Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Avatar screenplay - it's a better script than you think

Okay, I know this is sacrilege to say this. But hear me out.

I am well aware that the writing of James Cameron in general and of Avatar's screenplay in particular is regarded with the same disdain usually afforded to Paris Hilton’s acting. The biggest knock against him is that his dialogue is wooden, so therefore he’s a bad writer. This just reveals his critics’ ignorance of what screenwriting really entails. While dialogue is everything in playwriting, it is a vastly overrated aspect of screenwriting. You can have a play with two hours of dialogue in a single setting, but that would be unbearable in a feature film. My Dinner with Andre and Tape are exceptions that prove the rule. I’ve read a lot of screenplays, and my biggest complaint with beginners’ screenplays is that there’s just too much dialogue, with no story, no dramatic impulse.

Besides, no one seems to have asked themselves what Avatar would look like if it were rewritten like Shakespeare or some Jane Austen adaptation. The movie is clearly a sci-fi fantasy film. It’s also an action film. The dialogue that he has is what it needs to be and is not much different than in other films of its type. In fact, it’s probably better (for really bad writing in a blockbuster, see the Transformers movies).

In his famous screenwriting seminars, Robert McKee advises people to devote at least half the time given to you to write a screenplay to perfecting the story. He suggests sitting friends down over a coffee and just telling the plot of the story, the way we would with an actual movie we had just seen. That way, you don’t end up writing a lot of beautiful dialogue that you fall in love with and can’t cut even though it drags the story down. In his many fine books, William Goldman also says that dialogue is the last thing that he works on. He knows that directors, actors and other writers often tinker with the dialogue, but if the story structure is solid it will withstand any such tampering.

As I’ve stated previously, the arbitration process with the Writers Guild puts much greater value on the characters and the story than the dialogue. This is as it should be. It’s much harder to make a well-structured story than it is to come up with some witty lines. And when it comes to dialogue, less is more. The vastly overrated Tarantino gets way too much credit for his writing because of his smart-ass dialogue. But if he learned to rein in his tendency to overindulge, he’d actually be a much better writer.

As for the story of Avatar, I wrote in a previous article about how people accuse Cameron of “ripping off” Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, whereas Tarantino rips people off all the time and people call him a genius for it. But writers throughout history have used allusions and references to other sources, especially the Bible and Greek mythology. Well, as a fine student of film, Cameron knows the cinematic canon and his references are likely very intentional and well thought out.

I remember reading how he fired the first cinematographer on Titanic because the cinematographer wanted a faded sepia-toned look for the historical scenes on the Titanic. Cameron wanted it to be more colourful, to be like Oz and entering a fantasy world. Clearly, The Wizard of Oz is one of the allusions he is making in Avatar as well, since the world of the Na’vi is so very colourful. This is further proven by the Colonel’s first line, “You are not in Kansas anymore, you are on Pandora.” Pandora is of course an allusion to the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box.

In the above article, I also talked about his criticisms from the right, the left, the Church, anti-smoking groups and on and on. These criticisms are all misguided. They only reveal the critics’ own biased viewpoint, which has nothing to do with the quality of the film. The only criticism that has any validity is one that understands what the film does, rather than what the film doesn’t do and perhaps isn’t even trying to do. People are forever misunderstanding and under-appreciating art by not properly taking the time to consider the artists intent and judging it on that basis.

One criticism that I found particularly off-base was the accusation of racism. I don’t believe that it is the case. I understand the sensitivity to the “White Messiah” portrayal since Hollywood is so bad at having minorities as leads. But in this case with this movie, the races of the actors had to be the way they are. If they were reversed for example, then Cameron would end up saying that minorities are colonialists and white people are the victims. If even just Jake Sully were a minority and every other mercenary were white, then he’s already an outsider and that ruins the story – the point is that he’s one of them, and comes to realize that he’s on the wrong side. I defy anyone to adjust the story or the casting in a way that doesn’t create more problems than it solves.

And that’s the true test of any criticism – would it actually improve the film? One can find fault with even the greatest of masterpieces if you’re determined to look. But he knew what he was doing and successfully created a film that works on many levels and was also a huge hit. You really think you could do better?

1 comment:

  1. Very, very, very well thought-out and said. I appreciate the stance; not only do I think the criticism of the film has been harsh and misplaced, but as a struggling aspiring writer I get the sense of just how few people understand the craft. I started Robert McKee's 'Story' yesterday and it's already an insightful read.