Oscars 2014: Why 12 Years a Slave Will Win Best Adapted Screenplay

Expect John Ridley's brutal script to win over voters

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Jaap Buitendijk / Fox Searchlight

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

There are no previous Oscar winners in this group, though Winter won three Emmys as part of the team that wrote and produced The Sopranos, plus another two nominations for Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series that he created and whose pilot Martin Scorsese directed. Winter may thank, or perhaps curse, Scorsese for letting The Wolf of Wall Street run to nearly three hours; the tale of coke-crazed broker Jordan Belfort would have been less repetitious at two hours — or grander as, say, a six-hour miniseries.

(READ: Lily Rothman on greed in The Wolf of Wall Street)

Wolf is one of four nominees based on memoirs of the true-story participants. (The fifth, Before Midnight, is a collaboration of its two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and their director, Richard Linklater; it’s in the Adapted category because the characters played by Hawke and Delpy appeared in two earlier Before movies.) Ray, synthesizing two books about the seizure of Capt. Richard Phillips’ vessel by Somali pirates, won the Writers Guild award over Before Midnight and The Wolf of Wall Street; Philomena and 12 Years a Slave were not eligible because they were made outside the Guild’s jurisdiction. Captain Phillips, which received six Oscar nominations, is unlikely to win any category, including this one.

(READ: Joel Stein profiles the Before Midnight team)

If the Brit-made Philomena wins, it will be thanks to Coogan’s assiduous campaigning. In the past month or so he’s done CBS This Morning, CBS News Sunday Morning, Good Morning America, The View, The Daily Show and Tavis Smiley; he also maneuvered his way onto the Grammys. Famous on British TV for his Alan Partridge character and other comic affronts, Coogan gets points as a writer for balancing Philomena Lee’s sad story — of losing her son when the Irish nuns caring for her sold the child to an American couple — with the odd-couple humor of her edgy friendship with Brit journalist Martin Sixsmith. (Pope, Coogan’s cowriter, has vanished into the woodwork.)

(READ: Our review of Philomena)

Winner of Best Screenplay in its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the Philomena script also copped a BAFTA prize on its home turf. The movie’s four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and, for Best Actress, Judi Dench, indicates a lot of Academy love. It doesn’t hurt that Oscar wonder-worker Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company is supervising the campaign; he also has the real-life Lee working the media. (Her great “get”: an audience with Pope Francis.) Philomena could pull an upset over the presumed favorite, 12 Years a Slave.

(READ: The real-life Philomena on her adoption-rights mission)

As In Contention’s Kris Tapley notes, 12 Years a Slave was ineligible for the Writers Guild award because screenwriter Ridley crossed picket lines during the 2007-08 WGA strike — “an issue that, if widely known enough,” Tapley added, “could be problematic.” (Of all the Hollywood guilds, the WGA is the one that acts most like an old-fashioned trade union, protective and punitive.) Ridley’s scabbing — to use an ancient, incendiary phrase — either is not widely known or doesn’t matter to Oscar voters. His script did, after all, get nominated by the screenwriters branch of Academy.

(READ: Our review of 12 Years a Slave)

The author of seven novels and three graphic novels, as well as a playwright, TV writer-producer and movie scripter (Oliver Stone‘s U-Turn, David O. Russell’s Three Kings and the George Lucas-produced Red Tails), Ridley is a powerful presence and one of Hollywood’s (few) prominent black screenwriters. As the writer of a brutal, esteemed film that remains the slight favorite for the Best Picture prize, he has the most plausible shot at winning the Adapted Screenplay award. Of the 30 progn-Osacr-cators on the Gold Derby website, 29 are guessing Ridley. Despite a slight bet-hedging to allow room for Philomena, we guess they’re right.