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‘Glass Onion’ Brought ‘Knives Out’ to the Next Level. Give It the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Rian Johnson faced the biggest writing challenges of any of the five nominees, but the director managed to perfectly thread the needle, ensuring that ‘Glass Onion’ felt unique but still delighted the fans of its predecessor

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In arguing for why Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery should win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, there’s an immediate temptation to say, “Because it might provoke Ben Shapiro to self-immolate” and just leave it at that. But this is a stacked category filled with strong contenders, so let’s give it a real breakdown.

In addition to Glass Onion, this year’s Adapted Screenplay nominees are: All Quiet on the Western Front, Living, Top Gun: Maverick, and Women Talking. All five would be fine winners, and all five are in my personal top 25 movies of 2022. Unlike some other Oscar races, this one has no wrong answers. But it does have a best answer.

It’s also a race that asks us to think about some very different types of adaptations. Women Talking was adapted from a recent novel that isn’t widely known, while All Quiet on the Western Front was adapted from a classic novel that’s one of the most famous of the 20th century. Living was adapted from another movie—Akira Kurosawa’s beloved 1952 film Ikiru—but the setting was shifted from postwar Tokyo to postwar London. And then there are Top Gun: Maverick and Glass Onion, which have no source materials for their stories but are considered adapted screenplays because they use already-existing characters.

How Oscar voters choose between these contenders will likely boil down to four key questions:

  1. Which adaptation had the highest degree of difficulty?
  2. Which adaptation best retained the spirit of the original (while also kinda sorta doing its own thing)?
  3. Which screenplay was the biggest reason the movie was good?
  4. Which writer(s) do I most want to see possess an Oscar?

While the opinions of Oscar voters may vary, the movie that best answers these four questions is Glass Onion. But let’s reverse engineer that choice by picking the nittiest of nits with the four other very good screenplays.

Living is probably the easiest nominee to eliminate from contention. Famed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro crafted an incredibly faithful adaptation of the original Kurosawa film: so faithful, in fact, that Living is almost a perfect scene-for-scene remake. That makes the screenplay tough to argue for here. As beautiful as Ishiguro’s dialogue is, the heavy lifting on this script was already done by Kurosawa and his cowriters in the 1950s. The biggest reason Living is a good movie (besides Bill Nighy’s wonderful lead performance) is that Ikiru remains one of the greatest films ever made, and the original story is still deeply resonant.

All Quiet on the Western Front faces similar hurdles. Director Edward Berger’s adaptation of maybe the defining anti-war novel received nine Oscar nominations, and it’s regarded as one of the true technical marvels of the year. But great set design and visual effects don’t help anyone win screenplay Oscars, and the fact that Erich Maria Remarque’s novel had already been adapted into a previous Best Picture winner calls into question how difficult of an adaptation it really was. (Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film won top honors way back at the third Academy Awards.) Yes, Berger’s new version does forge its own identity, and it adds impactful scenes of the armistice negotiation, which weren’t present in the novel or the previous film. But the uniqueness of Berger’s version has as much to do with the ominous, violent drone of Volker Bertelmann’s incredible three-note score as it does with any notable choices in the writing.

And now it gets hard. Top Gun: Maverick was the biggest surprise of the category (most predictors thought She Said or The Whale were safer bets), but in terms of story construction, its script is really quite an achievement. Maverick is mostly nostalgia porn, but it’s perfectly executed nostalgia porn. And that’s not a backhanded compliment; if you need a quick reminder of how hard it is to pull that off, just try sitting through Ghostbusters: Afterlife again.

But while Maverick had a high degree of difficulty—burdened by 36 years of expectations and arguably the fate of the entire theatrical business model—the onus fell more on the shoulders of producer and star Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski than the movie’s five credited screenwriters. How many of us would list the script as a top-three reason that Top Gun: Maverick worked? It’s certainly behind Cruise and Kosinski, and arguably behind the cinematography, visual effects, Jennifer Connelly’s hairstylist, Jon Hamm’s sneer, and Miles Teller’s wiggle. And some Oscar categories, like sound or visual effects, depend on success by committee, but screenwriting isn’t one of them; when a movie has five writers, it almost certainly means they were rewriting each other rather than working as a team. A movie with five or more credited screenwriters has never won either screenplay category at the Oscars, and movies with four credited writers have won only five times (most recently for 2018’s BlacKkKlansman). In terms of awarding an inventive storyteller who brought a clear vision to the page, Maverick easily finishes last in the “Which writer(s) do I most want to see possess an Oscar?” rankings.

That brings us to Sarah Polley and Women Talking, the betting front-runner to win the category. Those who love the film (and I’m one of them) primarily cite two things: the ensemble cast and Polley’s pointed script. The film is adapted from Miriam Toews’s novel about a group of Mennonite women debating whether to leave their colony after they find out that the men have been regularly drugging and raping them in their sleep, and although Polley mostly stayed close to the novel, she did make some interesting changes. Foremost among them is that the novel is narrated by a male character, while Polley’s script shifted the narration to a teenage girl.

Polley also had a reasonably high degree of difficulty in her adaptation. The novel is essentially composed of just two scenes—the two consecutive evenings the women of the colony gather in the hayloft to debate their options. But despite the title, Polley knew that Women Talking had to consist of more than just two straight hours of women talking, and she found creative ways to break the film into more finite scenes without significantly altering the story. And then there’s Polley herself, the writer and director of Take This Waltz, one of the most criminally under-seen masterpieces of the 2010s. She’s a great filmmaker and a fantastic answer to the question of who I want to see on the Dolby Theatre stage clutching an Oscar.

So there you have it: Women Talking aces all four key questions looming over the Best Adapted Screenplay race. It’s just that … Glass Onion aces all four questions even more.

Writer-director Rian Johnson had a significant set of challenges on his hands after his first Knives Out mystery, released in 2019, became such a critical and commercial success that it prompted an intense bidding war for the sequels (ultimately won by Netflix). First, Johnson had to concoct a story that felt spiritually akin to the original but with a plot that was as dissimilar as possible; it needed twists and turns just as windy as the first film’s but with no recognizable precedents. It also needed characters and a setting just as indelible as the Thrombeys and their ancestral Massachusetts home but without resorting to stock archetypes. Those were by far the biggest writing challenges faced by any of the five nominees, but Johnson managed to perfectly thread the needle, ensuring Glass Onion felt unique but still delighted the fans of its predecessor.

None of the five nominees depended more heavily on their screenplays for their films to work. No matter how much benefit it gets from its star-studded ensemble or its appropriately gaudy set design or even Kate Hudson’s opulent wardrobe, the ultimate factor in whether or not people liked Glass Onion was always going to be how well the central mystery came together, and that’s where Johnson’s script shone brightest. In some ways, it’s an unfair playing field; while Polley was faithfully adapting a novel, Johnson was able to fully do his own thing. But Academy rules are what they are, and Glass Onion’s placement here isn’t category fraud. Regardless of its advantages in being able to craft an original story, it’s still the best script in the race.

Lastly, there’s Johnson himself, one of our great contemporary filmmakers. Johnson has written and directed six movies (dating back to Brick, his high school meets Raymond Chandler neo-noir from 2005), and all six of them are, at worst, very good. Pitting Johnson’s filmography against Polley’s is tough, and Polley’s aforementioned Take This Waltz is probably the best individual film either of them has written. But Johnson has had the more impressive career overall, and that means Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery goes 4-for-4 on our questionnaire of who should win this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Against great competition, he’s the writer most deserving of winning his first Academy Award.

Plus, you know, it might provoke Ben Shapiro to self-immolate. And everyone loves a win-win.

Daniel Joyaux is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, The Verge, and Cosmopolitan, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @Thirdmanmovies and on Letterboxd at Djoyaux.