What do “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” have in common? There are some obvious things, of course. They’re both great films. They both have big stars. And they both won Writers Guild of America awards over the weekend. “Spotlight,” written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, won for Original Screenplay, while “The Big Short,” written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, won for Adapted Screenplay.
They are both stories that unfold over time and continue to reverberate through society, both on a large, systematic scale and a small, very personal one. They are both stories in which there are real-life victims. Despite decidedly different tones, they are both stories about power and corruption and about undue influence by a larger-than-life institution. In the case of “Spotlight” it’s the Catholic Church and in “The Big Short” it’s Wall Street.
Let’s focus on how the stories unfold over time. In both cases there isn’t one big singular event to which the rest of plot reacts. It is one case of abuse, and then another, and then another, and then a few decisions here or there to cover it up. It then snowballs into something much larger and insidious. It is one bank, one mortgage holder, one money manager, then more mortgage holders. The stakes get higher and soon it snowballs into something much larger and insidious.
These are not isolated events, not stories that can be wrapped up with a pretty bow. Rather, they are ongoing, to this day. There are people still reeling from the housing crisis and ensuing recession, from having their homes foreclosed upon. (See "99 Homes" for a more personal look at the housing crisis, from the perspective of the struggling mortgage holders.) There are people still reeling from the violation and abuse by their religious institution.
So, how to wrangle all that into manageable screenplays and films? In “Spotlight” the writers focused on the Boston Globe’s investigation into allegations of priest abuse and its cover up, and “The Big Short” focused on the managers and analysts who saw the housing bubble, predicted its popping, and maneuvered to cash in on it. Both therefore tame each story’s unwieldiness and large scope and make them manageable, digestible, and in the case of “The Big Short,” funny. Both contain elements that on paper could be viewed as dull (a painstaking, pavement-pounding investigation and the complexities of the economy and finance). Both are based on real people and real stories. Both are "adapted" from real life.