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Heroes make their own rules

Adapted screenplays feature no justice, just us

And it’s one, two, three/What are we fighting for?” Vietnam-era youth’s answer was immediate: peace and social justice. Those who grew up to become screenwriters still pose the question, though the answers aren’t as clear.

1960s and ’70s passion can be felt in the stories to which this season’s nominees for adapted screenplay were drawn: high-stakes sagas in which young people, finding establishment forces and a hostile environment against them, make their own rules to achieve their purpose.

In Aaron Sorkin’s take on setting up “The Social Network” in the face of the old boy network, children of privilege smugly rely on parliamentary procedure to protect their way of doing things. But Robert’s Rules of Order prove no match for Mark’s rules of chaos.

Taciturn genius Mark Zuckerberg turns his laptop into the foundation of a billion-dollar empire, dedicated to the proposition that no one needs frat mixers or formal teas to locate a friend. Yet at quest’s end, no one could be more alone, the lad endlessly clicking a key in search of an ex’s response: the “refresh” that gives pause.

People and place conspire to impede Ree Dolly as she struggles to save her family home from a bail bondsman in “Winter’s Bone.” “Putting a character under duress means everything is sharpened; the stakes are higher,” says Debra Granik, co-adapter with Anne Rosellini.

“When (Ree’s) foundation is put in jeopardy, it changes her perception of what a lifeline means. ‘How do I secure for my siblings so they’re not put out in the larger world?’ ”

Neither backwoods meth makers’ suspicion nor hardscrabble terrain deters the indomitable youngster: “You have to put on your boots and really march towards survival. There’s no little, soft pasture to rest.”

Some elemental battles are practically existential. In the Coen brothers’ screenplay, Mattie Ross already amply possesses the “True Grit” she seeks in her champion. Like an avenging force she swoops down on allies and enemies alike, retribution for her pa’s murder seeking no end but itself. Having risked life and limb, she ends up with an empty life and one missing limb. What is the price of justice if no grace is invested in its pursuit?

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” profiles a real-life survivor of existential struggle who also ends up limbless, but transfigured. Aron Ralston, says Beaufoy, “had an almost pathological belief that he could solve any problem. By his own admission, he turned his back on pretty much everyone really.” Isolation begot strength. “You can see it in the real video messages. The will to live is amazing. He never gave up figuring out ways to get free.”

Yet Ralston also recognized the possibility of amendment. “By his own admission, by cutting his arm off he gave himself a second chance to behave differently. It’s not too late. … We all have to seize the moment and treat other people with the respect they deserve.” That hopeful message animates what the writer calls an “oddly personal” film.

“It’s funny, isn’t it,” muses Beaufoy. “All of us are working in entirely different worlds making films, on different continents, yet there are these strange unifying things. … A lot of the filmmakers are of a similar age and have reached a place where neither Republican nor Democrat, atheist nor religious, nor establishment is going to get them out of trouble.

“So we’re a generation who increasingly admire individuals who are creating their own code of ethics, and trying to muddle through the world on their own terms. … It’s just very interesting to see who the next hero is going to be.”

Granik is less sanguine about the status quo. “I’m seeing a fantasy in film where it’s exciting to think about breaking rules, but I’m not seeing stands that actually ramify in the larger world.”

At the same time, “Young people haven’t been worn down by life’s cruel realities. …They understand that you don’t take a house from a poor person, when they’re already poor. Ree doesn’t ask all the complicated questions about what happened on Wall Street, and who speculated and who made bad loans. Call it a primal sense of justice, where it comes from your gut.”

From that perspective, film can spot the heroes of tomorrow. “What do they look like?,” asks Granik. “Can they include females, tomgirls, people who have taken certain kinds of risks?. … Those kinds of questions are coming up all over the place.”

More on Eye on the Oscars: The Writer:
Heroes make their own rules | Family ties bind originals | Tough climb for family scripts | Arndt brought ‘Story’ home

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