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Allusion, Homage, or Plagiarism?

Georges Polti, a 19th century French author, attempted to create a system to categorize every dramatic situation in a piece of literature.  Polti, looking at classical Greek texts and contemporary French texts, created a list of 36 plots.  It is an interesting exercise to think that every plot however twisting and convoluted can be slotted into one of these 36 categories(or sometimes more than one).

This got me to thinking about the hidden parallels we often miss in movies.  As an English teacher, I see allusions–references in one piece of literature to another–nearly every day.  In Beowulf the author alludes to the Bible by suggesting Grendel, a monster, is descended from Cain.

For example, in Transformers the character of Optimus Prime has several parallels to the literary character Jesus.

Let me pause for a moment to explain.  Here I will look at the Bible as a piece of literature.  This approach is not intended to offend, but rather to examine the text on its literary merits and very wide reaching influences on our culture. 

I do not think the parallels were accidental.  Jesus was a leader of a group of disciples.  Optimus Prime leads the Autobots.  Jesus sacrificed himself.  In the animated feature from the 80s, Transformers: the Movie, Optimus sacrifices himself in a battle with Megatron.  Optimus on his death bed says to his followers, “Do not grieve.  Soon I shall be one with the Matrix.”  Later he goes on to suggest that the power of “the Matrix” will be used by a future Autobot to “light our darkest hour.”  This parallels the story of the second coming and the apocalypse in the Book of Revelations.  There are further parallels in the more recent films, but my point it made.

Following the release of James Cameron’s visual masterpiece Avatar reviewers, critics and astute audiences noticed some striking similarities between this and other films.  The first was Dances With Wolves.  The plot similarities are clear.  A wounded warrior ventures out among the savages.  He comes to admire them.  He joins the noble savages in their fight against civilization falling in love with a savage as well.

A second parallel is with the Disney classic Pocahontas.  The story line is disturbingly similar.  A warrior, the case of Pocahontas, John Smith, is rescued from the clutches of her father, a powerful tribal leader.  The twists and turns of the remainder of the plots are nearly parallel.

Steve Bryant at NBC Chicago suggested that Avatar is the Matrix in reverse.  His article is an interesting read as he suggests the script has simply been reversed: from the virtual to the real in the Matrix and from the real to the virtual in Avatar.

Another author suggested that there are remarkable parallels to The Last Samurai and Ferngully.  I am not that familiar with Ferngully so I’ll stick with The Last Samurai here.  A broken down veteran(alcoholism and not paralysis) ventures to a strange land.  He befriends the noble savages he encounters.  They fight a mighty battle against a mechanized capitalistic force.  Win or lose Nathan Algren has learned something and in the end joins the savages.

So at what point is James Cameron’s Avatar no longer simply making allusions to these films (or to the story archetypes they all use), and becomes plagiarism?  Can there be plagiarism in movies? Where does that line exist between homage and plagiarism?

It is probably wherever the lawyers and judges say it is…


About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...


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