Why Is Gangs of New YorkNominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar?

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was nominated Tuesday for the best original screenplay Oscar, even though the credits state that the movie was suggested by Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book of the same name. So how, exactly, is Gangs an original screenplay?

Jay Cocks, a longtime Scorsese collaborator and one of film’s three credited writers, told Explainer that most of the script was an original creation: “This is a world we conjured out of whole cloth, out of a whole lot of unassimilated historical research.” He says Asbury’s book, which Cocks and Scorcese discovered in the late ‘70s, served primarily as an introduction to the history of the draft riots. The writers borrowed only a few particularly pungent gang names (including the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies), the sketchy outlines of two key characters (Bill the Butcher and Monk McGinn), and Asbury’s “great title” from the book. The rest, he says, was original, with guidance from about 50 historical sources.

Of course, the decision isn’t up to Jay Cocks. The writers branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determines which scripts count as an original screenplay and which count as an adapted screenplay. When making its decision, the committee considers the sources in question, interviews given about the movie, and the film’s publicity materials. They also consider how the Writers Guild of America classified the film for its awards, although they sometimes make a different call. (The WGA also classified Gangs as an original work.)

Cocks, who was nominated once before, for his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, says the original screenplay nod is more satisfying. “As wonderful as the nomination was for Age of Innocence, it basically belonged to Mrs. Wharton.”

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Explainer thanks Jay Cocks, John Pavlik of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Gabriel Scott of the Writers Guild of America.