Screenwriting 101 Aboard the Black Pearl: Needs & Wants

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl holds a special place in my heart as the first PG-13 movie I ever saw in theaters. It’s also, all things considered, a pretty fantastic film. It’s at least better than it had any right to be, seeing as it was based entirely off a pre-existing ride. There are a lot of things that buoyed the movie: fantastical sets, strong visuals (a lot of which look like they are indeed ripped from a Disney ride), terrifying/hilarious CGI, and stellar performances from the entire cast (it feels rote to praise Johnny Depp’s portrayal here, especially since it had sort of diminishing returns, but his performance truly makes you excited throughout. That being said, Hector Barbossa will always be the swashbuckler closest to my heart).

All of which would be useless without a good script, and POTC: Curse of the Black Pearl works with a simple but effective story. While Jack Sparrow (there should be a Captain in there somewhere) does a lot of the business of the script, the story belongs to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) more than anyone else – he is the character who undergoes the most change, and stories of Johnny Depp massively expanding his role are believable because the story itself is clearly Will’s.

Will is a compelling character because screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio give him a clear want and a clear need. Establishing strong wants and needs, and then playing them against each other, is a simple yet difficult to master technique for making a compelling protagonist. They must eventually learn to denounce their want so they can come to terms with their need.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Will Turner wants to be with Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly, whom everyone in this movie wants to be with because she is one of two female characters, so really the options are rather limited). Due to social classes, that’d essentially require him to not be who he is, to not be an orphan or a blacksmith’s assistant. So in a broader sense we can define Will Turner’s want as: wanting to be a respectable and high part of society (in order to be with Elizabeth).

His need, because this is an absolutely hilarious movie, is coming to terms with his pirate blood. POTC has a whimsical universe from the start, and “pirate blood” essentially makes Will destined for piracy, as if he blood itself is compelling him towards breaking the law. And it is. Will is seriously destined to be a pirate simply because his father was. Since Will has no control over his eventual dive into piracy, all he needs to do is come to terms with it.

Its obvious how the two would clash with each other. After Elizabeth is taken by the Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the crew of the Black Pearl Will is forced to ally himself with Jack in order to attempt to save her. Jack and the crew of the Pearl slowly reveal Will’s history, which he rejects. If he truly is the son of a pirate he is further than ever from attaining the social status he needs to successfully woo Elizabeth. His pirate lineage turns this one necessitated act of piracy (to save Elizabeth) into a fulfillment of a destiny that Will wishes to avoid.

Historical piracy may not be sexy and cool and noble, but in POTC it is all three of those things, so the audience is rooting for Will to embrace his inner pirate. Pirates are a maligned but heroic breed, or at least those serving with Jack are, and the British stuffed shirts Will envies at the film’s start are just as vicious and self-serving as the pirates aboard the Black Pearl. At least Jack’s crew is self-serving in a cool flashy comradery based way.

It is only after Will stops trying to be straight-laced British that he’s actually able to save Elizabeth. Observing Jack Sparrow, the quintessential pirate, Will learns how pirate blood can actually be a good thing. Jack is always one step ahead of everyone else. He’s always breaking the rules, always making side deals, always lying to service his higher goal. This exact qualities are what allow Will to eventually save Elizabeth, and embracing these qualities is the thing that makes him finally brave enough to tell her how he feels. Spoiler alert: she feels the same way! Hot dog! If he didn’t have pirate blood, he would have never dared to break code and tell her. If he wasn’t a pirate, she may never have been brave enough to break rank with her father. But as Governor Swann observes: “Perhaps on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course.”

It’s a perfect example of want and need. We all want to be hoighty toighty British commodores with fun old time judge wigs, but we all need to be pirates. If that’s not a strong character arc, and also a lesson for the ages, I simply don’t know what is.

And I know that the image up top isn’t of Will, but come on, it’s Captain Jack Sparrow, mate! And a compass that points to what he wants. Would you really have read an article without Jack Sparrow at the top?

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