Character and Theme-focused Screenplay Analysis

I Beg To Differ

Lost Spectacles

Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

AvatarSomebody asked me the other day if I liked Avatar and I have to say I was stumped by the question. “Like it?” I thought. “I’m supposed to like it or not like it? I thought I was just supposed to go see it because everyone else is seeing it.” But I was also surprised at the realization that I had no strong opinion to offer up. That’s not like me. I began to wonder, What are my feelings on Avatar?

So, I went to see it again (in 3D this time). And, still, I honestly can’t say I liked it or didn’t like it. I wasn’t blown away, deeply moved, transported, or even richly entertained. But I also wasn’t sorry I plunked down my money and gave it two-plus hours of my life, . . . twice. The first time, I let it wash over me with no pre-judgment, and then thought, “That was fun.” On the second viewing, my response was about the same, with the added perk of the 3D effect, which I loved. I think I’ll see everything in 3D from now on.

I suppose I could offer the opinion that the special effects were awesome. But does anyone need me to tell them that? I could exclaim how much I enjoyed entering into the beautiful and compelling world of the Navi. But that opinion is hardly unique. Who wouldn’t love the Navi world? I could lend my endorsement to its (none-too-subtle) portrayal of corporate greed at the expense of nature and human rights. Sadly, though, that’s old news by now.

I guess I’m not inclined to judge this film just as I wouldn’t judge a thrill ride at Disneyland. Okay, so some thrill rides are more thrilling than others. But overall my expectations of them are pretty limited. Momentary diversion, that’s about it. So here’s an opinion I can offer on Avatar: I was momentarily diverted in a generally satisfying way. (Is that an opinion?)

What’s that you say? You want my opinion of the script? Oh. Right. Well, . . . I didn’t think much of the script. But that, too, is no surprise. In a film like this, the script is just a frame to hang all the techno wizardry on, . . . right? I’m not supposed to have high expectations of the underlying drama in a film that is designed first and foremost to be a CGI spectacle, . . . am I?

Am I? Wait. Hold on. Just a minute. I’ve lost something. Just a sec. I’m looking around for it. I know they’re here somewhere. I just had them! Where did they go? Where, oh where, did my values go? Just give me a sec to figure this out. . . . Oh! I remember now! I’m the one who values story and character and drama above all else! I’m one of those who feels that special effects should exist to serve the story. Not the other way around. Phew! How could I lose sight of that? Could it have been my vision was impaired by those glasses?

Come on, let’s be real. Jake Sully, as a character, is almost completely generic. He is Everyman Wounded Soldier, which is fine, I guess. Except for all the opportunities that are lost by not making him more individual.

In fairness, though, it’s worth noting that the Everyman character has plenty of precedent in drama history, having originated in the medieval morality plays created by The Church to put forth moral instruction. He still turns up from time to time to fulfill his moralistic purpose in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Heaven Can Wait (1943). So you can get away with using the Everyman character, if you want to tell a moralistic story.

The problem in this story is that Jake’s circumstances prompt so many questions in me. He lost the use of his legs in combat? Gee, I wonder what that did to him? All we’re told is that he had dreams of flying. Geneeeeerrriiiic. That response would be felt by anyone. But, beyond wanting to fly, what did it do to him? Then his brother died? His brother the golden boy in comparison to whom Jake was just a grunt? Seems to me he might have some complicated feelings about that. Then he’s asked to take over his brother’s role in a far away, high stakes, heavy commitment scientific program? What would it do to a despairing, grieving, low self-esteem paraplegic to be asked to become the brother he could never measure up to?

These are all just the fundamental character study questions any writer should explore when creating a new character. But I don’t want to get all school-marmish about this, lecturing on what makes a good character and such. Let me try to illustrate the deficiencies I see in this story another way. Instead, I’m going to use the here’s-how-I’d-rewrite-that-screenplay technique:


a revised treatment

by Jennine Lanouette

We are introduced to Jake bedridden in a dreary, run down VA hospital ward. He’s not adapting well to his injury. He’s angry, resentful, acting out, etc. His golden-boy brother, Tom, visits him, trying – again – to help him out of his funk. He offers to lend Jake some money if he needs it. Jake refuses. Tom then concedes that Jake was always the sensitive one, which Jake balks at. Tom then reports that he’s about to depart on some kind of risky venture. Jake’s only response is a snarky comment to the effect of “Aren’t you special!” He sends Tom away and goes back to his self-pitying stupor.

[It’s possible that Cameron considered going in such a direction but decided against it so as not to risk having Jake come across as unlikable. If this is so, he is harboring a misconception about the sympathetic character function. To be sympathetic (i.e., to garner audience sympathy and engagement), a character doesn’t have to be likable. They just have to be shown at a power disadvantage. Being a disabled veteran is more than enough power disadvantage to get us on board with him. The beauty of it is that you can then have him act out in all kinds of nasty ways and we are still engaged with him because we can’t resist siding with an underdog. And all that acting out just makes him more and more individual and human. Trying to keep him faultless enough to be “likable” actually has the unwanted effect of keeping him generic. But I’m lecturing. Let me get back to my rewrite.]

Then Jake gets the news of his brother’s death. [And the circumstance that kills Tom is more connected to his work than simply an unelaborated “robbery.”] Now Jake’s got guilt and grief on top of his self-pity and despair. He pulls himself together to go to Tom’s funeral and sees his golden-boy brother being lionized in death, which is just more injustice since Jake is the one who actually wishes he was dead. His brother gets to become a saint while Jake is still left in a forgotten back ward with a broken body. Insult on injury. In short, as the story opens, Jake is a physical and emotional train wreck. [Nowhere to go but up.]

Still at the funeral, as the mourners disperse, Jake is approached by two “colleagues” of Tom’s, lab-coat-and-pocket-protector types. They take him out for a consoling coffee, then clumsily present their agenda: Would Jake take Tom’s place in the Avatar program? The pay is good, the benefits are generous and the work is interesting. Jake knows little to nothing about Tom’s work, but he’s not stupid, so he quickly figures it out: They lost a valuable asset in Tom but were lucky to discover he had an identical twin brother. So, Jake concludes, now they want to “harvest” Jake’s body to replace Tom’s like he’s some kind of a second kidney? No fucking way!!!

He goes back to his little mud hole of pity, bolstering his self-esteem by beating everyone on the ward at video games. Enter the corporate suits. They have a marketing pitch worked out – he can have all the perks and privileges that his brother had. The job will be easy and he’ll have the lifestyle he’s always dreamed of! All he has to do is fill his brother’s shoes. “Fuck you!” says Jake. “Get out of my face!”

Jake receives a letter stating that his request for a spinal operation to restore his legs has been denied because the injury wasn’t sustained in a military operation. He was trying to help a civilian mother and child take refuge when he stepped on a mine. He sinks further into depression.

Finally, Colonel Quaritch, a fellow marine, shows up. He talks straight, no sugar-coating, telling Jake this assignment won’t be easy, but it’ll be the most important thing he could ever do for his country. Way more important than any of his combat tours. Jake bonds with the colonel, they speak the same language. But he’s still cynical and circumspect. The colonel asks him what he wants. Jake thinks a moment. Can they get him a spinal operation to restore his legs? The colonel is taken aback at first. Then he assures Jake that if he’s successful in his mission, he can guarantee him an operation. Jake wants it in writing. The colonel says, No problem.

[Yes, all of this wooing of Jake would delay his entry into the Navi world. But it wouldn’t have to be by much. And the upside is that, by seeing him go through his decision process, we get to see him as someone who is exercising his will in the context of formidable odds rather than someone who is being passively transported along. This gives us a better understanding of the stakes at work in the story, which increases the tension and gets us more invested in him.]

[Also being introduced here is a Cain and Able theme between the brothers. This, too, increases tension and provides an underlying character issue that can continue to be at play throughout the story.]

When Jake arrives on Pandora, Grace, the head scientist, is happy to see him but is upset to see him wearing his marine uniform. She was hoping her guys would succeed in recruiting him on their own and then get him discharged from the military so he would be a civilian like his brother and answer only to them. Having failed at that, it then becomes her bad luck that Tom had a twin brother in the marines because that means the corporation won’t finance the building of a new Avatar from the DNA of another scientist. The corporation can still maximize it’s investment in Tom through Jake. An even greater stroke of luck for the corporation is the fact that he’s a marine because they can have some control of him. [This is the source of the tension that underlies all the interactions between Grace and Selfridge, the corporate hack. The two are battling for Jake’s allegiance.]

Jake just wants to tow the line and fulfill his mission so he can get his legs back. But there is much culture clash and miscommunication between him and his scientist co-workers. For one thing, those who knew Tom keep mistakenly calling Jake by his brother’s name, which he hates. He, meanwhile, has no patience for all the scientific gobbledy-gook. “Just give it to me straight,” he says. Ultimately, he discovers that he is more intuitive about human relationships than they are. [This creates more concrete and nuanced tension between characters, in contrast to the all-purpose, garden-variety tension that we are given in the film. (Why does Norman suddenly get so pissy at Jake and then suddenly he’s nice again?)]

At a certain point, Jake can’t take it anymore. He wants to quit the program. It’s not worth it. He’ll get his legs back some other way. So the scientists and the corporation guys have to work together to get Jake back in. Finally, they get him (kicking and screaming) into his Avatar body and then . . . everything changes.

When he enters the Navi world, Jake finds something that not even Grace and the other scientists can see, despite all their close study. Because of his still lingering despair, the Navi have a mystical, transcendent effect on him. Plus, there is no Tom in that world, so he is accepted by them simply for who he is. [So, in a way, we have a Cain and Abel story in which Cain, rather than getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, is kicked into it. Then we see what that does to him.]

Maybe for the first time in his life he is around people who are as intuitive and sensitive as he, who value him as a noble and genuine person. Maybe they see an essential heart in him that neither the military, nor the corporation, nor the scientists are capable of seeing.

Maybe he develops a brother-like relationship with a fellow Navi warrior who he has to work through an ongoing conflict with to then come to a place of mutual peace and understanding. Maybe this teaches him how to let go of his feelings of unworthiness.

Maybe each time he comes out of the Navi world, back to so-called reality, he is confronted with more and more conflict, competition, backbiting, callousness and cruelty. He just wants to get back to the Navi, but has to keep hidden that he has “gone native.” Maybe Grace starts to see this so she stages an “intervention,” like he’s become addicted to his Avatar body, or she brings in a “de-programmer,” like he’s gone off and joined a cult.

Okay, okay, now I’m getting a little far fetched. But see what I’m getting at here? I don’t pretend that these are the most brilliant ideas in the world for improving that script. (And, obviously, in my version there would still be an escalating conflict between the Navi and the corporation forcing Jake to finally make a choice between them.) I’m only wanting to demonstrate that there’s a whole lot more that could have been done within that story to build up its character and thematic elements.

Of course, I can’t exactly argue that by following my advice Avatar would have appealed to more people and, therefore, made more money. You got me on that one. All I can say is . . . it would make a better story. A deeper, richer, more resonant, more transporting, more humanly authentic and more artfully dramatic story.

You wanna know why, some 70 years later, we are still going with Dorothy on her journey through that bizarro world of Oz? It is this: (a) because Dorothy had a real human problem (no one was paying attention to her cries of alarm that a mean old woman was threatening to kill her dog, so she felt her only recourse was to run away from home); (b) because the people and circumstances she encounters on her journey are exactly those that will challenge her in the ways she needs to be challenged in order to get past her problem; and (c) because the world of Oz is all just one big metaphor for our own unconscious. Thus, The Wizard of Oz is both a fun ride and a provocative human parable.

So, I like a fun ride as much as the next guy. And I also like a provocative human parable. When I can have them both together, then I’m richly entertained.

I read a couple of reports saying that, in the months before Avatar was released, Cameron was touting it as a film that will change the face of cinema. I’m not really sure what he means by that. Could he possibly mean that from now on the highest, noblest aspiration of a big budget film will be to create a maximum impact thrill ride? Story be damned?

I think if this film wins Best Picture, I’m going to cry.