or Nomadland before they became part of the awards conversation. Getting a nomination, or even a win, isn’t a guarantee that the box office will go up, but it certainly doesn’t hurt… and besides, even if people don’t go see these specific movies, the Oscars are one long ad for the entire business, an endless parade of beautiful, charismatic people and expertly-edited montages that make every movie seem like the single most important work of art ever produced. Okay, so maybe you don’t give a hoot about CODA even after it wins a bunch of shiny gold statues, but you see one of the Chrises presenting and learn they have a new movie coming out in a few weeks and you go see that film. It’s all a soap opera, an ultra-competitive prom dance aired live for our amusement, meant to make us feel that much more involved with these people we believe we know even though we don’t.
Which is a long way of saying, good luck fitting NOMINATED FOR BEST SCREENPLAY BASED ON PRE-EXISTING MATERIAL AND/OR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY in an ad.
The Academy’s other option would be to do what the Golden Globes do, which is to simply put ALL screenplays under the heading Best Screenplay - Motion Picture (of the six scripts nominated in that category this year - Anatomy of a Fall, Barbie, Oppenheimer, Poor Things, Past Lives, and Killers of the Flower Moon - only Anatomy of a Fall and Past Lives were “original”).
But the Academy probably doesn’t wanna do that, because a) adaptation really is its own type of skill, and/or b) having multiple categories puts the spotlight on more films.
So the Academy has decided that we’re all big kids and they can call it Best Adapted Screenplay and we’ll all understand what they mean.
Which it seems as though we did up until now: no one batted an eye when sequels like Before Sunset (2004), Toy Story 3 (2010), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022) nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay even though, like Barbie, none of them were technically “adaptations” of another story.
And then along came Judd Apatow and the social media peanut gallery.
The craziest part about this is, Best Adapted Screenplay isn’t any less prestigious than Best Original Screenplay. Nobody looks down on the skill it takes to adapt something. Does anyone believe that Crash1 is a better movie than The Godfather because The Godfather is based on a novel? Is Melvin and Howard inherently more meritorious than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Which film is better remembered today: Miracle on 34th Street, which won Best Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium in 1947, or The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, which won Best Original Screenplay that same year?
So I ask again: why is this a divisive issue?
The Paul Haggis one, not the David Cronenberg one.