February 16, 2002 

The Memento Screenplay Category Controversy: 
Memento is an Adapted Screenplay
By Judd Taylor

         Christopher Nolan adapted the screenplay for his film Memento from his brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori.”  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, i.e. the Oscars, doesn’t see it that way.  They nominated Memento for Best Original Screenplay.
        Their official listing for the category of Adapted Screenplay reads, “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published,” while the category of Original Screenplay reads, “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.”  So why is Memento in the Original Screenplay category if it is adapted from Jonathan Nolan’s short story “Memento Mori” and not written directly for the screen? 
         I wrote the Academy at ampas@oscars.org and asked if they could explain this discrepancy.  Fred Henderson, an Academy Committee member, wrote back:

The Memento script was based on the J. Nolan short story, but that story wasn't published until after the film was released.  Our Writers Branch Executive Committee was fully informed of the circumstances and ruled that this was more a collaborative story/screenplay situation than a work "based on material previously produced or published.
         According to the Writers Branch Executive Committee, there seems to be no discrepancy according to the rules they have.  So my next question is, are these rules valid?
         Henderson made a point to underline material previously produced or published.  So does this mean if a screenplay is adapted from an unpublished source where the author has a copyright, that it is not still adapted? 
         Adapting a screenplay is a different medium than writing one from scratch.  I’m not saying that adaptation is any lesser an art form.  Some of the best directors, like Stanley Kubrick, adapt their films from other mediums.  It can be advantageous to get a different perspective on a piece from the original author when adapting to film. 
        Look at Dr. Strangelove: the original novel Red Alert was a serious piece about the Cold War.  Kubrick began writing it with a serious tone, but found certain scenes very funny.  So he brought it to Terry Southern and together they turned it into the classic Cold War satire that it is today.
         I still contend that Memento is an adapted Screenplay, whether it meets the Academy’s erroneous standards or not.  The Online Film Critics Society, which is composed of the world's 96 premier Internet film critics, agrees. Memento won the O.F.C.S. award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
        It shouldn’t matter whether the material was previously published or even copyrighted.  These are just legalities to protect artists from people stealing their work.  If a work is translated from another medium, then it is adapted, not original.

Read Jonathan Nolan's short story and see the similarities for yourself.  “Memento Mori”: http://www.esquire.com/features/articles/2001/001323_mfr_memento_1.html

O.F.C.S. 2001 Awards: http://ofcs.rottentomatoes.com/pages/awards/2001awards

Nominated for
8 Fidelio Film Awards
Winner of 
2 Fidelio Film Awards
Best Dramatic Feature Best Director
Christopher Nolan 
Best Adapted Screenplay
Christopher Nolan 
Best Cinematography
Wally Pfister
Best Editing
Dody Dorn
Best Actor
Guy Pierce
Best Supporting Actor
Joe Pantlioni
Best Supporting Actress
Carrie-Anne Moss