In case you’re just stumbling across my humble little blog, it all started in January, when I made my first couple posts. If you’ve read literally any post on my little website, then you know how big of a bookworm I am. I’ve also written a couple articles involving music, another love of mine. But I haven’t gotten to mention my third-favorite storytelling tool! Film.
I’m trying something new this weekend to give you a break from my ramblings and bumbling attempts at poetry. This time, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the movies that I feel strongly about.
Welcome…to movie weekend!
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert on film or even a film critic at all. These are just my personal musings on a movie that I happen to think about often. You’re welcome to disagree; in fact, I’d be stoked to hear what you think!
The Last Airbender, dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Follows the adventures of Aang, a young successor to a long line of Avatars, who must master all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom.
Both the film and the TV series center around Aang, a 12-year-old monk who discovers that he is the Avatar, the only person in the four nations who can “bend” (control) all four elements. Already an airbender, Aang travels throughout the world to learn water, earth, and fire bending with his companions, (Katara and Sokka) and enemies (Prince Zuko) before a comet returns to make the evil Fire Lord Ozai unstoppable.
Back in 2010, The Last Airbender was met with an overwhelmingly negative response. That’s probably what most viewers remember from this film. Personally, I had a very different experience with it.
If you’re familiar with the world of Avatar, then you know this movie is an adaptation of the 2005-2008 Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. As opposed to the 2010 film, this cartoon is highly regarded as a masterpiece of storytelling by its cult following. And now that Netflix is making another adaptation soon, the world of Avatar is seeing a spike in popularity. But when I was about twelve years old, I’d never heard of the TV series. I watched the film, and that’s all I knew.
Die-hard Avatar fans will cringe when I say that. But I’m about to say something even more controversial. I kind of liked the film when I first saw it.
It wasn’t so much the acting or pacing or execution of the movie that caught my eye. In fact, I barely knew the movie existed: I only went to see it in the drive-in as part of a double feature. It was the concept itself that I fell in love with; the ability to “bend” elements like magic, the existence of a single being who can bend all four at once, the idea of reincarnation, of past lives.
That being said, the worst thing I could say about the movie at the time was that it was a little dull, especially for the interesting concepts it boasted. The only things I remembered was the sad little bald kid, some funky fish, and that cool old guy who can “MAKE FIRE OUT OF NOTHING!”
All in all, it was a movie full of awkward moments, which is unsurprising since Shyamalan is best known for his creepy/quiet tension and not fantasy epics of this scale.
Really, though, this movie has attracted more hate than it deserves. At its core, it presents an interesting idea and makes some creative changes (most of which don’t make sense, but at least there was an attempt).
One good thing that came out of this movie? It engaged me enough to go searching for the original series.
As with most adaptations, it’s difficult to judge the film as it stands by itself. Because I didn’t see the original first, I had nothing to compare it to back then, but now I do. Setting aside the other problems with the film, I think the main problem with the movie stems mostly from its characters.
To illustrate this, let’s compare the characters in the film to those in the TV series. (Yes, I’m aware that it isn’t fair to compare an adaptation to its source material, given that they are, inevitably, two different stories. Between the two different versions, they are two different characters. They cannot be the same, and one shouldn’t be a carbon copy of the other. But adaptations also tend to capture the spirit of the original, and that is most evident in its characters, at least for me.)
To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the original characters from the TV series by their names, and I’ll refer to the film’s characters by their names between quotation marks.
Chipper twelve-year-old monk, Aang, is told at an early age that is the Avatar, which, as it turns out, is a huge responsibility! The main difference between Aang and “Aang,” however, is that they handle this shock very differently, and the responsibility continues to affect them in different ways.
Aang (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen), true to his pacifist nature, avoids and evades his problems. This might seem to be a good tactic for escaping conflict, but it proves to have negative effects too. Aang chooses to avoid his responsibilities and their ramifications, creating a sense of guilt within him that he hides behind a happy-go-lucky attitude. He is also a cheerful kid by nature, making this avoidance easy. As a result, Aang is usually seen with a smile and is always getting into trouble and causing light-hearted mischief.
In contrast, “Aang” (Noah Ringer) sees his responsibilities as something he can never escape. There’s an interesting addition made to the film that wasn’t in the TV series, and though it might seem like a small change at first, it presents a major difference in character. When “Aang” explains how he ran away from the air nomads when he found out he was the Avatar, he first explains that it is customary for the people to bow to him, and he to them. But when faced with the responsibility, he didn’t bow back. This is a definite refusal of responsibility, shown directly to his masters’ faces. Aang avoids the responsibility altogether, not even telling his mentor in person that he’s leaving but leaving a letter instead; “Aang” outright rejects the responsibility.
There is a world of difference between these two incarnations of the main character. Aang’s decisions and mentality lead to a more fun attitude and light-hearted tone. “Aang” makes decisions and thinks in a more somber way, leading to a darker mood and a sad countenance. In terms of adaptation, it’s hard to not see these two characters as complete opposites, despite the fact that they are meant to be two versions of the same character.
Perhaps the most mature character in the original TV series, Katara is the heart and soul of the group. Growing up as the only waterbender in the South Pole, and having lost both her mother and father at a young age, she becomes the voice of reason to contrast Aang’s antics and Sokka’s skepticism. It’s difficult for me to put my finger on the difference between Katara from the TV series and “Katara” from the film, but even though the character difference is subtle, it’s still vital…and it all has to do with how the character handles loss and, like Aang, responsibility.
In the original series, Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman) was highly affected by her mother’s death at the hands of firebenders and the loss of their father, who left them to fight the war against the Fire Nation. With her family now cut in half, Katara takes the responsibility to do all the chores, take care of her brother, and, later in the show, provides steady support for her friends, becoming a vital member of the group and a fighter in her own right. She seeks out opportunities to become stronger, not just to take care of her loved ones, but to take care of herself too. While kind-hearted in nature, she is also fierce. This means that, while her soft heart can at times be easily manipulated, there is an underlying strength that makes her a force to be reckoned with.
With the exact same backstory as the original Katara, the film’s version of “Katara” (Nicola Peltz) lets the loss of her past change her in different ways. Throughout the film, “Katara” is depicted as a novice waterbender at best, and while she is a beginner in the show at first, Katara learns quickly and surpasses Aang enough to even become his master. “Katara,” on the other hand, improves a little but never shows any fierce drive to become a better fighter. Instead, her sole duty, her “responsibility,” is to be the emotional support for Aang. This role is no less important, and “Katara” becomes the emotional center for those around her. Her unshakable hope in others strengthens their resolve, which gives her a sense of fulfillment.
Both versions provide a steady support system, but while Katara also shows the fierce desire to improve her skill set (as well as a stubborn attitude that, at her most determined state, even her brother can’t argue with), “Katara” claims her importance as being a vessel for hope to change the world.
It might surprise those who have only seen the film, but the original Sokka has always been primarily a comic relief character. I’ve mentioned in my rambly article, Side Characters Are the Cheese, that Sokka is my favorite character from the Avatar world, and that is mostly because he is the funny side character who I can’t help but love. But there is much more to Sokka than is apparent at first, and that depth is, in my opinion, what separates the two versions of the character.
Sokka (voiced by Jack De Sena) sees the world through a pessimistic and skeptical lens, which stems from a very simple and sometimes childish way of thinking. This would turn out to be one of his greatest strengths, however. While Sokka often makes snap judgments, he is also quick to admit that he was wrong and learn from those mistakes to become a better version of himself. As a result, his set of skills grows from simple boomerang weaponry knowledge to martial arts to swordplay to maps expert to strategist. Sokka has his moments of stupidity, but he also shows, again and again, that he is one of the most creative thinkers in a cast of already colorful characters. His zany antics, while mostly used for laughs, become a staple of his strengths and personality and even save lives. Throughout his entire journey, Sokka never loses his trademark humor, but he also continues to grow and mature. It would have been so easy to create a stereotypical comic relief sidekick and just leave it at that. But the creators of the Avatar story (Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino) put in the extra effort to round out Sokka’s character, down to the tiniest plot lines. Sokka was often the butt of the joke. But he was never without his nuances.
The difference between the original Sokka and the film version of “Sokka” (Jackson Rathbone) is perhaps the most noticeable (besides, perhaps, Aang). Again with the same backstory, “Sokka” reacts to the Hundred-Year War and his sister’s odd (and for him, uncomfortable) ability to bend with anger befitting that of an angsty teenager. When asked by “Katara” what he would do if the Fire Nation tried to take her away, he immediately replies with, “I would kill them all,” which speaks volumes to his character. Instead of replying with a joke, “Sokka,” in all seriousness, fights against the Fire Nation with depthless rage but little creativity. For what he lacks in wit he makes up for in pure anger and determination.
This isn’t, in itself, a bad change. But to me, it lacks nuance. In fact, the new “Sokka” has much more in common with Zuko than he does his namesake. Even then, “Sokka” has less to do in the plot with his anger because his abilities don’t back up his trash talk.
In the world of Avatar, Zuko is perhaps the most-discussed character and for good reason. Who doesn’t love a redeemable villain? In the pilot of the original TV series, Zuko came on strong as the season’s antagonist, complete with an intimidating scar and a rageful demeanor. However, the series revealed Zuko’s true colors little by little, and that’s where he gets interesting.
Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco) is the prince of the Fire Nation and son of the series’ main villain, Fire Lord Ozai. Banished for speaking out of turn at a war meeting, his backstory reveals a sad and brutal reality that in the Fire Nation, strength is cruelty and kindness is weakness. When he was only 13 years old, he was publicly humiliated by his father, who then burned half his face, leaving him with a permanent scar, both physically and psychologically. He is told that in order to regain his lost honor, he must capture the Avatar. Only then will he be allowed to return home again. Yet, even as Zuko relentlessly hunts Aang all over the world, he repeatedly demonstrates his innate kindness, whether by saving his men in a life-threatening storm or by the sweet relationship he has with his quirky and lovable Uncle Iroh (who is, without a doubt, the best uncle character I’ve come across yet in fiction). Zuko’s journey spans all three seasons of the show, with season one introducing him and his trauma, season two forcing him to question who others think he should be as opposed to who he wants to be, and season three letting him struggle and come to terms with his own need for redemption. Zuko has his loud, boisterous moments, but he’s actually a very internally conflicted character who faces a constant struggle to discern right from wrong. He is often depicted as Aang’s parallel, the yin to his yang, so to speak. The viewer is left to wonder: Is this a villain with a heart of gold or a hidden hero?
It’s difficult to compare the film’s “Zuko” (Dev Patel) to the original, mostly because it’s hard for me to pinpoint what I feel that the film’s version is lacking. Dev Patel does give a good performance as “Zuko” (as does Shaun Toub as “Uncle Iroh”…”Eeroh?”). But the fundamental difference is, I think, the disappearance of the original anger emanating from the original Zuko, which is replaced here by sadness. With everything that “Zuko” has been through, he does not shy away from reminding himself and everyone else what has happened to him and already sees himself as a lost cause. Even as he stands in the South Pole village, in the beginning, demanding to search the elderly for the Avatar, his facial expressions and voice look and sound hopeless. Rather than relying on hate and anger to fuel his drive and purpose, “Zuko” clings to an already flimsy hope, but knowing just how hopeless his situation is, he doesn’t think he can do much about it. He doesn’t lash out, not even when Zhao publicly makes fun of him at a dinner. He instead responds with a quiet declaration that he will attain his goal. It’s whispered, not shouted. Anger isn’t “Zuko’s” driving force: He expresses his grief through a quiet need to be recognized and the belief that he is not, and will never be, in a leadership role.
“Zuko’s” personality seems to be dialed back from cartoonish rage to subtle anguish. In fact, every major character’s personality is held back for some reason. “Aang” is not as animated; “Katara” is not as motivated; “Sokka” is, ironically, two-dimensional compared to his literal two-dimension counterpart; “Zuko” is restricted to a quieter disposition.
There is a reason why I use words like “cartoonish” and “animated.” I’m fully aware that the original TV series had the advantage of creating characters who are larger than life and exaggerated in ways that put their unique personalities on full display. I mean, just look at these faces…
However, I am saying that it would have been fun to see these characters a bit more lively. I wonder: Is it possible that films meant for young adults are trying to present themselves as more mature, more somber, or darker? If these narrative choices that change character so drastically are meant to draw in younger audiences who are looking for more “mature” content just for the sake of it being “mature,” then the characters themselves can come across as watered down or hollow…especially compared to the depictions that made them so well-loved in the first place.
This long article of comparisons is all to say that there is nothing inherently bad with depicting a character in an adaptation differently than the original character is presented. There are, however, dangers to watering down a character’s personality to create a piece of art with a completely different tone than what it was based off. A cartoon like Avatar: The Last Airbender is a difficult material to adapt in live-action, just because of their exaggerated natures. But behind their cartoon depictions (that is, below the surface level), timeless characters like these have the depth and multidimensionality needed to create a live-action depiction that really works.
The Last Airbender didn’t create an adaptation that worked. But it’s definitely an interesting film. Let’s keep hoping for yet more engaging adaptations in the future!
Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash