Authors, screenwriters honored at Scripter Awards

USC Libraries celebrated “American Fiction” and “Slow Horses” Saturday.

Doheny Memorial Library hosted the 36th-Annual USC Libraries Scripter Awards, turning the iconic Los Angeles Times Reference Room into an upscale awards venue Saturday night for guests. (Tina Ter-Akopyan / Daily Trojan)

Is the book better than the movie? This past Saturday, the 36th-Annual USC Libraries Scripter Awards settled the age-old argument. The award goes to … both! The one-of-kind honor celebrates screenwriters of adapted works and authors of the original source material, acknowledging both the individuality and collaboration between the two mediums.

“Within the entertainment industry, the thing that you’re adapting gets immediately forgotten the moment there’s a movie,” said Howard Rodman, chair of the Scripter Awards selection committee and professor of cinematic writing for screen and television. “We’re trying to say, ‘Wait a minute, it began somewhere, somebody … did something from nothing.’”

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USC Libraries transformed the Los Angeles Times Reference Room at Doheny Memorial Library into a regal awards dining hall, seating writers and directors from Ava DuVernay to Cord Jefferson, for the 36th-Annual Scripter Awards.

Founded in 1988, the Scripter Awards have honored groundbreaking screenwriters, such as Greta Gerwig and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and renowned authors, such as Stephen King and even Jane Austen.

This year in the film category, the Scripter went to “American Fiction” (2023), accepted by director and screenwriter Cord Jefferson, alongside Percival Everett, distinguished professor of English and author of the original source material, “Erasure.” The episodic series award went to the “Slow Horses” episode “Negotiating with Tigers,” with screenwriter Will Smith and Mick Herron, author of the adapted novel “Real Tigers,” accepting.

Noteworthy nominees included monumental filmmakers ranging from Christopher Nolan for “Oppenheimer” (2023), based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, to Peter Morgan for “The Crown,” based on his stage play “The Audience.”

“Honestly, it’s a really strong year. I think all of [the nominated works] were very well-made,” said Benkei Golden, a senior majoring in cinema and media studies. “What makes a good adaptation is to make a good case for why it was adopted into the film … and seeing what parts benefit the story.”

The 40 voting members, who are veteran screenwriters and authors, unpacked the complicated question of “what makes a good adaptation.”

“It’s very hard to translate something without in some way betraying it,” Rodman said. “But it also helps that the betrayal is true to a larger truth about the original work and expands upon it to include the voice of the original author and the new author.”

With the advancement of storytelling in other mediums, such as video games and graphic novels, the Scripter Awards have expanded their scope for adapted works, as exemplified by this year’s nomination of HBO series “The Last of Us.”

“‘The Last of Us’ is based on the video game. There’s a really great compelling narrative thread that the series did a really nice job of adapting this year,” said Tyson Gaskill, USC Libraries’ executive director of planning and communications in charge of the Scripter Awards.

The underlying dilemma within adaptation for screenwriters is the tension of being loyal to the original work while also redefining it. 

“There are always the questions: ‘What responsibility do I owe backwards to the thing I’m adapting? What responsibility do I owe forward to my audience? And what in the world do I do when those things seem to be in such tension?’” Rodman said.

In their acceptance speeches, awardees highlighted the beauty and anxiety that emerges between a screenwriter and an author. Herron reflected on his special relationship with Smith, who adapted his crime thriller series into a critically acclaimed show on Apple TV+, starring Gary Oldman.

“This award is very important to me because it also celebrates the author, without whom the show would not exist,” Herron said on behalf of Smith, who was unable to attend.  “I see my role on the show as a conduit between Mick and the actors.”

Jefferson and Everett also highlighted the mentorship and friendship that emerged through adapting “Erasure” into “American Fiction.” The film stars Jeffrey Wright as the novel’s protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an unsuccessful Black novelist who writes a parody playing on Black stereotypes, leading, ironically, to his success.

“When [Jefferson] came to me and asked for this book, I liked him so much I said ‘yes,’” Everett said. “He has managed to mine my novel for the material he needed to make his film, and then I sat back and did nothing.”

Calling out Everett for his humility, as he became the first USC professor to win the award, Jefferson spoke about how Everett has left an indelible impact on his life.

“[Everett] has been a huge supporter since day one of this project,” Jefferson said. “It felt like I was reading a book written specifically for me … It felt like somebody crawled into my brain and put it into words on a page.”

With the evening serving also as a fundraiser for USC Libraries, the Scripter Awards emphasized the importance of preserving books and adding new perspectives to stories through adaptations.

“If you look at any of the films or television episodes that were nominated and you look at what they were adapted from, you will learn a lot about writing, translation, imagination,” Rodman said. “And you will learn a lot about yourself.”

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