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.

7 thoughts on “Avatar: Dances with Pocahontas in Space?

  1. I saw your post and was instantly ready to defend “Avatar,” but I must admit you make some good points without being offensive or rude and you did it creatively. I like your word choices a lot, it makes for good reading, and I can tell you’ve written things like this before.

    When I first saw the movie, I didn’t think of Pocahontus, but I did think of the settlers coming to America and pushing the Indianans off their land for gold.

    I heard some interesting criticism on the new about how these people actually found the movie offensive because the movie is apparently a protest for the war and shows Americans doing what the terrorists did to the Word Trade Center.

    So, THANK YOU for doing research and thinking before you spoke because people like that ruin everything. They didn’t bother to check that “Avatar” was written in 1994 and that Cameron had put it in a drawer waiting for technology to catch up.

    Again, thank you for not being dumb and saying something worth saying. I too hope the next Avatar movie is more original in story line, but at the same time I am hoping to keep the same characters.

  2. The strongest parallels I saw in it were to “Dances with Wolves.” But then one could say that about any number of stories where the protaganist “goes native.” Paul Bowles might be the best analogy, but then, most pop critics wouldn’t know who he was. The important point is that it really is not a “formulaic” film at all. The entire premise rests on the rather novel, I would say ‘twenty-first century,’ premise that science and imperialism are deeply intertwined. The main character surpasses the level of respect and sympathy—which really are just the hallmarks of a paternalistic understanding—felt by the researchers, as well as overcoming his own training as an outright exploiter. This is quite radical, and quite unique in Hollywood cinema.
    TOG

  3. I don’t know why people think a story has to be new. I think it just has to be well told and Avatar accomplished that – though some of the acting could have been helped along a little bit. Thanks for some of the links, I will have to check them out.

  4. Thanks for your comments! I actually quite liked Avatar, but then the blog wouldn’t be as interesting if it were all about how I liked it. I’ve heard the right-wing criticism on the movie as well, and frankly, I think most of it is overblown (as is usually the case with such things). On top of that, a lot of people mistook anti-colonialism for Anti-Americanism, which really says more about their own views than it does about James Cameron’s.

    One social criticism that I do think holds some water is that Avatar is a “White Messiah” type of movie, where the white man becomes the leader and savior of a “lesser” people. I’m not saying this means James Cameron is a racist, just that he was following a long-established formula which has tinges of racism in it.

    theothergardener: You have a good point, and Avatar did put enough of a different spin on the formula that it didn’t bug me too much as I watched it. To a certain extent, all modern stories are simply putting new spins on old formulas, and finding new combinations of old ideas. But I do wish Avatar had stretched a little more, particularly with the characters, to come up with something a little less predictable.

    That’s sort of what it comes down for me: if the movie is following the formula close enough that it’s predictable, then it’s following it too closely.

  5. (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.)

    Thats is all half true, the story is familiar, in a god way IMO but the four points you make are still too broad for me to feel guilty for loving the story as much as any other aspect of Avatar. You could take a million movies like Avatar and fight over which one is the best and most original and which one Avatar “stole” the most from but what few consider is maybe Cameron wanted to use this story. Maybe it was his choice to use a story that was immersive. I say this because The hero, Jake, is our avatar through the movie. We feel, learn, react, discover, and root for the right team whenever he does. So having him “go native” gets us steeped in the world in the way that worked the best for his movie IMO. The pocahontas riff needs to stop. The script comparison is bullshit. I re-watched pocahontas and all i can say is I still didnt give a damn about that movie and got lost in the differences, which sadly few have done >:[ That picture you have of the script shouldnt exist. Its merely a sign of how cynical, closed minded, ignorant, hypocrytical, pretentious, and self richeous kids are these days. The internet has been poison for this Incredible movie and it frustrates me beyond belief that people say they hate avatar for the story without having one intelliget reson to say why. If Star Wars was made in this decade, people would tear that movie to shreds with similar hateful complaints. I know you mean well and you have some good points, but i think all this finger pointing is crazy so im willing do defend Avatars originality.

  6. Thanks for your feedback. I don’t take the image of the modified Pocahontas script too seriously, but it did make me laugh. Do I actually think that was James Cameron’s thought process? As I made clear in my blog post: no, of course not. I don’t think he stole from any movies at all, rather, I think he borrowed from the same pre-existing formulas. Had he taken one more step in the direction of originality, I think it would have made for a stronger movie. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good movie that I enjoyed, but analyzing it solely from a writer’s perspective, I think it could have been better.

    The article titled “The Avatar That Almost Was” (which I linked in my original post) was my inspiration for this blog post. I feel like Cameron had a lot of originality and depth in the first Avatar script that got lost in the interest of making a “safer” Hollywood movie. If you want to know what stirred up a lot of my thought processes, read that article.

  7. Pingback: Dances with Pocahontas in Space, Revisited « Off the Written Path

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