Dances with Pocahontas in Space, Revisited

A few months ago I wrote a post criticizing the movie Avatar, which has become the most read (and most contentious) post in my otherwise quiet corner of the Interwebs. I didn’t even think of it as particularly critical; I liked the movie, I just wished it had stretched further with the story.

A couple weeks ago, I was reminded of this when Writing Excuses (a podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells) did an episode titled How to Steal for Fun and Profit, in which they elucidated many of the same points I had been trying to make, but better and much more thoroughly.

Basically, the point of the podcast was this: All writers (as well as all types of creative folk) are influenced and inspired by the works of people who have come before them. Where’s the line between influence and copying? What do you need to do to make an idea truly your own?

Several different works were mentioned, including Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”, which is an homage to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Avatar was also brought up. Here’s what the podcast had to say about it (the transcription is from A Word in Your Eye, which transcribes all the Writing Excuses podcasts):

[Brandon] Do you think that he was too close to other films, yes or no?
[Howard] I think that they took stories that they knew were safe, they took story elements that they knew were safe, because everything else they were doing with that film was so bleeding edge that they wanted to not take a risk on the story. I reviewed it as the best Fern Gulley remake ever.
[Dan] Avatar is a case where I think I may be more forgiving than a lot of the reviews and comments that I’ve read. Yes, it was a story we’d seen before, but it was the best version of that story that I think I’ve ever seen. So that’s a case where for me, he did enough to make it his own.
[Brandon] I saw the film and I really deeply enjoyed the film. And still walked out of it saying, “Gee, I wish there had been a really great different story, too.” It was a great film that felt… that left a little tiny hole in me that kept me from saying that was a fantastic film. But it’s hard to fault someone for making a really good film that works on so many levels and has made so much money.

I agree pretty much word-for-word with Brandon (or he agrees with me, either way). I really enjoyed the movie, but the lackluster story, particularly compared to everything else, nagged at me. And of course, I can’t help but be happy that some of my favorite authors covered the same themes I did a post about. I feel vindicated. Smart, even.

But seriously, if you fancy yourself a writer, particularly a sci-fi/fantasy writer, check out Writing Excuses. Short, funny podcasts, all with great writing advice, and all from authors who are succeeding professionally (and who made it there in different ways).

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.