James Cameron, whose ground-breaking film “Avatar” will soon be the top-grossing movie of all time, is currently being bashed in some of the more obscure corners of the blogosphere for plagiarism. This time the criticism is not based on his blatant borrowing from Russian science fiction, but for his lifting of ideas from an American master of the genre, Poul Anderson. Anderson wrote a novella in 1957 entitled “Call Me Joe” that chronicled the adventures of a paraplegic who becomes telepathically merged with a manufactured alien life form created to explore a planet. He is exhilarated by the sensations and power of his artificially-created body, and eventually is seduced into abandoning his humanity completely to become a significant figure in the development of a new civilization. Along the way, he battles vicious alien creatures. Sound familiar? Yes, these are major components of “Avatar” as well.
Cameron has mentioned and given credit to other sources that inspired him, but not Anderson. Legally, he doesn’t have to, despite what some angry Anderson fans, of which there are many (and some Cameron haters, of which there may be even more) are saying. “Avatar” isn’t close enough to “Call Me Joe” to be called plagiarism, unlike Cameron’s copious “borrowing” from the work of Harlan Ellison for his script of “Terminator,” which is a much closer question. Unlike Anderson, who is dead, Ellison was (and is) alive when “Terminator” became a sensation. The science fiction writer is also notoriously litigious, and forced Cameron to pay an undisclosed settlement and to include a prominent acknowledgment of his works in the film’s credits.
This Cameron should have done for Ellison in the first place, and he should have acknowledged Anderson in “Avatar.” It isn’t a matter of copyright laws or law at all, but of fairness, generosity and respect. What does Cameron lose by refusing to acknowledge a great writer whose ideas sparked his own creation? Only vanity, the ability to convince himself and others that he wasn’t standing on the shoulders of geniuses who went before him, though virtually every writer who has ever lived, including Shakespeare, has done just that for as long as humans have entertained themselves with stories.
What do we lose when he doesn’t extend credit to Poul Anderson? Many of us lose the opportunity to discover a great writer. Anderson’s creative output loses prominence, and begins to be lost to our culture, perhaps forever.
Secure and ethical writers know that acknowledging artists whose ideas they borrow and adapt is a simple application of the Golden Rule. It doesn’t make a writer look less talented to give credit to another; it only makes that writer look like a better human being. Not giving deserved credit, however, encourages future writers to do the same. Cameron was unfair to Anderson and Ellison, but such conduct has been the rule rather than the exception in Hollywood since the days of silent movies.
When there are exceptions, good things happen. In 1926, Hollywood made a John Barrymore adventure film called “The Sea Beast.” It was inspired by a novel, but the novel and its author were obscure and would add nothing to the box office; the studio could have easily used the book without mentioning it. Instead, it gave prominent credit to the deceased author, a patent clerk named Herman Melville, and his novel, a strange and forgotten whaling story called Moby-Dick. The movie wasn’t much, but its credits sparked some viewers to track down the book. Before long, it was being assigned in college classes and called “The Great American Novel,” as it still is to this day. Yet without the fairness and generosity of Warner Brothers, who produced the film, one of America’s greatest literary treasures might have been lost to us.
Generosity and fairness are two ethical values that can have surprising and wide-ranging consequences. It appears that James Cameron, as talented as he is, doesn’t appreciate them, and that’s bad for us, Poul Anderson, and posterity.