Adaptation Review: The Last Airbender

Introduction

The Last Airbender, directed by M Night Shyamalan, is a live-action adaptation of the western animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender. It tells the story of Aang, a young boy who was trapped in ice for a hundred years. Aang is the fabled Avatar – capable of learning to manipulate all four elements, air, water, earth and fire, in a world where other “benders” can manipulate one element each. It is his quest to correct the imbalance in the world created by the Fire Nation’s invasion of the EarthKingdom and Water Tribes and destruction of Aang’s people, the Air Nomads.

The movie covers the first series of the animation, in which Aang and his new friends, Katara and Sokka, travel from the Southern Water Tribe where Katara and Sokka live to the Northern Water Tribe so Aang can learn Waterbending, dodging Fire Nation forces including the exiled Prince Zuko who wants to capture Aang to restore his lost honour, and General Zhao, who seeks to destroy the moon spirit in the Northern Water Tribe’s city in order to destroy Waterbending, which draws its powers from the moon. The first series, and the movie, end with a battle in the Northern Water Tribe city between the Waterbending defenders and the Fire Nation fleet.

Time constraints and cuts

The film condenses a lot of story into a short period of time. The first TV series consists of 20 episodes of 22 minutes each – for a total run time of over 7 hours. The movie, by comparison, is 103 minutes, less than a quarter of the length. As such a lot was cut. With some episodes in the series that cutting is entirely welcome. But the harshness of the cuts meant that some of the character of the world – in particular the Earth Kingdom through which the characters travel – is lost.

One scene in the movie depicts Aang arriving in an Earth Kingdom village occupied by Fire Nation troops. The people there are oppressed and forbidden from Earthbending. This sequence is based on an episode from the series, but is too cut down.

In the series the episode gives depth to the world and is a commentary on fear within an oppressed settlement. The Gaang meet a young Earthbender called Haru and help him save an old man trapped under fallen rocks, only for that old man to turn Haru in to the Fire Nation soldiers out of fear that they’d later discover that the village was harbouring an Earthbender and punish everyone. The Gaang have a supporting role to Haru’s struggle.

In the movie, the Gaang arrive in the village, see the oppression, motivate the villagers and drive out the Fire Nation troops in a matter of minutes. There’s no subtlety and the villagers have no agency; they were just there to be saved by Aang, and the film is weaker for it.

In general, though, the cuts are appropriate. The most important plot elements are preserved while the filler episodes are omitted. Some episodes from the series become important later on – the city of Omashu, for example, and its rather eccentric king Bumi, play a role in the later series – but are not essential to the first series or the film.

Humour

The film’s greatest weakness is one of the greatest strengths of the series: humour. The cartoon doesn’t take itself too seriously and has elements of fun come through all over the place. Aang is a fun-loving, energetic boy while Sokka is a wise-cracking joker with a slightly higher opinion of his jokes than the other characters have, and frequently a victim of slapstick – or Katara’s failed Waterbending. There’s a wackiness to several characters and an endearing playfulness between the animal characters, Appa the flying bison and Momo the lemur-bat – who doesn’t even get named in the movie.

In the movie everyone is so serious. Aang never has fun, Sokka doesn’t get enough lines to crack jokes (or, for that matter, to get a personality at all) and the only nod to slapstick is right at the start, when Katara’s first on-screen attempt at Waterbending lands on Sokka – off-screen. This leaves the movie flat and characterless.

It also takes away an opportunity at demonstrating Aang’s character growth over the course of the series, where at the start he tries to use humour and fun to escape the harsh realities of life and his duties, where later he tones it down to only the appropriate moments and gets on with what he needs to do. This growth is lost in the movie.

Characters

I find some of the characters lacking too. While some work fine – General Zhao is just the right amount of sinister, and aside from their lack of humour there’s nothing in particular wrong with the three lead characters (they certainly look the part, at any rate), some of the side characters don’t fit. Iroh is the worst. He is meant to appear unthreatening – a fat old man who only cares about tea, food, music and games – but later be revealed as a very powerful and renowned Firebender. But his first appearance presents him as far more sinister than that, not the friendly, open-minded character he should be.

Then there’s Gran-gran – Katara and Sokka’s grandmother. Though she’s a minor character, in the series she has an established personality. She’s strict and occasionally grumpy, but generally a good person, like a chocolate with a hard shell but gooey centre. Or at least less hard centre. In the movie she’s a traditional sweet old exposition-dispensing granny.

Zuko also presents an uncomfortable change. For a start, his appearance is begging the audience to take him as a misunderstood antihero – the spiky hairstyle not dissimilar to that seen on young men and teenage boys everywhere. It undermines his role as a villain and just makes him not look like Zuko should. The scar on his face, too, is occasionally easy to miss; making it more obvious would better establish his villainous role.

These changes to characters’ personalities and appearances weaken the movie, not just because it’s different from the series but because those elements were in the series for a reason. They made the story deeper, more nuanced. They enabled a demonstration of character progression – Iroh and Zuko, for example, cut off their top knots in series 2 to symbolise that they are no longer part of the Fire Nation – they are true exiles, fugitives, alone. Later on, Iroh’s success in the tea shop in Ba-Sing-Se gives Zuko a chance at character progression as he becomes less angry and starts to enjoy the simplicity of their new life. Elements like those top-knots also gave depth to the world, with various hairstyles being common to one or other of the elemental groups.

This depth and potential is lost in the movie: imagine the second series was made into a film. Iroh and Zuko can’t cut off their top knots because they don’t have any. A standard haircut won’t have the same impact. They get jobs at a teashop in Ba-Sing-Se, but Iroh’s success at it comes from nowhere. It’s not about fulfilling a dream for him any more, and it’s not a symptom of his and Zuko’s character development, it’s just a thing that happens.

Small issues

Another failing in the movie is the prologue. It is merely narrated by Katara with words on the screen. There was the potential to show some sort of sequence in the prologue, like in the first episode of the series and in summarised form in the opening credits, but this was missed, leaving the prologue dry and easily forgotten.

There’s a small change Shyamalan made to the movie that feels particularly out of place. In the middle of the movie General Zhao captures Aang and imprisons him in a fortress. An agile character in a blue mask comes to Aang’s rescue, and it is later revealed that this is Zuko – who wants to be the one who captures to Avatar so he can get his honour back, and sees Zhao as a rival. In the series, when Aang leaves Zuko behind, he suggests that the two of them could be friends. In the movie, Aang says the same line far later on, after he has escaped Zuko’s attempt to capture him at the Northern Water Tribe city. It feels out of place – in the series, Aang says it because Zuko helped him, even if for selfish reasons. In the movie that is lost.

Good things

The movie has its good points too. Costume design was spot on – keeping the tone and character of the cartoon’s costumes and adding details animation can’t include. As mentioned above, the cuts generally did well in trimming down the series to movie length, and one change in the climax – where Zuko takes Aang, who is in a trance as he communicates with the spirits, to a storage room to wait out the battle rather than setting off across the ice – made sense and kept the climax tight.

The other thing the movie does right is fix Firebending. In the series, fire is the only element that can be “created” from nowhere – Earthbenders and Waterbenders both need to have their element near them to bend it, such that Katara starts carrying around a flask of water especially for Waterbending, and the Fire Nation troops keep captured Earthbenders on metal ships far from land where there’s nothing they can bend. (Aang has no trouble because air is all around him to Airbend with anyway.) But Firebenders can just bring fire into being at their fingertips. In the movie they are given the limitation that they need a source flame – and Iroh’s ability to Firebend without a source flame attests to his remarkable skill and power as a Firebender. This gives bending a more solid logical foundation than in the series.

Conclusion

On its own, The Last Airbender is not a bad film. It looks good and while the characters are flat and the film lacks humour it is an enjoyable if not especially remarkable film. As an adaptation of and in comparison to Avatar: The Last Airbender the lack of humour, unjustified changes to characters in particular Iroh, and the lack of depth to the world and characters leaves the movie sadly inadequate. I’d rate it 5/10.

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