Avatar and Originality

Alert! WoW content in the following post at or below 0%. Although there may be a mention of Nagrand somewhere. Probably not, though.

My copy of Avatar arrived in the post yesterday. I absolutely loved it in the cinema, and while the DVD version does lack the 3D-ness I found it just as engaging. I have however heard some critisism aimed at the film on the grounds that it’s “not original”. Anyone who has mentioned this to me has then gone on to say something along the lines of “it’s basically Pocahontas”.

Well… no it isn’t. Yes, there are certain elements which are similar. Neytiri is the daughter of a clan leader. The outsiders are here for a rare mineral. The native people’s deity is represented by a tree (although it’s actually a neural network spanning the entire planet). Jake Sully must live a dual life, having to switch between his Human and Na’vi forms, sometimes losing control over his Avatar at inopportune moments. Just like John Smith (oh, wait…)

I attribute this fixation with Pocahontas on the fact that Disney’s film was released at about the right time for those of  ‘my generation’ to have pretty universally seen it, and at a relatively young age. Let us also note at this stage that the Director has previously spoken of some of his inspirations for the film – “every single science fiction book I read as a kid” for instance. Parallels have also been drawn between Avatar and other fiction (Dances with Wolves springs to mind) too. Is this a bad thing? Should writers always strive for complete originality? Should every story be told in complete isolation, bearing no similarity to anything that has come before?

That complete originality is a desirable goal (or even an attainable one) is a common fallacy. Stories always reference previous fiction or events. A good story is not one that has never been told before but one that is told well. An original work that references nothing, that has no basis in previous events doesn’t engage – we can’t relate to it.

Avatar is inspired by previous works. It references events in the real world, as most Science Fiction does. What matters to me is the quality of the storytelling, not the relative originality of the story’s components.

Avatar tells its story really bloody well. What more is needed?

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