Avatar – part 2: sources

you can find Avatar – part 1: seeing the film right here.

There has been a LOT of discussion and opinion about the possible sources and influences on Cameron resulting in the plot and look of Avatar. I’ve yet to see Cameron give anything specific, other than to say he’s wanted to make the film for a long time but had to wait for the technology to catch up to his concept.

The Plot

Much of the discussion is about the storyline for Avatar, and a lot of it is insightful. The first reference I read, just after the first leaks about the film, was that it sounded a lot like Harry Harrison’s Deathworld. My reaction to that was Wow! Great! I LOVE Deathworld , did when I read it in Astounding Science Fiction (January-March, 1960) and loved it when I reread it years later. Later, as people saw the trailers and read more about the film, the most consistently identified source was Poul Anderson’s story “Call Me Joe”, which features the concept of a remotely controlled body on a planet. That’s another favorite story from back when, and recently reread in a Anderson collection I’m working my way through, so that sounded pretty good to me as well. The comparison is apt.

Then I began reading more and more suggestions, most of them fairly sensible, but the longer the list got, the more it seemed to me the comparison could be made to a goodly share of the entire genre. Where do the comparisons end? It has advanced science, spaceships, explorers, a military presence, aliens, a religious/quasi-religious theme, an alien landscape, unknown botany and biology, an advanced – or is it a backward? – alien culture, humans at cross-purposes with each other in the face of a threat… I can go on, but you get the idea.

There are a lot of basic themes in science fiction, and any time a new SF film is made, someone is going to say, “look, they stole this…or that… from (fill in the blank)” It happened with 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Star Trek and Star Wars (Buck Rogers, anyone?). Even THX 1138, Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park (Godzilla, anyone?) and on and on. Fact is, it’s darned hard to find any SF film that isn’t derivative of something in some way. That’s just the way the genre works.

That said, there are some pretty nice tributes in the film, and I’m not going to mention them all – heck, I probably missed a lot of them. I saw the six-legged beasts as a direct nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books, as the Martian men and beasts were six-limbed. There were nods to the bonding and dragon-riding of Anne McCaffreys’ Pern books. There are many others.

The whole issue of cribbing and being unoriginal is really a non-issue, or should be. Sure, go ahead and read the books and stories that are being pointed at, because for the most part they are darned good stuff. I say just get over worrying about where Cameron got the ideas, and look at what he did with them.

The Floating Mountains

This is one particular thing that’s come in for a lot of criticism. Floating mountains? Sure, you say. Right. As if. But like everything else here, there is a precedent. The first one I think of is traditional Chinese painting. There are some areas of China that are very mountainous and misty and fogs are common.  Take a look at this sepia toned painting. Not exactly floating mountains, but the look is certainly there.

Then I think of the art of Roger Dean. Take a look at this cover for The Flights of Icarus painted by Roger Dean. See anything familiar, like maybe a floating hunk of real estate? Yep. Dean did a lot more of this kind of thing, but I’m not going to take the space here to insert them.

You want another source for floating mountains? Sure. This one (below) is by Josh Middleton, an artist who said he was influenced by the Dean art for various Yes album covers and other art by Dean. It’s from CrossGen Comics title Meridian.

It’s been suggested that the art of Christopher Vacher and other more contemporary artists have been doing floating mountains, cities, and whatnot for a while. True, but also look at that pretty old traditional Chinese painting.

I could go on with this one, but you get the idea. I guess the point of all this is simply – and I’m repeating what I said above – It’s not so important where Cameron got the ideas, it’s what he did with them.

Okay, that’s enough for Avatar for today.

The final part of this three part look at the film will be on the soundtrack by James Horner. That’s coming on Saturday for my weekly Saturday Soundtrack feature. See you there.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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17 Responses to Avatar – part 2: sources

  1. Carl V. says:

    “The whole issue of cribbing and being unoriginal is really a non-issue, or should be. Sure, go ahead and read the books and stories that are being pointed at, because for the most part they are darned good stuff. Just get over worrying about where Cameron got the ideas, and look at what he did with them.”

    You summed it all up perfectly there Richard. Amen!

    Great post. I am excited about the ‘controversy’ merely because it gives all of us who are sci fi fans and love our books a chance to say loudly to anyone who will listen, “Hey, if you liked Avatar, read this!”. That may be, in my opinion, the greatest thing to come out of Avatar aside from the great technical advancements of movie making.

  2. Jeff S. says:

    Great post! I agree with your thought’s completely on this non issue.

    As a side note thanks for reminding me of the wonderful Meridian comics series. Years removed from the fall of Crossgen it is the only series of theirs that I can’t part with and still keep in my comic colection. I think it’s a great young adult series which I would hand to any 10-13 kid who loves adventure stories.

  3. Richard says:

    Carl – thanks very much. I agree with you. This a good chance to point towards some good solid older SF that may otherwise be beyond the radar of current-generation SF readers.

  4. Richard says:

    Jeff – nice to see you back again. I briefly did some website work for CrossGen, but left a year or more before things fell apart, so I got to know Mark Alessi and most of the writers and artists. A great bunch of people, especially Barbara Kesel who wrote Meridian, and Ron Marz who wrote Scion, which was my personal favorite. Well, Mystic was a favorite too. I got in at the beginning, and had every preview, comic, collection etc. of CrossGen that was published. A few years ago I got a very nice offer for most of it and sold, but I still have all the collections. I also have a good bit of the original art. I really liked what CrossGen was doing, but comics buyers are a fickle lot, and they had to have their mutants and superheros.

  5. Jeff Meyerson says:

    The one comparison I read that hit home was DANCES WITH WOLVES.

    White man joins ‘noble’ savages, realizes they are right about world and we are wrong, not only joins the tribe but BECOMES THEIR LEADER.

  6. The Chinese have pulled AVATAR from their theaters. Obviously, the Chinese people saw a parallel between the contract soldiers in AVATAR taking the native lands and the Chinese Government taking whatever they want. Can’t have people connecting the dots…

  7. Richard says:

    Censorship is an ugly thing, and exposes ugly motives.

  8. Carl V. says:

    George: Wow, that is a stretch!!! One of the many, many reasons I am thankful to live where I do, despite the problems that we have.

  9. Carl V. says:

    That is so cool that you had that relationship with CrossGen. It is such a pity that the company failed. I was reading Sojourn and Ruse when they came out and enjoyed them. I always thought Meridian looked beautiful and am not sure why I never gave it a try. There was some amazing art done for the company’s books, so if you have originals you no doubt have some really nice pieces.

  10. Jeff S. says:

    Richard: That is so cool that you worked for Crossgen in the past. I loved what they were trying to do and I so wish they were still around today.

    To give you a little background I have worked part-time for the last 13 years for a comic store in a Kansas City suburb. I’m behind the counter but I’m also in on all the store’s ordering. I remember back when Crossgen came out and through it’s entire run. We carried all their titles and supported them through the end.

    Now as it was then the industry is much too dominated by two companies with 90% of their offerings all based around superheros. It’s just not healthy and it’s why the hobby can’t grow. We’re a small store and don’t order a ton of books and our bread and butter is Marvel/DC superheros but what we try to do is support the small and mid size companies as much as we can and try to grow them. We order what we can to carry on the shelf and what we can’t we will special order for anyone. We defiently tried our best with Crossgen but getting the average comic customer to try any other thing than Marvel or DC is a hard sell. Too many people are so close minded. It can be frustrating working behind the counter when people just won’t give good work a chance just because it’s not from Marvel or DC. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know and imagine you understand what I mean completely.

    As for Crossgen my wife and I even made it up to Wizard World Chicago the first year Crossgen was there and got many of our early books signed. Now those books I still have in addition to my Meridian books I believe downstairs. I had books signed by Barbara Kessel who we met as well and she was very nice to me as was Joshua Middleton. In fact everyone we meet in Chicago from Crossgen was great. It’s funny you mention Scion as that was our second favorite book. In fact I think the best book Crossgen ever put out was a Scion issue that they did in the style of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant series. It was amazing. I also liked Sojourn, Mystic and a scifi book of which the name escapes me right that had two brothers penciling and inking it for the first few issues I believe.

    I still keep up the good fight to this day trying to get people to try small to mid-size publishers books. My current favorites are Hellboy, Criminal, Kabuki, some Warren Ellis books ( The recent Ignition City mini-series he did was great ), Artesia, True Story Swear to God, Joe Hill’s Locke & Key, The Walking Dead, Knights of the Dinner Table and Fables. I know Fables is Vertigo but I always look at Vertigo books as small press in a way. I also pushed the special Wednesday comics 12 issue newspaper series from DC this past year as it was great experiment and the Kamdani pages in it were worth the price of the issues alone.

    Lastly, I think it’s great you have some original art from Crossgen. I have collected some original art over the years from different books but it can get quite expensive so I don’t have a lot. I think it’s cool you have some original art as well. I hope some of those pages you were lucky enough to get were Scion and Meridian pages.

    Great talking Avatar AND comics with you.

  11. Richard says:

    Jeff – thanks for that interesting post, your thoughts on the industry are pretty much in line with my own.

    I’ve pretty much stopped doing much with comics, though I do buy all the Fables collections and the monthly Conan from Dark Horse. I gave up on DC and Marvel, and buy a few other things in collected format, like Usagi Yojimbo.

    Yes, I have Meridian and Scion pages, as well as Sigil, Mystic, Negation, The First and Sojourn.

    I also have pages from Fathom, Avengers, Birds of Prey, Batman and others. Honestly, I enjoy the CrossGen pages as much as any. Ron Marz wrote me into Mystic, I am the character who runs Jazzrat’s nightclub.

  12. Carl V. says:

    I thought you were taking a blog break today! 😉

    Sounds like you have some awesome pages. I read Birds of Prey for many years and only cut back when I decided to start getting less comics. I get Fables regularly and got Conan for a long time and only quit in the last year or so.

    Very fun to know that you were a character in a comic book.

  13. Jeff S. says:

    Richard: You’re a character in Mystic. That’s just too cool. The next time I go into work I’m going to have to dig through the Mystic back issues to look for an appearance by you.

    Sounds like you have some wonderful pages. I’ve always liked Fathom and Birds of Prey. I have a Superman for all Seasons Tim Sale page, and pages from Daredevil, Batman Adventures, and Elfquest. I also have so color guides from Green Lantern and Ripclaw. Plus some sketch pages from Starman by Tony Harris. I have one interesting Crossgen item. I have two sketch pages that Josh Middleton did on some small 4 by 6 special Crossgen sketch cards. They look as if they were something the artists might have used at conventions to give to fans. I bought them at a CBLDF table at a convention years ago just so I could have something drawn by Josh Middleton. I like them.

    I have enjoyed the Conan’s from Dark Horse as well but I do miss Cary Nord’s art on the series.

    Lastly you note you’re a Usagi Yojimbo fan. I have never read that series but we have a pull file customer who is a huge fan of the series. Within the last two years the series creator Stan Sakai ( I think I misspelled his last name ) came to Kansas City for a comic book show and this fan dressed up in an unbelievable costume he made of the series main character. He had picture taken with Stan S. and then it appeared on the back cover of one of the current series issues that came out last fall. We were all very happy for him as he was thrilled. Not as cool as being written into a series as you were but still pretty neat for him.

  14. Patti Abbott says:

    Being incredibly uniformed on SF, I enjoyed reading this. It reminded me most of Pocahontas but only because my frame of reference is so meager. Dances With Wolves does resonate, too.

  15. Richard,

    I’ve come to the same conclusions (I’m one of, if not the first person who raised the Deathworld likeness issue), but my reasons are, I think, far different than yours.

    I’m suspicious of Cameron because of past ‘thefts’ that were directly attributable to someone else’s work, proven in court and settled in the victims favor.

    (The best case so far to come to light is the Strugatsky brothers’s series, where the planet has the same name and the indigenes have the same name…)

    The only lesson Cameron seems to have learned is to steal more widely, thus frustrating lawsuits – NOT to have stopped plagarizing.

    Finally, my big issue isn’t “the ideas” (which you are correct on, tropes belong to everyone) but to the misconception of the genre that is being perpetrated on the masses. If the movie included a ‘thank you homage – this movie is inspired by the works of….’, some (very) small percentage of the millions of viewers would be inspired to read some of those works and would get to find out that SF is not all wonderful images and stupid plot.

    As it stands, Avatar is continuing to split media “scifi” off from literary SF and training a very large audience to believe that the least common denominator (stupid characters, stupid science, stupid story, stupid aliens, stupid flying mountains, stupid battle tactics, stupid….) is what the genre is all about.

  16. Richard says:

    Steve, I’m pretty much in agreement with all you say, and yes, yours was one of the first, if not the first, place I saw the Deathworld analogy.

    As for the “stupid…” comment, while I may buy that movie goers might be led to believe this film is the heart of in-print (I want to avoid the word “literary”) SF when in fact it’s not, I don’t think all those things you list are stupid, and I do think any concern over a film causing a mis-representation of the SF genre would apply equally to any number of other films, including DUNE, ALIEN, E.T., STAR TREK, BLADE RUNNER, even 2001. I think a lot of people who see AVATAR will not even think about it’s relationship to the in-print SF genre, only that it’s a “military-SF-fantasy” with cool CG.

    It’s certainly possible that Cameron never heard of the Strugatsky brothers’s series, I know I hadn’t and very few others had, either.

  17. Brian Richards says:

    Thank you. It was me telling someone about the links with Roger Dean that lead me to your blog. You have related some things I was aware of and agree with and some new such as the Chines painting influences. We are all influenced. Are you aware of the tropical sea influences. This comes from my personal experience as a scuba diver. James Cameron is a scuba diver andd he has incorporated much of the beauty of what is below in tropical seas. A posting I just placed on Facebook as I am watching Avatar yet again on TV: “loving Avatar, yet again. In case you missed the point it is a scuba diver’s paradise. James Cameron is a scuba diver and Pandora is, from his imagination, a mix of rain-forest and tropical sea and James’s imagination – perhaps with a small addition of combustible substances too! He has anemones, Hammerhead Sharks on 4 legs, giant Christmas Tree Worms (which are actually about 1 cm) in the jungle and jellyfish in the air and the tropical colours. He knows the paradise that exists under the surface and created it in film for all. Well done James. How long will it be before anyone comes near to this masterpiece (other than James = Avatar 2 ?).” and there is much more, such as the 6-legged horses. They also have some scales and the way they breathe, resembles using gills.
    Regards B under sea 🙂

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