In all the visual splendor of James Cameron’s Avatar, it’s easy to overlook the script. In fact, the Avatar screenplay has come in for the same abuse Cameron’s Titanic script earned. You’ve heard the complaints: the story is a Pocahontas rip-off. The bad guys are just evil villains. The dialogue is stilted. In short, great visuals, bad screenwriting.
The critics aren’t so much wrong as irrelevant. What they don’t get is that Cameron is a brilliant writer of pop culture. He is one of three or four best popular storytellers, and his secret, which all current screenwriters need to know, is his mastery of genres.
Like Avatar, Titanic had fabulous visuals. But the key to its success was that it combined the disaster film – a sub-form of action – with the love story. These two forms are on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, which is why they are rarely combined, and why Cameron showed his true genius when he put them together.
The disaster film gives the audience the thrill of spectacle and scope, something no other medium can do as well. But for that same reason, disaster films have no heart. They’re about the thousands of people in the maws of slaughter. They’re not personal. That’s why Cameron spent most of that film setting up a love story, which is about the community of two, the most personal, heart-filled genre you can get. So when the disaster finally hit, the pain of loss started at the epicenter of the two lovers and spread out from there.
Jump forward to Avatar, and Cameron is using the exact same strategy. Avatar isn’t just a big, noisy war story set in an outer space future. It’s an epic romance, the grand myth combined with the intimate love story. The technical definition of the romantic epic is that the fate of the nation is determined by the love between two people. That is a very tough story weave to do right, but if you do, it has almost infinite worldwide popular appeal.
An epic is almost always built on the myth genre, by far the most common genre in worldwide blockbusters. The key question for the screenwriter, especially when you are adding fantasy and science fiction elements, is what myth to use. In the Myth Class, I talk extensively about the ten new myth forms on which a large percentage of worldwide storytelling will be based. One of these I call the eco-myth, and that is beat for beat the new myth that Cameron uses in Avatar.
Of course, the “new” eco-myth has a history. For over 160 years, it has been one of America’s two national myths. The first is the Western, and it was the dominant American myth from about 1850 to1960. The Western is the story of the building of the American nation by taming nature and “civilizing” the “savages” the Europeans encountered as they were going about their godly task.
But there was a second American myth that played underneath the Western all those years. It was the anti-Western, also known as the “Eastern,” starting with Thoreau and working its way through John Henry, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. It broke into the forefront of American storytelling during the Vietnam War, in films like The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
The anti-Western has been described in one line as “the Machine in the Garden,” and that is the myth on which Avatar is based. It is the dark side of the American story, but more generally is the story of any technologically superior, male-god culture that wants the land of a nature-based, female-god culture.
The downside of the anti-Western myth is that it ends badly for the hero. The natives are slaughtered, and that is not going to work if you want an international blockbuster. That’s where the eco-myth puts a new twist on the anti-Western. Instead of ending with inevitable destruction, the eco-myth finds a way to rejuvenate the world by creating harmony among people and between people and nature.
The great strength of the eco-myth as a foundation for a blockbuster – besides the happy ending – is that it combines the myth story structure with a detailed story world. Story world has been a major element of blockbusters for at least the last ten years, as we vividly saw with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. The eco-myth, by its very nature, is a celebration of the interconnectedness of all things in the world, and the cinematic medium is unmatched in showing this.
Like Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, Cameron creates a lush story world that emphasizes trees and plants. The center and foundation of the Na’vi world is the great protective tree, a futuristic version of the Tree of Life that holds up the marriage bed in The Odyssey. The plants of Pandora are often floating and lit from within, which gives the audience a sensual and emotional understanding of what it really means to live in an interconnected world.
Floating is the essential feature of this story world, and is a major reason for the massive success of this film. Any fantasy world, if it is to be successful on a grand scale, must have the qualities of a utopia. And in the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up. Cameron understands this deeply. So his jungle world of Pandora is much more like an ocean floor. Plants float, so do entire islands, and the ten-foot-tall Na’vi fly everywhere on the backs of the giant bat-like banshee, infinitely more agile than the most advanced fighter plane.
This element of flying is also crucial to the second major genre in Avatar, the love story. One of the unique beats of the love story is the first dance. Here the dance occurs while the would-be lovers fly on the backs of a banshee. It’s a beautiful orchestration of dance, love, flight, action and story world, and that scene alone is worth the price of admission.
As Avatar moves to its inevitable final battle, Cameron brings all of the story threads together. The focal point of the battle is the lit-from-within Tree of Souls, and for the techno-fascist humans, it is fit for nothing but destruction. Of course, this film is not a tragedy, so the battle does not go the way of history, with the technologically superior Europeans wiping out the natives. It’s a glorious scene where Cameron pulls out every trick in the story book, including a charge on horseback that is right out of The Charge of the Light Brigade.
If you want to understand Avatar’s phenomenal success, you have to see it as a piece of screenwriting, but without the traditional standards of “good writing.” Cameron is a genius of popular storytelling, and he knows the great popular storytelling comes from mixing genres that take maximum advantage of the film medium. True, the rest of us don’t have the advantage of $300 million to realize our screenwriting dreams. But if you think Avatar’s success comes primarily from all that money on the screen, you will miss some truly invaluable lessons in story. As Cameron himself has said, “People ask [me] about the future of filmmaking…the simple answer is that filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s all about storytelling.”