Avatar: Dances with Pocahontas in Space?

Okay, so I finally got around seeing Avatar in 3D at the local IMAX. (Tickets are still selling out a week in advance– crazy!) By now, anything I say about it will be old news, but I’m still interested in analyzing it from a writer’s perspective. We all know it’s a beautiful movie, with amazing effects, and possibly the first film that seamlessly blends CGI and real action. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly well-made piece of cinema.

It is also, without a doubt, incredibly formulaic. I mean, is there anyone who hasn’t seen this movie before?

-An invading, technologically advanced force is engaged in a war with the natives, who embody the idea of the noble savage.
-The protagonist is one of the soldiers. He gets to know the natives, and falls in love with their culture. Also their women. (Well, usually only one woman.)
-The soldier’s commanding officer is an asshole who has no qualms about wiping out the natives.
-The natives’ fiercest warrior doesn’t trust the protagonist’s motives. He’s probably also in love with the woman.
-The protagonist learns the natives’ ways, and realizes that their culture and way of life need to be protected.
-He joins up with them, and helps them fight off the invaders.

It’s a story as old as time. Avatar wasn’t the first to do it, and I doubt that Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, the Last Samurai, etc. etc. were either. And it doesn’t just stop there, either. A quick search for “Avatar rip off” on Google reveals the following scandals-in-progress, in which James Cameron has apparently ripped off previous more obscure works:

Did James Cameron Rip Off Poul Anderson’s Novella?
Avatargate: The Case For the Prosecution
Did James Cameron Borrow From Soviet Sci-Fi Novels?
1985 Comic Looks a lot Like Avatar

Or, for a more general approach:

10 Movies Avatar Resembles

Do I think James Cameron purposely ripped anybody off when he wrote Avatar? No, of course not. James Cameron is like any other creative person: over the course of his life, he’s been exposed to thousands of potential influences. Some of these are other creative works: books, movies, graphic novels, ancient myths, and art of all kinds. Some are nonfiction: history, news stories, magazine articles, biographies, pictures, or conversations with friends. Some are his own experiences dealing with people, growing up, being married, working, and just living life. All these things reside in his memory, and collide off each other like ricocheting particles in his imagination, until a spark occurs, and he thinks: A ha! I’ve got an idea for a story!

Avatar treads ground that has long been tread by movies and comic books of all sorts, and so lots of similarities can doubtless be found– finding that two separate people have come up with similar names, or the same general story arc (particularly one this cliche) is hardly surprising. It may even be that James Cameron did read some old Soviet sci-fi stuff and a decade later, when coming with Avatar, unconsciously remembered some of it and put it in.

If someone were purposefully ripping off an existing work, chances are good they’d change the names, and muddle stuff around so it wasn’t quite so obvious. But really, that’s not how creative people work. Most of us who even dream of doing this kind of stuff for a living have so many ideas we couldn’t do them all even if we did this full-time; the last thing we need is to go through little-known works of fiction looking for obscure ideas to steal. I mean, seriously here. I think, in any case like this, the benefit of the doubt has to be given to the creator, because otherwise you’d have to do so much research to make sure you were being original that you’d never get anything else done.

Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t to defend James Cameron (as if he really needs “defending” by the author of a blog that about five people read). No, the point was actually to explore why he went with such a tired plot and storyline. I think he could have done a much better job of being original, and indeed, I read one article that suggests that the original draft WAS considerably more original, or at least more in-depth and interesting:

The Avatar That Almost Was

The article goes in-depth into James Cameron’s original scriptment, written after Titanic, and the title of it was “Project 880.” In it, the plot for Avatar is laid out in depth, with a lot of additional detail: there’s much more about Earth and its current state, there’s more about why Jake falls so in love with Pandora, there are several interesting characters who are left out of the final version of “Avatar” (including the Na’Vi guide who Grace is sleeping with, and a corrupt bioethics officer with a nice redemption arc that I think would have added a lot to the movie). Granted, turning that script into a film would probably have made for about a 10-hour movie, so maybe that’s why a lot of this got trimmed. Or is it that such a risk was being taken with the expensive graphics and technology that they decided to stick with a completely cookie-cutter plot that people knew and loved?

I think it was probably a combination of both these things. The Project 880 article makes me hope that now that the technology is proven, James Cameron will be willing to tell a more creative story in the inevitable sequel(s).

There’s no doubt that Avatar is a groundbreaking film. It’s just too bad that all the groundbreaking was in the special effects, and none of it in the story. Hopefully we’ll see a better balance in future Avatar films (and other films which will no doubt license the technology). We shall see.

Getting my Feet Wet

Two weeks ago I dusted off my backpacking gear, which has sat unused for over a year, and went backpacking on Shackleford Banks, a little island on the southern edge of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s only about nine miles long by half a mile wide (if that), but it’s a cool little island.

Among other things, the island is home to a population of about 130 wild horses. No one knows exactly how they got there, although one of the more popular tales is that they’re descended from horses that survived a Spanish shipwreck, back in the 1600s or earlier.

The plan was to get ferried across to the island, hike along the beach a mile or so, then set up camp and spent the rest of the day exploring. That part went pretty much according to plan; it was a beautiful day, and the temperature was in the 50s. Pretty nice, considering just a couple weeks before we had a really bad cold snap that sent temperatures into the twenties and teens. So we set up camp behind the dunes, in a nice flat area of scrub brush, and set off down the beach.

The beach was almost empty, except for a few fishermen casting their lines from shore, and even they disappeared as we walked further down the island. My favorite part of the whole trip may have been the massive number of sea shells that littered the beach; there were piles of them freshly washed up, and more conch shells than I’ve ever seen. Most of those were broken, although even the broken ones were pretty in their own artistic-looking ways. Inland from the beach, separated from the pounding surf by a line of high dunes, little patches of forest and scrub brush were able to grow. We saw plenty of wild horses roaming here, and as it got late and we began to make our way back to camp, there were dolphins jumping twenty or three feet offshore, seemingly entire pods of them moving down the coastline and accompanying us the whole way back.

Things got more interesting during the night. Rain was expected, but we were prepared for it; what we weren’t prepared for was to wake up the next morning and find that a storm was incoming, with possible lightning and wind gusts of up to 45 miles an hour. Needless to say, it was a long morning; about half the tents didn’t stay up in the wind, and of those that did stay up, at least one had to be moved when about two-thirds of our campsite slowly transformed into marshland. Luckily, this was all around 9 or 10 am, so it was light and we were pretty well awake. My tent is an ultralight tent, and was one of the ones that didn’t survive, so I put on warm clothes, my rain gear and went for a walk. Heading inland, we found a nice area behind some trees that was pretty well sheltered from the wind. In retrospect, it would have made a nice campsite.

Finally, the rain stopped, and not long after, the sky cleared. We had a sunny walk back to the ferry point, where we were picked up about noon, and after lunch in Morehead City, headed home…the trip was sandy and wet, but fun.

I like getting away from civilization, and I don’t mean little day hikes into a patch of forest in the middle of the city (although those can be nice, too). I mean backpacking in and setting up camp, someplace where you can actually see the stars at night (we probably would have been able to on this trip, if not for the rain), and where you’re really out away from civilization and amidst nature. It’s a great way to focus your mind on something different and get a release from the mundanity of day-to-day work (which has been threatening to overwhelm me lately… stupid deadlines). I’ll definitely be doing more of this in the near future.

I’m Dreaming of a White… er… Groundhog’s Day?

It’s not often that you get snowed in in North Carolina, but here I am. At least I’ve got Internet, power, and water… and as long as the leftover pizza holds out, I should be okay. At least it gives me an excuse to catch up on the blog.

By the way, if anyone from the Northern climes reads this, and laughs about how six inches of snow = “snowed in”… yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it before. I’ll post another pic in March when Spring comes, so you’ll have some green trees to admire well ahead of schedule. 😉

The Frozen Apple

Somehow everytime I visit New York City it ends up being in the dead of winter. I hear the temperature occasionally creeps above freezing there, maybe sometime between March and October, but I don’t recall ever seeing it myself.

Anyway, last weekend I boarded a plane about the size of a compact car, along with my Mom and Aunt and flew to NYC. (Okay, it was a actually a typical puddle jumper for a flight that long, but keep in mind I’m used to flying on 777s). We were visiting my brother, who’s a cast member in the Broadway show Memphis– you can see him second from the right in the Memphis poster below. (Click on it for a bigger version.)

Naturally, the main attraction was to go see my brother on Broadway, so we ended up seeing the show twice. The story takes place in the city of Memphis (duh), in the 1950s. The main characters are a white radio DJ named Huey Calhoun, and a black singer named Felicia Farrell. Huey’s goal is to get her on the mainstream radio (not an easy task in the South in the fifties), so needless to say much of the show is about the racism that was so prevalent back then. But it’s also a love story, and maybe even a cautionary tale about the dangers of fame and pride.

I was very impressed with it– and I don’t just say that because of the family connection. I went in expecting a fairly typical musical with a bunch of songs done all 50’s style (which I’ve never been particularly fond of, to be honest). But I was pleasantly surprised– the musical numbers were excellent (I’ve pretty much had the soundtrack playing on repeat since getting home), the actors were incredible (all of them, not just my brother) and the writing was really good too.

Of course, I always analyze everything from a writer’s perspective… I can’t help it. I look at the characters, setting, and plot, even in a work where the narrative is secondary– like a musical, or a very visually-oriented movie (I’ve been meaning to write a post on the movie Avatar). In the case of Memphis, all three were very strong, particularly the characters, who were heroic, brave, and also clearly flawed, even as you rooted for them. The plot had enough twists to keep me interested, and it ended in a way that surprised me, which is always good.

Interestingly, there’s a kernel of truth to the story– aside from the whole setting, which is obviously based on the way things were, the writers probably had a man named Dewey Phillips in the back of their mind as they were creating Huey Calhoun. Among other things, he was the first radio DJ to broadcast Elvis Presley, and he had to prove Elvis was white to his radio audience by asking which high school he went to. (In the musical, a bigshot radio boss told Huey to prove his race on the radio in the same way.) There are other parallels to explore, but I won’t go into too much depth… don’t want to give spoilers.

If you find yourself in NYC anytime soon, go see Memphis. Or if you can’t, be sure to go see the show when it eventually starts touring, which it definitely will.

Novel Status Update: Does Mulling Things Over Count as “Work”?

Since NaNoWriMo ended, I’ve actually gotten a fair bit of writing done… unfortunately, very little of it has been on my novel. Instead, I’ve been following my muse on little flights of fancy, writing a few short stories that are too far off the weirdness scale to do much with. They’ve been fun to write, at least.

I’ve also been letting my subconscious mull over various ideas for the novel, letting them simmer, occasionally poking them with a fork and turning them over. I suppose this doesn’t really count as “working” on it, but I’ve had a few moments of inspiration, mainly ideas on how to improve the characters and setting.

When I submitted the prologue to my writing group, most people were in agreement that they weren’t able to identify with the main character. This is partly because of how I like to begin stories– fast action sequences that sort of punch the reader in the face and say, “welcome to my world.” It’s probably a result of watching too many James Bond movies. Nevertheless, that’s how this prologue operates, and while I try to mix it with character development and world building, it’s still, at its heart, a fast and somewhat bloody action sequence.

Another part of the problem is that I haven’t been able to nail down the voice of the main character. She’s an assassin, and I’ve had difficulty reconciling her hard-as-nails “warrior” side with her softer, more emotional side, which she needs in order to connect with other characters. So one “aha” moment I had basically involved letting my struggles as an author be reflected in the character. If I’m having difficulty defining her, maybe it’s because she’s having difficulty defining herself. It’s definitely an idea I want to explore; it may also mean that I set aside revising existing chapters and just work on new chapters, so I can practice and experiment more with her voice.

Happy New Year and Decade

Happy New Year, everyone!

There are a lot of unwritten stories to be told in the upcoming year and decade, both on paper in real life. I always find it exciting to reflect on the future, to realize that from here, our lives really are unwritten stories, and we can take them anywhere we choose. That’s not to say it’s easy; consciously changing your own destiny often requires a supreme act of willpower. But I do believe that it’s possible.

The title of this blog is “Off the Written Path”, and this is part of what I mean by it. It’s up to each of us to write the story of our lives; the past may already be written, but the future is not. Where you take it from here is up to you.

A new decade is upon us. May you write many interesting stories, and here’s wishing you plenty of happy endings.