The Revenant has sold itself in trailers as a story of revenge, but to hear director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and screenwriter Mark L. Smith tell it, this is a movie about a “spiritual journey.” We’ll have to wait another week to see if that’s what audiences ultimately take from the film, but according to Smith, The Revenant wasn’t originally conceived as a revenge tale — it was something a little different, and a little more interesting.

Iñárritu’s latest is based on Michael Punke’s book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, which recounts the real life of frontier fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was left for dead by a couple of his colleagues following a horrific bear attack. As expected, Iñárritu took a few liberties with Punke’s book and Glass’s harrowing true story — for instance, Glass’ son was invented by Smith, though it was rumored that the real Glass spent time on a Pawnee reservation and married a Native woman.

Smith apparently wrote 10 to 12 drafts of The Revenant before Iñárritu came on board, and though his earlier versions still gave Leonardo DiCaprio’s Glass a fictional son, it was much less revenge-driven. As Smith tells Slashfilm, there was a bit of poignant symbolism in what Glass was after:

In my earlier drafts before Alejandro came on, my father-son stuff was different. My story was that the son had died previous to the journey, that he had been sick while he was young. You open with these scenes of Glass and son, carving a star in a hunting rifle — the stock of a hunting rifle. While they’re carving the star, the son is coughing and you know he’s dying. The son pricks his finger and blood falls into the star on the rifle, and then you flash forward and we’re right where we are with the attack. Glass is still holding the rifle, but it’s very worn and you can still see the star on the stock of the rifle. When Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) leave him, in my earlier drafts, Fitzgerald took the rifle. All Glass wanted to do was hold his rifle, so he’s gripping his rifle, because it means so much to him. Glass’ journey was less about revenge, more about getting his rifle back — which is almost like his son. It was almost a kidnapping story at that point. I didn’t like the revenge thing, so I didn’t go that route. Then Alejandro came in and added the son, because he thought it could be really powerful, and the idea because of he’s half-Native American the racism angle could come in and you could show the cultures and how they blended together. We both felt revenge was empty — a goal without a reward. It’s hard to celebrate, because the character is lost. Revenge is the spark that gets him going, but it’s a spiritual journey.

To be honest, this sounds a little more interesting than Iñárritu’s film, in which Glass is motivated by raw fury, fueled by his desperate desire to take revenge against the man who left him for dead and murdered his son — the latter element feels somewhat shoehorned in to add more fuel to Glass’ fire. Smith’s idea of the rifle as a symbol has an elegance and depth to it, and actual reports of Glass’ life indicate that his pursuit of the men that left him for dead was motivated by revenge and / or a desire to reclaim the rifle they stole.

We’ll never know if Smith’s original vision would have been better or worse if Iñárritu had stuck with it, but it’s definitely an interesting alternate take on a story that’s already inspiring some vastly divisive reactions.

The Revenant will arrive in select theaters on Christmas Day.

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