Monkey See
4:50 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

James Cameron And Getting Trapped Inside Your Most Successful Creation

Earlier this week, James Cameron made a rather bold statement in the New York Times, effectively swearing off any and all non-documentary filmmaking that doesn't take place within the fictional world he invented in 2009's Avatar. Here is the quote:

I think within the Avatar landscape I can say everything I need to say that I think needs to be said, in terms of the state of the world and what I think we need to be doing about it. And doing it in an entertaining way. And anything I can't say in that area, I want to say through documentaries, which I'm continuing.

Cameron has certainly been a return-to-the-well director his entire career. Of the eight features he's directed, half were either sequels (Piranha 2: The Spawning, Aliens, Terminator 2) or remakes (True Lies). The only movie of the remaining four that he hasn't revisited, either as a franchise (The Terminator, Avatar) or as an updated special edition (the current 3-D rerelease of Titanic) is — and now apparently will always be — 1989's The Abyss.

So his decision isn't entirely out of step with his tendency to double back every so often. But it's hard to imagine that limiting himself exclusively to one fictional world from here on out will best serve his creative impulses. (Insert obligatory joke about Cameron having little creativity to begin with. Can we move on?)

When I heard about Cameron's plan — which, it should be mentioned, could very well just have been Cameron talking to hear himself talk, something he's been known to do on the odd occasion — two people immediately came to mind, one who embraced the trap he'd set for himself and one who chafed at its constraints, even as he had to keep feeding the beast: George Lucas and Douglas Adams.

Lucas, of course, has made and continues to make a ludicrous amount of money off of the empire (pun!) he built off of Star Wars. He's also famously infuriated legions of fans for how he's shepherded the franchise into the new millennium (half-pun!).

For many, the solution would be for him to better understand the universe he created. (Read: understand it the way they themselves understand it.) But I take the opposite approach: I think that many of the problems with the latter-day Star Wars movies could have been avoided if they weren't the only movies he was making.

Granted, Lucas had made other movies as a producer in the meantime: he had a hand in the Indiana Jones franchise, and in Willow, Labyrinth, and Howard The Duck, among others, to varying degrees of success. But by the time The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, it had been 16 years since Lucas's last screenplay credit (Return Of The Jedi) and 22 years since he had directed a movie (the original Star Wars). If he'd been writing and directing that entire time, or even if he'd chosen to return with a non-Star Wars movie first, perhaps he could have ironed out his storytelling kinks and then brought in a new generation of fans without alienating the old one.

Adams, on the other hand, did push back a bit from the success he had with The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. But he largely followed Cameron's stated plan, exploring his other interests in nonfiction (Last Chance To See), non-narrative humor (The Meaning Of Liff) and computer games (Bureaucracy). With the exception of a pair of Dirk Gently books, on the other hand, his novels were almost exclusively Hitchhiker-themed.

More frustrating still, Adams seems to have never been able to escape the cage of his initial inspiration. When I recently read Don't Panic, Neil Gaiman's 1988 history of/tribute to Adams's creation, what I was struck by more than anything was how Adams was continually reworking the same material again and again until his death. What started out as a BBC radio serial was adapted for album release (which wasn't the original broadcast but a rerecording), rewritten as a novel, turned into a stage production, serialized for television and converted into an interactive videogame, all by Adams himself.

Gaiman suggests that Adams began seriously working around 1983 on the inevitable film version, which finally came out in 2005, four years after he died. That means he spent the last 23 years of his life, starting from the original 1978 radio broadcast, continually rewriting the same story over and over for different media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the different iterations, I can't help but think that that's an almost tragic waste of talent.

The sort of dedicated focus on a single narrative that Cameron envisions can certainly be productive. Cerebus author Dave Sim used a comic book about a grumpy aardvark as a 26-year platform to explore whatever narrative, political, and philosophical threads interested him. With unlimited possibilities at their fingertips, fantasy and science-fiction universes tend to be good for that sort of thing; just ask George R. R. Martin.

But Cameron's strengths lie in being a director, not a writer. He'd do better to emulate not Lucas but someone like Steven Spielberg, who has both recurring themes in the stories he tells (World War II, the Jewish experience, distant or absent fathers) and a pair of franchises (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park) that allow him to return to the worlds he's created if he so desires.

He also has the freedom to step away from them as his stories dictate. Cameron might think that he can use the planet of Pandora and the Na'vi people (or "people," I suppose) to make his War Horse or Munich or Minority Report or The Color Purple, and for all I know, he could be right.

But it's just as likely that forcing himself to make them conform to the world he's created will both lessen those stories and misuse his formidable directorial skills. Without other ideas to act as release valves or palate cleansers, Cameron risks becoming so entrenched in Avatar that he can't hear anybody on the outside.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.