Adapting Avatar: The Last Airbender

I finally got around to watching The Last Airbender. I had been warned it wasn’t good, but it was downright painful. I’d read that Shyamalan claimed he consulted with DiMartino and Konietzko while making the movie, but there was a ton of evidence that showed that not only did he not talk to the creators, he never watched the show itself.

This was most plainly obvious when Zuko, trying to prove a point to Iroh, had a child in a tavern tell the story of how Zuko got his scar like it was common knowledge. In the cartoon, Iroh tells the story to Fire Nation sailors talking mutiny because they have only heard he was wounded in an accident, and Iroh wanted them to know the real story. In one well-crafted stroke, we learn about Zuko, Iroh, Ozai, and the relationships between Zuko and Iroh and between Zuko and Ozai, and we develop some sense of sympathy toward the rather unlikable Zuko, wanting him to find some sort of happy resolution for his personal issues.

Part of the problem was that Shyamalan decided to take a story spread out over twenty episodes (489 minutes) and condense it down to the length of a single children’s movie (103 minutes). Had he really been trying to distill the season into a single movie, he essentially would have had to summarize each episode in sequential five-minute segments in the movie. The season’s story is a beautifully woven, coherent story, but there are also hooks set up for events that come in the two later seasons. When so much care was taken with the writing to begin with, how do you decide what’s “truly important”? I can see where the challenge originated, but Shyamalan decided to look away from that well-crafted story and focus the last third of the movie on the last three episodes of the season, which meant only focusing on those bits of the season’s story that either led to that moment of the story, or that allowed for fight choreography (because that’s an appropriate way to celebrate pacifist Aang), or that allowed for intricate special effects.

Rather than adapt a nearly impossible situation to a single movie, Shyamalan should have taken a more transmedia approach, instead telling a story of the world recovering from the Fire Nation’s control or set in main characters’ adult lives (something we get a fleeting glimpse of in The Legend of Korra). It might have been a better movie.

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