Weighty Subjects Dominate Oscar Contenders Like ‘Fences,’ ‘Arrival’ and ‘Lion’

Malina Saval
Variety

From aliens threatening the future of planet Earth in Denis Villeneuve’s ethereal sci-fi drama “Arrival,” to the emotional and physical aftermath of a woman’s brutal rape in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” heady subjects abound in this season’s field of adapted screenplays.

Arrival
Paramount
Written by: Eric Heisserer (screenplay) based on the short story: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
A story about motherhood and loss in the guise of a suspenseful, sci-fi thriller is moody and lugubrious and wistful in all the right ways. While the film’s central character is a linguist, its most powerful moments lay in the silence between the words.

Denial
Bleecker Street
Written by David Hare (screenplay) based on the book: “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” by Deborah Lipstadt
This riveting courtroom drama recounts the legal battle between by acclaimed Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt and infamous Holocaust denier David Irving, who sued Lipstadt for libel in his native England.

Elle
Sony Pictures Classics
Written by: David Birke (screenplay) based on the book: “Oh…” by Philippe Djian
Complex emotions and conflicting desires bubble to the surface in Paul Verhoeven’s slow-burning thriller about a woman (Isabelle Huppert) dealing with the repercussions of rape. Outrageous and unpredictable in equal measure, Birke’s screenplay never plays it safe and voters could respond to the French-language film’s audacious narrative choices and bold characterizations.

Fences
Paramount
Written by: August Wilson (screenplay) based on his play
The mark of a great script is one whose words and dialogue stick with you long after the movie ends, developing a life outside of the confines of the big screen. The screenplay should also provide material rich enough for its actors to turn in their best possible performances. “Fences,” about a black working-class family in 1950s Pittsburgh, is that script. Wilson’s language is rhythmic, and it enables stars Viola Davis and
Denzel Washington to turn in what are arguably the most dynamic performances of their careers.

Hacksaw Ridge
Lionsgate
Written by: Andrew Knight and Robert Shenkkan (screenplay), inspired by the documentary: “The Conscientious Objector”
The trick here is to get voters to see the film as an achievement of writing as much as directing. The brutal battlefield sequences may be viewed as the main event, but the movie’s power truly derives from the carefully constructed build-up exploring Desmond Doss’ commitment to never wielding a weapon.

Hidden Figures
Fox
Written by: Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi (screenplay), based on the book: by Margot Lee Shetterly
A snappy script brings out the heart and the humanity of this true story about three African-American women who each played pivotal roles in the early days of NASA’s triumphant efforts to send men into outer space. Crowd-pleasing dialogue exchanges and heart-tugging moments could land it a spot in the writing race.

The Jungle Book
Disney
Written by: Justin Marks (screenplay) based on the books: “The Jungle Book” and “The Second Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling
The classic story about a young boy named Mowgli raised by a family of wolves gets a modern facelift. The screenplay is signature Disney, punctuated with valuable life lessons as Mowgli embarks on a wild and fun adventure.

Lion
The Weinstein Co.
Written by: Luke Davies (screenplay) based on the book: “A Long Way Home: A Memoir” by Saroo Brierley.
A young Indian boy gets separated from his birth mother and family and finds himself halfway around the world in Australia in this heartbreaking tearjerker about adoption, ethnic identity, and discovering your true self.

Nocturnal Animals
Focus Features
Written by: Tom Ford (screenplay), based on the book: “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright
A structural triumph, Ford’s stylish thriller unfolds in three overlapping storylines — present, past, and a fictional meta-narrative — and speaks directly to the deeply personal experience of reading (or watching) a story unfold. The film’s trippiest diversions may turn off conservative voters, but a nomination would be guaranteed to keep the race lively.

Sully
Warner Bros.
Written by: Todd Komarnicki (screenplay) based on the book: “Highest Duty” by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow
Komarnicki’s scripted re-creation of the day Capt. Chesley Sullenberger landed a damaged plane in the Hudson and saved everyone on board is at its best a sobering, nuanced character study about what it’s like to become an overnight international hero.

ALSO: Two films that have not yet screened but could shake up the race: “Live by Night,” adapted by Ben Affleck from the Dennis Lehane novel, and Jay Cocks’ script for Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited “Silence.”

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