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Avatar's Script: Derivative?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 6, 2010 at 4:54AM

Just to prevent James Cameron's head from swelling too much from the astonishing global Avatar phenomenon, folks keep reminding him of how derivative and clunky his script is. It's been compared to everything from Pocahontas, The New World, The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves to Ferngully. Truth to tell, most screenplays are derivative, and this one's more "original" than all the knock-offs, remakes and sequels everyone makes now.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Just to prevent James Cameron's head from swelling too much from the astonishing global Avatar phenomenon, folks keep reminding him of how derivative and clunky his script is. It's been compared to everything from Pocahontas, The New World, The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves to Ferngully. Truth to tell, most screenplays are derivative, and this one's more "original" than all the knock-offs, remakes and sequels everyone makes now.

Of course many of Cameron's ideas came from somewhere. He grew up steeped in sci-fi, and at some point probably read Poul Anderson's story "Call Me Joe," first published in 1957. He says he doesn't remember it, and that they scanned his script--that's industry-speak for checking to see if some other published work shares aspects of his story--and didn't find anything. "You can't go back more than 50 years," he says, with some exasperation.

Thompson on Hollywood

But at some point the story took root in Cameron's mind: the image of a grumpy invalid in a wheelchair and helmet able to telepathically (via esprojector) commune with a wild, crazed creature thousands of miles away on one of Jupiter's moons. That creature has a "slate blue form" and a tail. He's able to withstand the ammonia gales of the planet's atmosphere, eat raw meat and drink methane. In one harrowing night scene he is wakened by attacking dark creatures. Anderson writes: "Anglesey drew the wild morning wind deep into his lungs and shouted with a boy's joy." In the end the miserable guy in the space station realizes that his soul wants to be one with his primitive alter ego, and he unites with it as he dies.

Like The Terminator, Avatar grew out of the rich smorgasbord of material Cameron had ingested: sci-fi, New World mythology and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian novels.

It's pretty easy for someone to write up a synopsis of Disney's Pocahontas and annotate it. (The official Disney synopsis, which I have, is quite different.) This synopsis from Matt Bateman is pretty accurate. And the joke works well up to a point. But there's much more going on than this in Avatar.

Cameron must be doing something right. Avatar introduces moviegoers to an immersive new world, a Utopia (or Oz, as Steven Spielberg describes it--hence the conscious reference to "we're not in Kansas anymore") where they indulge the fantasy of being one with nature, able to swoop and fly. I can't wait to go back there.

This article is related to: Awards, Directors, Franchises, Genres, Stuck In Love, Oscars, James Cameron, Avatar, Sci-fi, Screenwriters


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.