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Fixing "The Last Airbender"

🛠️ I Will Try To Fix You...

A few weeks ago I posted about how terrible M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender was. Something that I didn't really have space for in the post was that the movie is more than anything else a failure of adaptation. Don't get me wrong, it's still badly shot, badly edited, badly acted, badly designed, etc. But at the heart of it all is a terrible script and fixing that would at least be a first step towards getting a competent director to turn it into a film that's at least mediocre.

So let's talk about the challenges of that adaptation. The first issue is one of scope. Season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender is roughly seven hours of television. Now, a lot of it is very episodic and can be condensed down into montage so you can focus on the fundamental story, but the story is big and there's a lot of ground to cover. We need to introduce our principle trio, the relevant backstory, as well as introduce our primary villain for the season Zhao, also Zuko who is a long-running rival for the main character, as well as the major plot beats: discovering the Air Temple, starting revolution in the Earth Kingdom, Aang's capture and then release by the Blue Demon, and the final battle at the Northern Water fortress.

The second big issue is a structural one that has to do with the ending. The last three episodes of the show take place at a new location with a new major character: Princess Yue who falls in love with Sokka and then sacrifices herself to save the Moon Spirit. This works well enough in the show because you have an hour of screen time to have them meet and fall in love. But as the climax to a film, you're asking the audience to be invested in characters you just met. So something needs to change there.

The final consideration is the character count. The movie has four villains if you count Iroh, four heroes if you count Appa, and a number of important ancillary characters including Yue and various spirits. In what became the final version of the film, Appa and Iroh are under-utilized, Zhao and Ozai are redundant, and Sokka has no reason to be there. So something has to change there as well.

So how do you address these issues? Well, Shyamalan's approach seems to have been to explain everything in voiceover and then just try to realize the most popular moments in live-action, relying on dialog to fill in the gaps. This does not work in any way, shape, or form, because all it does is service the plot without giving us anything about the characters, their growth, or their relationships. It does nothing to tie the resolution of the story to the character journey. So, yes, a bunch of stuff is happening, but why should I care?

So if we were starting from scratch with a new script, that's where I would start: character arc. And the very obvious one to pick is Aang's reluctance to be the Avatar. It's the reason he ran away--which is, for all intents and purposes, the inciting incident of the story--so a reversal would make for a nice resolution. So let's build an outline around that and see if we can hit the major story beats. And we're going to give ourselves permission to stray pretty far from the source material, as long as we capture the spirit of the original story. So here goes...


After the "Water, Earth, Fire, Air" intro sequence, cut to 100 years in the past. We see Aang being told that he is the Avatar and what that means. This can be choppy, as it will be intercut with opening credits and is a briskly told flashback. Over the course of a minute tops we see him uncomfortably being celebrated, then feeling separated from his friends, then upset and panicking. Finally we see him doing a bunch of cool air-bending stuff to escape his minders at the temple and then flying off on Appa into a storm where they're pitched into the water and he enters the avatar state. Cut to main title.

This is the foundation of his arc. Aang doesn't want to be the Avatar, and any time he tries it just makes things worse. He will spend the entire movie fighting against it and running away from it.

Act I

In the lands of the Southern Water Tribe, we find Katara and Sokka walking alone. In this opening, we need to see them being good at something and get a feel for their relationship. Katara, clearly struggling, is able to clumsily bend a water spout into the air and Sokka spears a fish out of it and puts it on his belt, where there are already a few fish. They're hunting. They're good at this. Also, Sokka won't shut up about Yue. They met ten years ago when the Northern Water Tribe sent a delegation down, before the Fire Nation cut them off from each other. He and Yue were the same age and played together for like a week and became the best of friends--he didn't even realize she was a princess until after they left. Ten years later, he's decided that she's the love of his life and if it's the last thing he does he's going to get to the Northern Water Fortress and confess his feelings to her. Katara thinks he's nuts.

The pair then stumble upon the ice bubble with Aang in it. Sokka cracks it open against Katara's wishes. Once they see Aang and Appa, Sokka gets all defensive, but now Katara rushes forward because she sees someone in need. She tries to use her water bending to heal him--she's not very good at it, but it works just barely well enough that Aang wakes up.

Cut to a Fire Nation ship where we meet Zhao and Iroh who are on their way to test the members of the Southern Water Tribe for bending abilities. We establish their relationship and some basics about the Fire Nation. Zhao is a zealot, and while Iroh has status, it's clear that he's an outsider, but he also feels like it's his duty to keep an eye on Zhao, because while they absolutely need to search for benders, he worries that Zhao is unnecessarily cruel. They have some macguffin that will identify water benders. They talk about how the Northern Water Fortress is too well defended for them to breach and protected by the Moon Spirit, but it's clear that Zhao would much rather be there fighting anyway. There's a reference to Iroh and the burdens of family, at which point the camera reveals a smaller ship trailing behind and a young man on board with a scar on his face, Zuko.

Aang is nursed back to health and is recovering quickly. He wonders where all the other water benders are. He talks about being an air bender but never mentions the Southern Air Temple or being the Avatar. When asked about his family or how he got here, he changes the subject. He keeps saying he needs to get back to Appa, who they left on the ice, but they assure him he's too weak to travel. There's an alarm and we learn that the Fire Nation is arriving. Fire Nation storm troopers send everyone into their huts so Iroh can test them in isolation. When he arrives at the hut with Katara, Sokka, and Aang, his curiosity is aroused. The macguffin identifies Katara. Iroh apologizes that he must detain her, Sokka steps in, and both of them are thrown to the ground. Then, when no one else can see, the macguffin points to Aang. Iroh and Aang exchange a look, and Aang uses his air bending to escape. The trio make their way out of the hut and back to Appa where Katara uses her water bending to heal him up a little at Aang's insistence. Appa awakens and begins to fly. Sokka implores Aang to get Katara to safety while he covers their escape, but when it's hinted that they might go as far North as they can, Sokka announces that he's joining them.

Iroh reconvenes with Zhao and informs him that "there are no water benders here", then says that he has been neglecting his nephew and will be departing. He leaves Zhao's ship and boards Zuko's smaller one. There he tells Zuko that he's found the Avatar, and that the Avatar is an untrained child. He's also going to state one of the major themes of the movie, that the Avatar is a symbol of hope and as long the thought of him dwells with the people, there will never be an end to the rebellion. But if Zuko can face the Avatar and deliver him to the Fire-lord, the war can finally end and Zuko can be re-instated as prince. The chase is on.

Act II

This is going to be our first major departure from the source material. We're skipping the Southern Air Temple for now. In the series it's the catalyst that makes Aang want to defeat the Fire Nation, but that's not the story we're telling here and it's too early in his arc for this moment. Revenge can be the subtext of the next film. It also means we're going to cut Momo--and, if we're being honest, most of the fawna of the series. The weird hybrid animals only sort of work in the cartoon. If animators want to throw a couple into background shots, that's fine, but it's a lot of world-building to try to stuff into an already crammed movie (why are there hybrid lemurs but the fish are normal?) and having another comic relief fully CGI pet when we've already got Appa is just going to be expensive and redundant. Sorry not sorry.

Instead we're going to have our hero trio land in the Earth Nation and search for food. Sokka will hunt, but Aang won't eat it because he's a vegetarian. Hey look, conflict. Aang and Katara will engage in playful not-quite-flirting and Sokka is going to feel a bit like a fifth wheel. Katara is going to rail against the Fire Nation and how they kidnapped her mother because she was a water bender, and then she's going to be very upset that the Avatar was supposed to prevent this but disappeared and deep down she really blames the Avatar for what happened to her mother. Aang likes Katara and hates being the Avatar, so guess what bit of information he's going to casually avoid ever bringing up. But he's also inherently curious, so he will ask her about her bending because it's so different from the way he bends air. She will demonstrate and he will imitate the moves--haha, it'll never work because he's not a water bender. They see smoke from a ship on the horizon.

Then we get our first real Zuko-centric scene and establish his character and his dynamic with Iroh. It's short.

The trio of heroes is flying over the coast when they spot a Fire Nation prison ship. They can see Earth Nation people miserably working on deck. Katara insists that they help them, that maybe a prison like this is where they're keeping her mom. After some back and forth they decide to drop a bunch of rocks on the deck. The Earth Benders there are able to use them to overpower their guards and start breaking their people out. Sokka joins the fight while Katara and Aang try to use their powers to get the ship close enough to land for everyone to escape. Zuko arrives and challenges Aang to fight him and calls him the Avatar. Aang denies it, overpowers Zuko with air bending, and then flees, but before that we get to see that Zuko is quite formidable. Back in the air on Appa, Sokka shares something he found in the prison ship: texts on forms used by Water benders. Katara is ecstatic and realizes that if the earth bender prison was located on the water, there is probably a water bender prison somewhere on dry land.

Now we get a big ol' montage. We see the trio helping liberate Earth Nations villages from Fire Nation thugs. We see Katara healing people. We see Aang kicking ass with air bending. We see Sokka trying to fight but being completely unnecessary with Aang there. We see Katara practicing water bending and getting really good at it, and we see Aang secretly watching her and practicing when no one is looking. We see earth benders attacking Fire Nation troops guerilla-style. We see Sokka bringing in food and Katara not eating it but laughing with Aang. We see Zuko always just a step behind them. We see Earth Nation villagers cheering and talking about how it must have been the Avatar that saved them. We see an upset cabbage vender (if you know, you know). The montage ends with Zuko and Iroh having a moment. Iroh questions if maybe the Avatar is already too powerful, but Zuko is determined. His father will never respect him, but if Zuko can deliver the Avatar, maybe his father will forgive him.


In the Fire Nation we see Zhao and other high ranking generals at a war council. The Earth Nation is in open revolt, there are rumors of an air bender, and people are claiming that he's the Avatar. Zhao is dismissive. The Avatar is long gone, and the Earth Nation has been conquered once, they can be conquered again. The real threat, he says, lies in the far North, but he has a plan to deal with them and he's going to present it to Fire-Lord Ozai shortly. But he lingers on the idea of an air bender being behind the rebellion and calls one of his aides over. If there is and air bender and if he is the Avatar, there might be a way to set a trap for him. He is then summoned to an audience with Ozai. We never see Ozai, but we do see Zhao kneel with a malicious grin on his face.

It's night and Aang is practicing water bending in secret. Sokka sees him and realizes that he's the Avatar. There's already tension between them, but this pushes things right over. Aang begs him not to tell Katara, talks about how he never wanted this. Sokka lectures him about being willing to make sacrifices, how if you love someone you can't hide anything from them and how you have to be willing to give up anything for them, and that's why he's going North to be with Yue. Because she'll need someone to defend her when the Fire Nation inevitably attacks. He'll talk about how it's a miracle that she is alive at all, and how she was saved by the Moon Spirit for a higher purpose, and he'd help her fulfill that purpose, and if it means giving up his own life, then he'll do it. Aang asks how he knows the Fire Nation will attack the Northern Water Fortress, and Sokka will say it's inevitable. Just like they rounded up all the earth benders and how they murdered all the air benders. At which point Aang loses it entirely because he did not realize that he was the last one. He'll enter the Avatar state and Katara will wake up, run to him, and be injured. Aang will see the pain he's caused and decide the best thing he can do is just leave. He takes off on Appa.

Aang arrives at the Northern Air Temple and finds it empty. He meditates and is in contact with the Spirit Realm. Ultimately he is captured by Zhao. We're going to keep this brisk because we don't want it to feel like an ending. Zuko frees him as the Blue Demon. The two have a brief conversation once they're clear, but it's not a friendly one. Aang returns to Sokka and Katara and finds that she's actually doing really badly. He tries to heal her with water bending, but he doesn't know how. They need experienced water benders. They need to head to the Northern Water Fortress.


The trio arrives at the Norther Water Fortress. Katara is healed, Sokka finds Yue and--lo and behold--she not only remembers him from ten years before and recognizes him, she's been thinking about him a lot, actually. Aang puts on Sokka's jacket and claims to be a water bender wanting to pick up a few pointers. Of course, it's not all smiles and giggles in paradise. Katara has not forgiven Aang for lying to her, or for lying to all the people who are trying to teach him water bending now, or for disappearing a hundred years ago. Aang can't seem to get his water bending right, at which point a character will state a theme to him: water is fluid and cannot be controlled, you must yield to it and flow with it, i.e., you must accept who you are before you can ever be a water bender. As for Sokka and Yue... actually things are great. They're totes falling for each other.

On the night of the full moon they have a feast. Everyone is dressed in bright blue colors. Sokka notices the lack of guards and is assured that someone would need to be crazy to attack during a full moon because that's when water benders are at the height of their power and protection by the Moon Spirit. Aang skips out on the feast and goes to the place where the Moon Spirit is residing to meditate. He enters the Spirit Realm and speaks to her about his fears.

While all of this is happening, a lone Fire Nation soldier sneaks into the Fortress. He finds Aang, grabs the Moon Spirit's fish body, puts it in a sack, and stabs it. The moon goes dark. The Water Tribe panic. And then the Fire Nation attacks. Aang sees the Moon Spirit cry out in pain in the Spirit Realm but then is kind of lost and doesn't know how to find his way back. There's a lot of fighting, and it's not going well for the Water Tribe. We can easily see this because they're dressed in bright colors and are easy to distinguish from the Fire Nation soldiers in black and red. Yue, Sokka, and Katara arrive but can't bring Aang out of it. Zuko and Iroh gain entrance to the city and are following Zhao, who makes a bee-line for Aang. The ending then plays out more or less like it does in the show, with a key difference. After coming out of his trance, Aang tries to fight using only air bending for a while, and he's losing. He'll have a moment where he openly declares "I am the Avatar" (or, if you want to be real cheeky "I am the Avatar, the last air bender"), enters the Avatar state, and then creates the giant water monster that scares off the Fire Nation fleet. Yue sacrifices herself to save the Moon Spirit after a tear-jerking farewell with Sokka. The moon is restored, the metaphorical tide turns. Zuko fights Zhao, who is pulled into the water by the Moon Spirit, and then he and Iroh quietly make their escape.

After the fight is over, Sokka, Aang, and Katara are all reconciled. Aang has accepted his responsibilities, Katara has stopped blaming him for what happened to her mother, and Sokka and Aang now have a new understanding of what it means to make sacrifices. Sokka is miserable with grief, but the overall spirit is hopeful.


Aang arrives at the Southern Air Temple. As he walks around he flashes back to being there among friends when it was alive and thriving. We see that this place was his home, but now it is just a shell. He finds the killing field that is littered with the bones of his former friends. He picks up the medallion from his master and quietly grieves. Then he put it on. He conjures a breeze in one hand. He then bends some water from a nearby puddle into the air with his other hand. Then he looks at a pile of rocks and knows what he must learn next. He enters the Avatar state. Credits roll.


So that's how I would approach this. Granted, it's been a few years since I saw the series, so I may be missing some important beats. But I think this little mental exercise does a good job of showing that an adaptation can be done that actually tells a story instead of recapping a season of television while playing a highlights real of the action set pieces. Now, would this automatically translate into a good movie? Of course not. Execution is everything, and, as noted, Shyamalan didn't just mess up the broad strokes of the story, he also failed at most of the storytelling fundamentals. But, like I said, this feels like a solid starting point to me.



Unknown said…
Kurt, your analysis is insightful and reflects a high level of expertise. It shows me how much I have to learn. Thanks for making the effort and sharing it with us.