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Film:The Last Airbender

Hasdi December 30, 2010 User blog:Hasdi

This page has shadow copies of selected sections from the page Film:The Last Airbender. This allows me to liberally make changes on those sections, before copying them to the main page. Hopefully it cuts down the frequency of edits on the page and edit warring due to inclusion of half-baked material. Comments for improvements are welcome.

The Adaptation Process

Similarities with The Pretender (TV Series)

The movie has noticeable similarities with the hit TV Series The Pretender that aired from 1996 to 2000 during its prime-time schedule[1], particularly with its uncommon parallel story format and character interaction dynamics. These build upon the existing similarities some viewers had noted in the original animated series, e.g. "am I the only person whose getting a vibe from the tv show pretender from avatar?"[2]

  • The parallel hero/anti-hero story format: Story A that followed the hero being hunted (Aang) and Story B that followed the anti-hero hunting him (Zuko). The Pretender also has a parallel story format where the hunted hero was Jarod and the anti-hero hunter was Miss Parker.
  • Jarod was the Pretender being hunted from an evil corporation known as the Center (i.e. the Fire Nation).
  • Miss Parker was a top agent of the Center who has to find and capture Jarod, preferably alive, to prove herself to her father, who runs the Center (i.e. Firelord Ozai). Her father was mentioned, not shown until later in the series.
  • Sydney was a senior agent who assist Ms. Parker in hunting Jarod and mentor her. Like Iroh, Sydney was a likeable good guy who ocassionally help Jarod escape.
  • Miss Parker also must race in capturing Jarod with other members of the Center: Mr. Raines, a higher-ranking ruthlessly evil agent (i.e. Zhao), and in season 2, Mr. Lyle, a sadistically manipulative person who was later revealed to be her brother (i.e. Azula). Mr. Lyle was accompanied by his sidekick, bubbly and perky yet a highly skilled operative, Bridgette (i.e. Ty Lee).

The general effect of these additional similarities is that Zuko's anti-hero status was done with less subtlety in the film, rather than gradually inclued throughout the original animated series, which highlighted the moment when Zuko turned against his father and joined Aang. Miss Parker’s anti-hero status was established more quickly, as she was the lead character that appealed to the female demographics. Shyamalan may have established Zuko's anti-hero status as quickly due to the racebending controversy, with Zuko cast was with a dark-skinned minority actor, while the hero side (Aang, Sokka, and Katara) cast with light-skinned actors.

"Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he's Persian. And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he's Indian, OK?" - M. Night Shyamalan from the Indie Movies Interview[3]

A common storytelling technique to avoid confusing the anti-hero as "another villian" that rivals the real villian in the story (i.e. Zhao or Mr. Raines), is to have a "good" character vouch for the anti-hero, e.g. Albus Dumbledore for Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series and Gwen Tennyson for the Kevin Levin in the Ben 10: Alien Force series. For The Pretender, it was Sydney, who had mentored Jarod since he was young and remained his trusted father figure, even though he accompanied Miss Parker in hunting Jarod. For the original animated series, it was Iroh and later Toph as well.

  • Iroh's Characterization. Rather than a carefree and comic-relief character, Iroh's character in the movie was modeled closer to Sydney; he was gentle, kind, wise, and a spiritual person. In the Avatar test scene, though brief, established that Aang consider Iroh as a trustworthy and a good person, and understood that Iroh regretted having to detain Aang after he passed the test, i.e. "If Iroh is a good guy, then maybe Zuko isn't so bad." In the original animated series, Aang did not had this first impression with Iroh - he only saw Zuko pass his staff to Iroh, which Iroh later passed to the nearest guard for his convenience.
  • Iroh's Avatar Test. This was in reference to Sydney conducting intelligence tests on many young subjects abducted by the Center before he finally discovered Jarod. Jarod was kept away from his real parents by the Center because he passed the test, which Sydney had regretted after some time.
"This one has only been with us for thirty-six hours and he's already demonstrating more talent than any of our others" - Sydney, The Pilot from Season 1
  • Zuko's Mother. A recurring theme with Miss Parker's side of the story is her affection for her mother who went missing while she was a child, and her suspicions that her father knew of the circumstances or had something to do with her disappearance. This theme enables the audience to see the other side of her mean and explosive personality. The original animated series has this element in Book 2, but for the movie, Shyamalan brought it out earlier with Zuko's family picture (shown just before his combat training on his ship) and Zuko's monologue to Aang (while Aang was hand-bound in a storage room). Shyamalan also indicated that "I want to know what happens to Zuko's mom"[4].
  • The Prologue. The text-on-screen narrated Prologue is remarkably different from than the opening theme of the original animated series. Rather than a Star Wars opening crawl that some critics have mistakenly attribute it to[5][6], it was executed similarly to the opening theme of The Pretender Season 1 and 2 episodes after the Pilot, likely as a homage.

Text appears on screen, scrolling up, narrated by a male speaker:

There are pretenders among us. Geniuses with the ability to be become anyone they want to be.

In 1963, a corporation known as the Centre isolated a young pretender named Jarod and exploited his genius for their research. Text fades out. New text appears in the middle, not moving, narrated:

Then, one day, their pretender ran away...

Neither Bryan Konietzko nor Mike DiMartino has been known to mention their inspiration from The Pretender so the similarities may have been coincidental. On the other hand, M. Night Shyamalan has some confirmed exposure to The Pretender, since before he cast Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense, he would have first reviewed Osment's past work including his role as Davey Simpkins in the two-part Season 2 finale of The Pretender[7]. Interestingly, Francis Guinan, who played Master Pakku in the movie, played George Harper as a guest star in episode 18 of Season 2 ( Stolen).

Revised Mythology

The fantasy world of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a composite of elements from the real world: a fusion of themes and cultures (mostly Asian), hybrid animals, and all mixed races [8]. The movie made several changes to the mythology from the animated series.

Leveling the Playing Field

Elemental bendings and its associated martial arts forms were kept, modified to work with Shyamalan's new story parameter of "leveling the playing field". Each bending require a source to bend, where Earth and Water are elements of matter where Air and Fire are elements of energy:

  • Firebenders cannot generate their own fire but must bend fires from nearby sources, except for high-level Firebenders like Iroh, and mostly likely Azula and Ozai as well.
  • Airbending is more like Wind Release from Naruto, as suggested with Aang's deleted line that is still in the novelization: "We airbenders learn to feel the energy behind the wind, not just the breeze on our skin. It's all about controlling energy". Thus, Airbenders need to redirect wind energy to move air unless they are high-level Airbenders like Aang.
  • Waterbending already require sources of Water, unless they are high-level Waterbenders like Hama, who was known in the animated series to be able to pull water from thin air. This may be one reason why Shyamalan is interested in featuring her character in the sequels.
  • Earthbending already require sources of Earth like soil and rock. Since there is no reasonable way to create Earth out of "nothing", metalbending may be a good substitute to balance with other high-level benders. The inclusion of metalbending can be justified since steel-based alloys are iron mixed with traces of carbon. Carbon is an element than Earthbenders can bend, as shown when they use charcoal to attack Fire Nation soldiers in the episode Imprisoned of the animated series.

These restrictions play into the "homeground advantage" for each bender, which would explain why benders primarily reside where they are, rather than associate bending ability with race, genetics, or midi-chlorians. Only high-level benders can overcome these limitations and go beyond their homeground:

  • In the Fire Nation, Firebenders are surrounded by sources of Fire, e.g. the fire ecology shown in the deleted scene "Field Ablaze", volcanic and underground lava, and the surrounding warm grounds like the real-world Puhimau Thermal area. Since the area is dry, there is likely lack of Water for the Waterbenders. The hot grounds can weaken Earthbenders' connection to ground, especially for a bare-footed Earthbender like Toph. Unless there is enough wind energy to redirect Air, Airbenders may fan the flames rather than put it out - for the same reason, Wind Release is considered weaker than Fire Release in Naruto.
  • In the Air Nation, Airbenders are surrounded by strong winds in the high mountains. The cold and thin air would make combustion of flames difficult for the Firebenders. There may also be lack of Water of the Waterbenders. The soil and rock are not strategically placed for Earthbenders.
  • In the Water Nation, Waterbenders are surrounded by ice and water. There is no Earth for miles and miles so an Earthbender has to bring their own dirt. The air may be too cold to ignite a flame and/or require more fuel to sustain it.
  • In the Earth Nation, Earthbenders have Earth right beneath their feet. Waterbenders and Firebenders have to bring their own sources. The trees restrict the movement of Air, hence limit the availability of wind energy.

In the movie, the Fire Nation were able to conquer nations outside their homeground advantage with the following:

  • The war machines that only Fire Nation had. This gave them the superior tactical advantage over other nations. The prominent machines in the movie are the steel cruiser warships, which are either powered by steam or internal combustion engine. Other machines include the tank that the Blue Spirit hitchhiked as it rolled into the Northern Air Temple, and the portable drills the Fire Nation soliders used to break into the Northern Water City from underneath the icy surface.
  • The Sozin's Comet, which will give all firebenders the ability to generate fire from their own chi, not just high-level firebenders.

The Chosen Few

Benders were a chosen few, i.e. "The powers to control the elements are bestowed upon a chosen few". Thus, non-benders are more prominent in the movie that the animated series, engaging in fights with weapons or hand-to-hand combat. Katara also narrated that "Great respect was afforded to all those who could bend their natural element", which suggested that Benders are the elites of their respective nations. As elites, they strongly influence the culture depending on their societal structure.

  • In the Fire Nation, the ruling class and high-ranking soldiers are all Firebenders, where a superior minority rule over the non-Bender majority, i.e. "might makes right" or "survival of the fittest". Very likely, a high-level Firebender has the right of succession. If there two high-level Firebenders are seeking for the throne, they would engage in an Agni ki Duel. This would explain Ozai's surprise in the deleted scene "Field Ablaze", when the soldier told Ozai that Iroh has the ability to generate fire from his own chi. Ozai may be wondering why Iroh, who was a high-level Firebender like him, did not challenge him for the throne and chose retirement instead, especially if Iroh could defeat Ozai easily in a duel.
  • In the Air Nation, Airbending monks are like high priests that are revered by the other non-Bender majority, much like the Vatican or the Ayatollah. For the most part, they not interfere with matters of the state but they can exert great influence in the way of life and the standard of morality for the public.
  • In the Water Nation, the Waterbenders are a separate non-govermental entity of the state, similar to The Jedi Order during the days of the Republic. Like in the animated series, the state cannot force the Waterbenders, lead by Master Pakku, to do anything but the Waterbenders usually to assist the state with protecting the peace and military matters.
  • In the Earth Nation, the Earthbenders serve the interest of the non-Bender majority, hence somewhat more under control of the state, i.e. "the strong must protect the weak". In the animated series, this system was established by Avatar Kyoshi, which Chin The Conqueror, an Earthbender unlike any of the Earth Kings, violently disagreed with and lost. Long Feng, the leader of an elite Dai Li Earthbenders, shared the same view as Chin, which may be his prime motivation for his Coup of Ba Sing Se. Although Dai Li will rule Ba Sing Se, the end result will be a puppet state of the Fire Nation; Long Feng may rather serve a Firebender like Ozai than a non-Bender like the Earth King.

The Avatar is somewhat of a threat to all nations as he can bend all four elements and can tap into vast amount of chi. As a variation of "if you cannot beat him, join him", the Bending elites for each nation has an interest to train the Avatar and at the same time, familiarize him or her to their way of life. By having an appreciation on all four cultures, the hope is that he would not destroy them and instead seek to keep cultural development for each Nation separate, hence bring balance to the four nations.

As Sokka mentioned to Aang at the prison camp scene, the strategy for the Fire Nation is to surpress all other Bending. This effectively eliminate the elites of the respective Nations, a common imperialistic strategy. Without the elites, the people would be more influenced by ways of the Fire Nation, which was what Sozin said he wanted to Roku in the episode The Avatar and The Firelord. The Avatar stood in the way of his imperialistic ambitions, which is why the Avatar must be eliminated and never be reborn.

The Avatar State

The Avatar State was not mentioned or named in the movie, which highly suggest that it was eliminated. His eyes and tattoos glowed in only two instances suggestive of Avatar State: the Southern Air Temple scene and the gigantic wave finale scene. Aang did not use the Avatar State to escape from Zuko’s ship like in The Avatar Returns episode.

  • When Aang blacked out in the Southern Air Temple scene, he did not turn into an "angry little midget" but rather, entered the Spirit World.
  • Aang did not have entities from his past taking over or overpowering his own will, hence did not speak with overlapping voices. Aang was fully aware and in control of the gigantic wave.
  • Aang did not use skills and abilities from his past, but had not mastered in the present such as Waterbending, Earthbending and Firebending. Katara narrated that when Aang was forced into the Ocean, he consciously Airbended a sphere around him and Appa but couldn't remember anything after that, i.e. no triggering of "Avatar State" to subconsciously Waterbend a sphere as done in the animated series.

Instead, Aang had the ability to tap into his immense Bending chi blocked by specific emotions, without needing to enter the Avatar State in order to use them. This may be a rework of the episode The Guru, where Guru Pathik helped Aang unlock each of his Chakras. The Dragon Spirit took over the role of Guru Pathik in identifying the emotion that was blocking this ability. This huge release of chi was accompanied with his glowing eyes and tattoos, and allowed Aang to manipulate a larger amount of elements than a typical Bender. He still needed to be trained to manipulate this immense chi. Without overcoming these specific emotions, the chi will leak out like a damaged dam holding back large reserves of water, and somewhat uncontrollable:

  • Air Chakra, which provides an immense Airbending chi and blocked by grief. This was first shown at the Southern Air Temple when Aang was overwhelmed by his grief for the loss of his people. This chi glowed pure white. However, when Aang refused to let go of his guilt, the Dragon Spirit said "You are stopping yourself from grieving'". Thus, he may have to revisit this emotion in the sequels.
  • Water Chakra, which proivides an immense Waterbending chi and blocked by guilt. The Dragon Spirit told him to let of his guilt, i.e. "You are not dealing with the loss of your people and your responsibilities for their deaths" ... "you must let this go". This chi glowed bluish white when Aang tapped it to create the gigantic wave.
  • Earth Chakra, which is speculated to provide an immense Firebending chi and blocked by fear. This chi may glow greenish white.
  • Fire Chakra, which is speculated to provide an immense Firebending chi and blocked by shame. This chi may glow reddish white.

Unblocking all four of these Chakras may allow Aang to become a Fully Realized Avatar.

The Concept of the Avatar

The concept of the Avatar in A:TLA was a fusion of Hinduism incarnation and Buddhism reincarnation (rebirth). For the movie, Shyamalan leaned more towards Hinduism concept of the Avatar, a Godly entity incarnated in a mortal form. This is closer with Christianity’s concept of the Holy Trinity, especially with the Dragon Spirit (who was seemingly connected to Aang in the Spirit World) playing a role similar to the Holy Spirit. A Wikipedia entry on Buddhism concept of reincarnation:

At the death of one personality, a new one comes into being, much as the flame of a dying candle can serve to light the flame of another. [9][10]The consciousness in the new person is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream

In the movie, Aang did not communicate with Avatar Roku and other personalities from his Avatar "stream", just the Dragon Spirit. Everyone treated the Avatar more like a God incarnate than an epic hero, i.e. a Jesus Christ figure. The return of the Avatar was like the Messiah who has returned. They even bowed before him, even when he was not merged with the Ocean Spirit as Koizilla. Sparing the Fire Nation fleet from the wave was a show of mercy, i.e. turning the other cheek. Ask yourself, what would Jesus do?

Roundtable Discussion

File:220px-M. Night Shyamalan 2008 - still 40580 crop.jpg
On March 11th 2010 in New York City, M. Night Shyamalan had a private breakfast with a group of select journalists and participated in a roundtable discussion / interview about his upcoming film, The Last Airbender, and his plans for the sequels. There are multiple versions of this discussion available online, some as partially transcribed articles, and others with only audio. As some film pages refer frequently to this discussion, this section attempts to consolidate the links to those online documents in a single location.

Hasdi’s Comments

  • For viewers who compared this movie to a more "creative" adaptation, Dragonball Evolution (2009), a good response is to quote from a video by MybasementReviews: "If this movie was anything like Dragonball Evolution then Aang would be a 16 year old high school student living in the city with Monk Gyatso, the apartment complex would be named the Air Temple, and they would have a cat named Momo. Appa would not have been mentioned and Katara would have been Aang's high school sweetheart who could bend magic water. Zuko would be a bully at school; instead of being a prince, he would actually be a rich kid whose father owned a comic book company called Sozin's Comics..."
  • In my experience, this movie is not the “worst adaptation ever”. That honor belongs to The Guyver (1991), which was adapted from a the Guyver manga series. It was pretty much a low point of Mark Hamill’s career. I dare you read the Guyver manga or its animated series (either versions), and then watch that movie.


  8. That's right, mixed races, so it seemed silly to me to assign them to a particular a real world race, then accuse the producers for getting it "wrong". If you don't believe me, you find me a dark-skinned Inuit with a Japanese name and blue eyes living in Antartica!User:Hasdi
  9. Tucker, 2005, p.216
  10. PTS: Miln 71-72; 82-83; 84 (Pali Canon)

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