I recently went to the movies to see "Avatar," James Cameron's new $400 million extravaganza. While readily acknowledged as a ground-breaking movie for its technical accomplishments, a number of reviewers agreed there was essentially no story. I disagree. There was a story--it simply wasn't original.
It has become, or maybe always has been, a Hollywood practice of producing unoriginal stories because the Director is the primary force behind story selection. Many big-name Directors no longer need to do any real groundwork to find fresh stories or cultivate new talent that might bring an original story onto the big screen. I don't believe this could be the result of any cost-cutting measure as paying an author for an original story would amount to as much as paying for a cinematographer or costume designer. So I must believe instead that Directors are too wrapped up in their own need to be the single vision behind a film and that they don't want to share any limelight with a good writer. Maybe their ego-driven need to be in control clouds their vision when it comes to their own writing or story development. If they were great writers, they'd probably have best-selling novels. But with their connections and investors, they continue to bring out tired plots and remakes that depend more on new technology to shed some new light on an old subject.
I mention this because every year hundreds of authors publish great stories that are largely ignored and when their stories are turned into screenplays they are still ignored. And we, as an audience, continue to be force-fed commercial cliches and reductionist stories stripped of any real meaning and totally devoid of nuance or depth. I'm thinking of my friend, Duff Brenna, who has two very original novels turned into screenplays, The Book of Mamie and Too Cool, both optioned with options renewed but never produced. As a science fiction fan I throw up my hands when a writer with the popularity of Philip K. Dick has had a wonderfully strange story, Ubik, out there as a screenplay that has never been produced while Cameron can put $400 million into producing his own unoriginal story.
Lets look at a couple of unoriginal ideas underpinning "Avatar":
1) The Marginal Man -- this theme runs through a lot of Western American literature from A.B. Guthrie's character of Dick Summers in The Big Sky to Richard Harris' role in "A Man Called Horse." It addresses the inner tension that exists when a person is forced to live in the margin between two cultures (Sully), no longer able to identify with the culture they have given up yet not wholly integrated into a new culture--the white living in a Native American tribe or an Indian trying to find acceptance in white culture and gains this acceptance by being a visionary or a great warrior.
2) "Calling of the tribes" -- This theme of course finds it's most popular expression in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but also in stories such as "Dune," where the Marginal Man is also the prophesized messiah who calls together the tribes to throw off an invader, particularly when the invader has no sense of the sacred and interested only in exploiting some resource, so it takes a leader who used to be one of the invaders to know how to defeat them.
3) "The sentient forest" -- To my mind, the other themes are more in the realm of public domain, insofar, as they are part of our cultural heritage, even if repeatedly given new spins like the verions of "Frankenstein" or "Dracula." But the world of Pandora seems to have been most fully realized by the science fiction author, Ursula Le Guin, in her novel (and other related stories), The Word for World is Forest, and it's too bad she didn't get any credit for this in Cameron's film. It would be hard for me to believe he hadn't read it, at least as part of the story development for Pandora.
So while a Director may well receive a bigger slice of the pie for doing the story development, I think the public is short-changed by a Director needing to do it all. Philip K.Dick died before "Bladerunner" was finally released in 1982, and if you follow the films that have been made since his death, I cannot help but feel a real sense of sadness that he was unable to enjoy the fruits of all his labors and all the money from these films that have gone to his "estate."
For all the many great writers I know I wish that their stories find their way onto the screen and that it will be in their lifetimes so maybe they will at least be able to afford decent healthcare in their old age.