By Len Archibald
Writer Paul Apak Angilirq, director Zacharias Kunuk, and many others on the production team had heard the Atanarjuat legend when they were young. Over the course of five years, Angilirq interviewed eight elders for their versions of the story and combined them into one treatment. The final script was developed by the team of Angilirq, Norman Cohn (producer and cinematographer), Zacharias Kunuk (director), Herve Paniaq (tribal elder), and Pauloosie Qulitalik (tribal elder, who also plays the shaman Qulitalik). Angilirq died of cancer during film production in 1998. The last version of his Inuktitut screenplay is in the book Atanarjuat, side by side with a version by Cohn that appears to be a precursor to the final English script. Cohn explained, "In the final edited version of the film, sometimes the actors are speaking the lines from Apak's script and we are subtitling them with the lines from mine."
Despite the emphasis on accuracy, the film takes liberties with the original Inuit myth: "At the film's core is a crucial lie," wrote Justin Shubow in The American Prospect Online, which is that the original legend ended in a revenge killing, whereas in the film Atanarjuat stops short of shedding blood. "A message more fitting for our times," explained director Zacharias Kunuk.