The World Builders James Cameron’s Avatar
As with most creative endeavors, his world morphed through many incarnations, and drew on many sources. In another interview, he said that the 9ft tall blue skinned Na’vi of Pandora were inspired by a dream his mother had. Plus, he likes blue, and it is associated with the Hindu gods - so is the word Avatar, which refers to the gods taking human form.
World building is a vital part of science fiction and fantasy. Long before Cameron, writers and film makers didn’t just write the stories, they created the worlds in which the stories took place. One of the writers enjoyed by Cameron in his youth, Edgar Rice Burroughs, used his imagination to turn Mars from a barren, lifeless planet into a world where his hero John Carter could fall in love with a Martian princess and become a hero.
Frank Herbert built a whole network of worlds, each different from the other, for his epic series Dune. J.R.R. Tolkien wove incredible detail into his creation of Middle Earth, where he set his stories. George Lucas created an intricate star system, populated with different worlds and different species, to bring Star Wars to the screen.
Many worlds built by science fiction and fantasy writers have common tropes - because this world, and our own human species, are the only experiences we have to draw on, it forms the foundations on which world builders let their imaginations loose. The Na’vi are humanoid, they have genders, they have two legs and arms, they have emotions, just like us. They remind us of many cultures on earth - the Native Americans, the Zulu and Masai - and they are recognizable enough for human cinema goers to empathise with them, and relate to them, in spite of the fact that their appearance is so radically different.
Pandora has flora and fauna that is recognizable as what it is also - a tree looks like a tree, some of the animals look something like earth animals, and plants are clearly plants. Another writer may imagine a world where plants walk about and animals stay rooted to the spot. But no matter how a world builder presents his or her creation, it must make sense in its own right.
A world builder succeeds by being consistent to the world that is created. World builders have to look at many different aspects - both material and spiritual. In what way does the physical reality of the world impact on the philosophy of its inhabitants? Cameron took the concept of Gaia and imagined a world in which there is truly a physical as well as spiritual connection between all the life forms and the planet itself. The Na’vi can ‘plug in to’ the planet and its life forms through their long hair.
This of course deeply affects their philosophy - they do not merely believe they are intimately connected to their home planet and everything in it, they know they are. Cameron’s painstaking steps in building his world of Pandora is one of the main reasons why it resonated so strongly with movie goers. It is said that writing is not so much what you show and tell, but what you know and don’t tell. Tolkien knew far more about Middle Earth than his readers, and much of that knowledge is lately coming to light with the publication of his notes. In the same way, Cameron has given himself a vast mythology to draw on when he returns to Pandora for the second and third movies in the trilogy.
The beauty of world building is that it creates a place for the writer, and the reader or viewer to escape, and be somewhere that is nor our own everyday reality. We can put our concerns in this new setting and obtain a new viewpoint, and broaden our philosophy as well as our imagination - and of course, we just can’t wait to go back!
The Avatar movie:
Avatar (Original Theatrical Edition)
A guide to Pandora:
Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora (James Cameron's Avatar)
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