The Monomyth: Avatar, James Cameron, and Copyright Court


Avatar plagiarized this Hugo-Award winning novelist Ben Bova.

Ben Bova says “Haha, naw.”

Earlier this month another in the great line of lawsuits against James Cameron, for Avatar, was dismissed. This time it was a screenwriter who claimed that Lightstorm stole his screenplay about corporate colonization of a mega-cool 3D planet. Probably why studios don’t look at unsolicited screenplays. Get an agent, ya dang foolies.

From the start, James Cameron has had his difficulties with copyright court. Acclaimed SF author Harlan Ellison sued Cameron, successfully, over The Terminator, the 1984 classic that was nearly James Cameron’s first film. Ellison is known for going after money, scrounging it like a miserly gremlin, and frequently takes to litigation. Both of these dudes are infamous for being difficult men, and so it was inevitable that at some point they’d have a showdown in court, and so it’s just funny that it was in fact the earliest conceivable point.

With the two blog posts above, we get just one example — we all heard it back in 2009-present, the whole “this is just Dances with Pocahontas: The Last Rainforest.” As if any of us have actually SEEN Ferngully. So — is Ben Bova right? Should plagiarism be limited to words themselves and not ideas?

Or… should it even be subjective? Media laws and all that are really bizarre (one suit was dismissed because the alleged original Avatar story, a children’s book, was too simple to be comparable). It’s an endless grey area. But the comparison stink lines have been drawn, so what do you think? Hold that thought — here’s what I think.

The truth is perhaps much more depressing, that the old saying holds — there is nothing new under the sun. Every story is iterative and derivative and so I guess that jerk was right, those many, many moons of Pandora ago. James Cameron didn’t necessarily steal any ideas (whether or not he did is unlikely [perhaps less so than with Terminator, which was clear-cut] but impossible to prove, so the fanboys will continue to slapfight) but his ideas were so generic (tribal native aliens, space dragons, robot suits, corporate terraforming, eco-warrior tree nonsense, and space marines — which of course he was first to in film) that it’s easy to draw earlier comparisons.

The sad thing is, even if James Cameron copped to plagiarism, assuming he plagiarized, the anti-JC camp would never let him live it down. Not only because Avatar was not very well received by the traditional science-fiction audience, but because we still don’t forgive the greatly talented Wachowski siblings (please buy Cloud Atlas on Blu-Ray Disc) for ripping off and admitting to ripping off Ghost in the Shell, and also Megazone 23 and probably Akira. No matter what angle you take, it’s a bent and broken amorphous mess. And all just because a humble man wanted to create the greatest cinematic experience of all time.


2 thoughts on “The Monomyth: Avatar, James Cameron, and Copyright Court

  1. I totally agree with your point; most stories have been told one way or another. I think movies such as ‘Avatar’ are successful because it appeals to many people on many levels. The story is one of those levels, but hardly the complete picture. And yes, the story is basically the same as ‘Dances with Wolves’…doesn necessarily mean the movie isn’t original.

    • If any fan of Star Wars or The Matrix disses on Avatar for being unoriginal they oughtta get that principle of appealing to many people — the reason Lucas and the Wachowskis and of course O’Bannon/Shusset (“We didn’t steal from anybody, we stole from everybody!”) drew from a number of sources was to create this wide-appealing experience, with a number of aesthetics, one of which will get someone, and a lot of these sources have the same narratives. Not the best way to do it, but so long as you come up with The Matrix I’ll give you the pass

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