Avatar's Ancestors by James May.
Avatar's Ancestors by James May
When I was a young man of 14 years old, thrilling to the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, A.E. van Vogt and Robert Heinlein among many others in the 1960's, I wished that the mainstream public could really know how wonderful science fiction could be and that it wasn't just some childish stories for "weirdos". With the release of Avatar, the dream has come true and the mainstream film going public loves SF as I always knew they would. There have been other steps along the way and some of them quite wonderful as filmmakers of the last 30 years have taken advantage of advances in special effects and screenwriting as well as mining SF literature both specifically and in more general terms. Great SF films like Cameron's own "Aliens" and 2 Terminator films, the "Children Of Dune" miniseries, "Gattaca", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", the Star Wars films and a host of other have brought the wonders of SF literature into the sunlight. It remains to be seen whether rather more sophisticated and less action oriented stories such as van Vogt's "The Weapon Shops" from 1942, "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" by Cordwainer Smith from 1961 or Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy also from the 1940's can be successfully adapted into film or accepted by the mainstream public. The dates of these works show how long SF literature has been putting out truly adult and sophisticated work compared to film. One can only believe that the movie going public would have scratched their heads in seeing a film version of "The Weapon Shops" in 1942. The reason for that is that the vocabulary one must acquire in order to make sense of hard core science fiction is rather daunting. While hard core SF fans eagerly gobble up such a vocabulary through familiarity, the mainstream public has had to undergo an education as it were that started in the early 1960's television shows and is a work still in progress. Having said that, the mainstream movie going public is much more sophisticated about SF themes and terminology than even 20 years ago. Such concepts as exo-skeletons, faster than light travel, force fields, lasers, androids and a whole panoply of ideas are now part and parcel of the average film goer's SF vocabulary in the United States and abroad as well as the thematic archetypes that go along with them. Many years ago, SF films which compromised their stories and pacing in order to bring the watcher up to speed on an SF vocabulary were a common problem. In light of this problem, some screen writers and directors of SF film simply didn't trust the mainstream public to understand their films; this problem has been largely solved as witness the lack of trust evidenced in the 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune which eviscerated Herbert's ideas for fear the public simply wouldn't get it and then contrast that with the 2003 adaptation of Herbert's "Children Of Dune", and the difference is vast; to me it is no coincidence that "Children Of Dune" is one of the best SF films ever made. "Children Of Dune" trusted the public and maintained largely intact the nuanced themes present in Herbert's original work. With Avatar, Cameron could concentrate on story, pacing and a brief introduction of new ideas or technologies in the firm belief that the mainstream public was fully up to speed when it came to the vocabulary specific to SF. The American film going public wasn't ready for 1984's version of "Dune" even as dumbed down as it was and I don't think the project ever had any realistic chance of success.
== On Cameron's Literary, Film and TV sources==
While some have made a big deal of Avatar's possible literary ancestors such as Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe" or Christopher Rowley's 'Fenrille' series, I have simply thought, 'finally' and thanks a lot. Science fiction literature has, since the late 1930's, been decades ahead of SF film in it's sophistication but now the gap has closed considerably. Glimpses of science fiction's wonderful power came to light on televison shows such as the "Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits" and "Star Trek"; this whetted the public's appetite for SF and this interest has only grown and grown. When I first saw the scene in "Terminator 2" where the evil android rose out of a tile floor it had been mimicking, it brought me back to the first time I'd read a similar part as a teenager in A.E. van Vogt's 1940 short story, "Vault of the Beast", and how much I'd enjoyed that short story scene's almost identical idea at the time. I wasn't thinking of plagiarisation but rather, okay, here it is at last and that I would have probably done the same thing were I a filmmaker. SF fans who grew up with the old SF greats are almost crusaders in their desire to see their much loved genre shared amongst others and it is in this spirit that I view Cameron's work. I don't think Cameron is a man lacking in ideas but rather has a nostalgic desire to share the books he loved as a child and the unique fun science fiction can be. In any event, taking an idea and bringing it to the screen in a proper way are two different things and in this Cameron has been eminently successful; in this regard and from a film production perspective, I would say the ideas need Cameron more than Cameron needs the ideas - homage and not theft would seem to be in the front of Cameron's mind. James Cameron stated as much about ideas he lifted from 2 episodes of "The Outer Limits" for the Terminator movies but for which he was subsequently sued.
== Avatar's Archetypal Ancestor's==
James Cameron has specifically mentioned wanting to have some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' vision of John Carter of Mars in his film Avatar. Actually I see more of Burroughs Carson of Venus series in the lush forest full of enormous trees and dangerous beasts. I cannot discount and I hope that the fantastic Ace paperback covers for Burroughs stories done by the great Frank Frazetta and Roy G. Krenkel in the mid-1960's have also found their way into Avatar; surely they must have. Burroughs SF books were often referred to by contemporaries as "science romance" and one can see this term perhaps reflected in the color and light and design of the land in which Avatar's indigenous people live but certainly in Avatar's theme of the protagonist's great love for a woman which was central to almost every single book by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The love story in Avatar is also central to that movie and so you have hard science fiction residing alongside wistful fantasy and romance and in this, Avatar could very much be considered a "science romance" in the Burroughsian sense. As I write this, Avatar has only cemented the fact that the world at large loves science fiction; it only waited for the right film makers to present SF the way it was meant to be presented. I can only hope a trilogy of films comprising the first 3 John Carter of Mars books, an adaptation of Alfred Bester's "The Demolished Man" and so many others will be introduced to the mainstream public. Of course, there will be work like Avatar which is an original screenplay but with nostalgic men like James Cameron, you can bet the spirit of SF literature will still be well represented. Thanks to people like James Cameron, Captain Future, the Grey Lensman, Gully Foyle and Elliott Grosvenor will live on a long, long time.
Avatar's Specific Literary Ancestor's
A novella named "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson was published in the April, 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In this story, the mind of a wheel chaired bound man is projected at will into an 'Avatar' body from a space platform in orbit around Jupiter. This construct has been designed to survive Jupiter's harsh conditions for purposes of exploration. Christopher Rowley had 2 books of his 'Fenrille' series published in 1983 and 1985; they are, respectively, "The War For Eternity" and "The Black Ship". On Fenrille, off-world corporate-backed private mercenary armies fight the native-American-like indigenous people for a fabulously expensive drug that can only be obtained on Fenrille. The natives live in a vast and hostile world forest of titanic trees which are all interconnect into a giant brain as it were - a brain that can and does defend itself against attack in extremity. These are the 2 authors who's work immediately came to mind as possible specific sources for Avatar. On a more archetypal level, Ursula K. LeGuin's 1972, "The Word For World Is Forest", and 2 short stories by Clifford Simak, "Desertion", 1944, and "You'll Never Go Home Again, 1951, also were in the front of my thoughts when I first saw "Avatar". It's anybody's guess what part these stories played in the creation of "Avatar" but I found the work of Anderson and Rowley particularly compelling in this regard.