“A paraplegic Marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.”
Having recently taken back the record for highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar is a world that most of this world has entered. James Cameron clicked into something magical with this film and he knew it, spending years crafting the film, creating new technology, and honing the details until the film was ready for audiences to absorb.
Here are three lessons I learned from reading the Avatar screenplay:
- Audiences crave spirituality.
- Writers must know the world in detail.
- Be intentional with the purpose of your story.
#1. The following page of the Avatar screenplay shows Jake stumbling through the Pandoran forest, lost and alone. A Pandoran native, who we later come to know as Neytiri, prepares to kill Jake but a sign changes her mind:
AUDIENCES CRAVE SPIRITUALITY — The Avatar screenplay relies heavily on spiritual themes which resonate beautifully and, I believe, are a major factor in its success. Star Wars is another major franchise that successfully interweaves spiritual themes.
Personally, I believe in signs. Intuition. A larger force many call “God.” It appears that James Cameron does too, when you look at his writing. Neytiri sees a woodsprite, takes it as a sign, and lowers her bow. These small moments resonate. Most of us have experienced moments where we experienced “signs” that sent chills up our spines. When these kinds of private moments are used to serve the story, we feel them on a deeper level.
Beyond this scene, there is much talk of Eowa, the interconnectedness among all things, and the Well of Souls.
A BIZARRE GEOLOGICAL FORMATION. Arches of magnetic rock form rainbows of stone above a deep CALDERA. In the center of the caldera is a single, enormous WILLOW TREE, gnarled and ancient. This, we will be told, is THE WELL OF SOULS.
James Cameron takes Jake from a cynical, faithless man to the protector of the Well of Souls. Fighting for others and willing to risk his own life.
#2. In the following scene, Jake, Grace, and Norm collect samples in the Pandoran forest. Jake wanders ahead and gets himself into trouble:
WRITERS MUST KNOW THE WORLD IN DETAIL — Look at all of those creations that flesh out the world of Pandora! From the root tendrils to the technology to the animals and plant life. Cameron’s imagination is immense and a true wonder. The descriptions are succinct yet clear. Beyond the look, the way that each element has its own “personality” of sorts is what makes the scene feel so rich.
Jake’s personality is clear from the simplest decisions — he gets bored with the science and wanders on to explore. To play like a child and poke at flowers he hasn’t seen before. Though this decision gets him into trouble, it says a lot about who he is and makes sense that he would be the one welcomed into the tribe of Na’vi. Less interested in digits and graphs and more interested in experiencing this foreign world.
Mythology, even elements that aren’t explained to the audience, enrich the world and are important for the writers to understand as they craft the story. Though perhaps not directly seen or heard, these details are felt by the audience. We can tell when we are in good hands.
#3. BE INTENTIONAL WITH THE PURPOSE OF YOUR STORY — For this, we don’t need an example. The theme and purpose of the Avatar story is very clear, with its focus on preserving nature and its inhabitants. We need to protect our planet rather than continue destroying it. Also, the classic love story gives our protagonist purpose, driving him to change and grow.
James Cameron has a lot to say and uses his beautifully realized worlds to share his perspective. Films of this scope have a far reach, giving Cameron the ability to influence millions.
Thanks for reading. Come back soon.