Avatar and the Rain Forest Executive Summary

Avatar and the Rain Forest

The tropical rain forest is a place unlike any on earth and for that reason its vegetation has attracted more attention from writers than any other vegetation anywhere else on the planet: as Whitmore (1990) states, “more ‘purple passages’ have been penned on lowland evergreen rain forest than any other vegetation type” (p. 40). Through this lens of human beings’ fascination with the wonders of the tropical rain forest, one can see why James Cameron took such care to bring to life the tropical world of Avatar. Cameron’s film is an ode to nature—to the wonders of the environment. It is a sci-fi reimagining of what our world could be like if only we stopped trying to loot and plunder the natural world. As the villains in Avatar show, nature is corrupted by the external influence of people who seek to exploit nature and create disharmony where harmony should be. Though Whitmore shows numerous examples of nature itself displaying a kind of smothering conflict—for example, with the strangling fig with fan palms (Whitmore, 1990, p. 41) which grows over a host tree in order to find light for itself—Cameron takes the position that it is better to live in harmony with nature than to try to destroy. Ironically, Whitmore shows that in falling in love with the verdure, one can miss the reality of nature which is that there is cruelty in it—and the strangling fig is an example of that cruelty, smothering the host beneath it in order to send its roots to the earth below and its shoots upwards towards the light of the sun.

James Cameron’s Avatar is almost an unintentional allegory of the fig tree described in Whitmore’s book. The humans from planet earth are like the fig tree, looking to exploit the resources of the moon planet on which the Na’vi live. They want to mine the moon for its valuable resources—and in doing so they are willing to kill anything in its way. The Na’vi are, ultimately, in the way. Like the host tree that is smothered by the strangling fig, the Na’vi and their tree of life attacked. In Cameron’s romantic take on the tropical rain forests, however, the host tree (the Na’vi) fights back and the strangling fig (the humans) is put in its place. Cameron wants to show in Avatar that nature is good and that respect for nature is what the guiding spirit of life—the Eywa—wants everyone to have. Living in harmony with nature is possible and this harmony that Cameron insists upon is depicted in the final battle in which the wildlife of Pandora, the moon planet, unite to take down the humans. In other words, nature resists the strangling fig in Cameron’s film. In reality, as Whitmore shows, the strangling fig is part of nature and is not resisted but rather, in fact, smothers the host tree and dominates its way to the top. Cameron romanticizes nature and the concept of the tropical rainforest in Avatar. Whitmore shows the true colors of the rain forest thanks to the image of the strangling fig.

Wade Davis in One River likewise shows how nature is not quite as harmonious as Cameron would have his audience believe. Instead of union and unity of purpose, there is the sense that beings in nature will dominate and take over in spite of obstacles. The example that Davis gives is the example of Cubeo settlement, where the women take the venomous snake that is killed by the men and “create nourishment out of poison” by pressing the venom from the snake (Davis, 1996, p. 468). The women do not live in harmony with the snake in the same way that the natural world of Pandora lives in harmony with itself. On the contrary, the women see the snake as deadly and make use of it, just like the strangling fig views the bigger tree as an obstacle to its own survival. The strangling fig takes over the bigger, host tree in order to survive and uses the host tree’s girth and strength to fortify itself—just as the Cubeo women make use of the snake to fortify themselves. That which would otherwise kill them is killed by the Cubeo, who profit from its death.

In Cameron’s film, the profiteers however are depicted as villains: they are the enemy of the natural world, which Cameron depicts as being gloriously larger than life—vibrant, excessive, beautiful and full of uplifting spirits. There is no strife in the world of the Na’vi other than that which the humans bring because they represent the greed and corruption that is so anathema to Nature. Whitmore, of course, shows that nature is not exactly all that innocent, if one is to use the same terms. Nature is okay with cruelty. Its forests and jungles say as much: the way the vines twine about the trees, choking them out as they climb up to get the light. There is no sense of sharing; rather there is a sense of domination. Yet for Cameron, those who seek to dominate are not worthy of the life and light of the natural world. For instance, the bad humans—those who do not convert to the way of life of the Na’vi—are expelled and sent back to the planet Earth, where nature has been stripped of all its resources as a result of human greed and humanity’s insatiable lust for more. The Na’vi represent, for Cameron, the ideal that humans should try to emulate—a race that lives in harmony with nature, that seeks to be one with it, that seeks to live alongside it rather than to try to exploit it for purposes that have no place in the natural order of things.

The natural order of things, however, is rather more like that shown by Whitmore with the strangling fig. Here is the reality of nature: species get along by dominating one another. The natural order is predatory. There are prey and there are predators. There are hosts and there are parasites—and these things exist in nature. The strangling fig is the perfect example. It is beautiful to look at: the roots growing down the shaft of the host tree, and palms growing out from the tree tops. Its beauty, however, lies in the mystery that it represents. This mystery cannot be expounded in so many words or understood simply. It is the mystery of creation that calls to mind so many different ideas, so many different conflicting spirits. It is the representation of the Fall from grace of the story of creation told in Genesis. To paint it simply or to characterize it in naïve terms, as Cameron does in Avatar, is to miss the reality and promote the illusion of nature, which is that somehow somewhere a harmony exists in which all things get along in peace and prosperity. Perhaps on planet Pandora they do—but that planet is fictitious—the fruit of Cameron’s active imagination.

In conclusion, the reality of the wilderness, of the vegetation of the rain forest, which has attracted the fascination of so many artists over the centuries, is that there is no real harmony in nature in which all organisms and species exist side by side in peace as there no Fall ever took place. The Fall is evident in strangling fig, which climbs up and shoots down overtop its host so that it may live. In Cameron’s film, the humans represent the strangling fig—but they are defeated and the host tree, the Na’vi, get to live. They return to their peaceful co-existence with Nature. In Whitmore’s book, however, the peaceful co-existence that Cameron believes in is more myth than reality, as the image of the strangling fig shows. The strangling fig does not seek co-existence: it seeks dominance. It seeks life for itself. It seeks to be the one that reaches up to the sun, even it means smothering another organism. Cameron’s Avatar would reject this kind of Nature, while extolling the beauties of the rain forest in a sentimental show.


Davis, W., 1996. One River. Simon & Schuster.

Whitmore, T. C., 1990. An introduction to tropical rain forests. OUP Oxford.




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