Question: I'm really confused by the fact that Syriana was nominated in the Original Screenplay category — am I crazy, or wasn't it based on a book by someone who used to be in the CIA?

I recently noticed that Gladiator was nominated for best original screenplay, when in fact it was virtually a scene-by-scene remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire, starring Stephen Boyd and Christopher Plummer. Why did it qualify as an original script? — Sami

Answer: The on-screen credit for writer-director Stephen Gaghan's Syriana screenplay says that it was "suggested by the book See No Evil by Robert Baer." Baer was a high-level, Middle East-based CIA officer, and his 2002 nonfiction book generated a lot of controversy by taking the U.S. government to task for undermining the agency's efforts to root out international terrorists, thereby paving the way for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon. But Syriana isn't so much an adaptation of See No Evil as it is a wholly fictitious story strongly informed by Baer's insights into global politics and the mechanics of terrorism, which I gather was the Academy's call. 

The Gladiator (2000)/Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) situation is another matter, and you’re not the only person to have noticed and remarked on the similarity between the two films. “Original” in this case doesn’t actually mean that Gladiator's script is original in the sense of being fresh or not derivative or not something people who’ve been watching movies for a while and don’t have brains like sieves have seen before. It just means it wasn’t based directly on existing material — a book, an article or another screenplay. Further, since the bare bones of both Gladiator's and The Fall of the Roman Empire’s stories are a matter of recorded history, it’s especially hard to make a claim of plagiarism that will stick.