Dances with Flying Space Wolves
December 21, 2009 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Avatar (the film) has a very generic-off-the-shelf-storyline. Where did it originate? Possible spoilers ahead.

I've read that Cameron came up with the story in '94, so did he just take Dances with Wolves and add "IN SPACE!" to the end? In what other movies/books/etc. does this story/theme exist?
i.e. Fern Gully, Pocahantas, Battle for Terra...
posted by P.o.B. to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A bunch of pertinent thoughts here.
posted by jbickers at 5:30 PM on December 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

I made the immediate observation while watching it that it was like Disney's Pocahontas mixed with Fern Gully, though I imagine these storylines were also probably borrowed from earlier works.
posted by a.steele at 6:05 PM on December 21, 2009

Damn, I somehow missed that last line! Sorry!
posted by a.steele at 6:06 PM on December 21, 2009

The Last Samurai. You might categorize these stories into two variations, based on the ending: do the natives win, or get wiped out at the end?

Natives win: Dune, Pocahontas, Avatar
Natives lose: Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves

SPOILER: Arguably in Avatar, the natives do lose, but Eywa intervenes at the last moment

District 9 has several interesting twists: the aliens aren't all that sympathetic, they are the ones invading us, they have the superior technology, but we end up subjugating them. The hero doesn't appreciate his transformation at all, it devastates his life rather than liberates him. If you consider the humans the natives, then maybe it's "natives win", and then its about a native transforming into an invader.

Also, I don't think this genre of stories is necessarily racist. OK, so the white guy ends up being the king/hero/savior of the natives, but I think it's a potentially shallow reading of the movie to read the native tribe as symbolizing actual native tribes. My alternative reading is that the native tribe stands for a Western romantic ideal that life should be about access to the sublime in nature, art, music, spirituality-not-religion, or whatever transcendent thing that makes us whole again. The rationalist/scientific/technocratic materialistic aggressor doesn't understand this and tries to destroy it. Paraphrasing from Avatar: "The real treasure isn't unobtanium, it's the interconnected web in the planet!"

To reduce it down to something trivial, it's about artists raging against the stupid bean-counters, and the story is about how the bean-counter finally comes to realize how wrong he was, and becomes an artist. To me, this is kinda narcissistic, but not racist. OK, maybe a little racist, in that it co-opts the suffering of aboriginal people to dramatize a comparatively minor struggle, something like "My struggle to achieve sublime art is the same as the anti-imperialist struggle that the noble savages have also engaged in. My failures have the same tragedy as their extinction, etc."
posted by AlsoMike at 6:07 PM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

posted by smoke at 6:08 PM on December 21, 2009

See also, nostalgia - different situation, same themes apply:

"Nostalgia, like Rice Chex, antacid tablets, and Dan Rather, is a product of modern urban industrial society, which is continually assaulted by change (AKA progress, for the optimists among us) and where most people have lost their sense of connection to the land. In a traditional agricultural society there's nothing to get nostalgic about, since you're still living on the land and yesterday was pretty much the same as today."
posted by smoke at 6:12 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Is this type of narrative new to our post-industrial society? Wrt Guns, Germs, and Steel, is it specific to the "white guilt story"?
posted by P.o.B. at 6:20 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

P.o.B, I don't think that the adventure story narrative is new to our post-industrial society. The extra addition of white guilt to the genre however maybe. I don't think the proper demarcation for white guilt story is post-industrial however, I think a better line would be post-colonial. So yes it is new to the post-industrial society.
posted by Carillon at 6:34 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: I haven't seen the film (yet?), but from what I've read, it sounds awfully Noble Savage to me.
posted by rtha at 6:42 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: Others: Lawrence of Arabia. Shangri-La, based on the 1933 book, Lost Horizon.

I wonder if there is a variation in which children play the role of the natives, against the colonizing adult world.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:58 PM on December 21, 2009

Others: Lawrence of Arabia. Shangri-La, based on the 1933 book, Lost Horizon.

Maybe a little bit of Lord Jim as well (at least the last part)?
posted by LionIndex at 8:14 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: i was under the impression that he stole the plot from poul anderson's call me joe. poul also wrote a book named the avatar.
posted by phil at 8:25 PM on December 21, 2009

i wish i could edit posts. call me joe was written in 1957 and the avatar was written in 1978.
posted by phil at 8:28 PM on December 21, 2009

I'd say this goes way back. In some ways this is another version of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Resourceful white guy triumphs over evil with native help (Friday, in RC). That said, I can't pinpoint the first story which is: Resourceful white guy saves natives from other white guys, with native help.

It's not all that difficult to see these stories as an expression of Western culture's long struggle to, at first, justify and then atone for their history of subjugating other cultures and ethnic groups.
posted by Kattullus at 9:48 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Technically in Last Samurai it's a civil war rather than colonization; the people with guns he trains are the Imperial army, and the people Tom Cruise hooks up with are samurai who's social status was undermined by modernization.

While the movie heavily plays up the white guilt, the actual events might be seen as a repudiation of an oppressive hereditary social order.

Anyways, if you want to take the colonization aspect further back, Leatherstocking is the earliest example I can think of.
posted by pwnguin at 11:25 PM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: Well, if it's examples of noble savages you want, I'd suggest the Noble Savage tvtropes page.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:22 AM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: These plots are also referred to as What These People Need Is A Honky. At tv tropes they're called Mighty Whitey. Both pages list examples.
posted by nooneyouknow at 8:16 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers! This is what I was interested in seeing.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:19 PM on December 22, 2009

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