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Can AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER Be Successfully Retold in Live Action?

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Water... Earth... Fire... Air... In 2005, fans were introduced to the world of bending and the story of Aang, the Avatar who can bend all four elements and bring balance to a war-stricken world. What started as a fun, anime-inspired children's show, eventually became the tale of children-protagonists who have to overcome past-traumas and band together in order to fight against the forces of evil and save a civilization. The arcs of characters like Zuko & Aang were extremely compelling & relatable, each episode had its own message while also delivering an engaging plot that advanced the story forward, and the dynamics of bending & nature of the animation allowed for amazing action, hilarious comedy, and stellar world-building. Avatar: The Last Airbender has certainly stood the test of time, and has become a favorite for many fans even into adulthood.

Because of the success of the series, Nickelodeon released a 2010 live action film, which began the retelling of Aang’s story. It is certainly an understatement to say the film disappointed fans, and any notion of future live action movies was scrapped. Though Aang is a minor character/presence in the sequel show, The Legend of Korra, and there are comics & novels outlining some events following the Hundred Years War, his story did not get much air-time on the big screen for many years. That is until 2018, when it was announced that Netflix would be creating a live action series retelling the story of Aang and the Hundred Years War. While fans binge the original series (recently released on the streaming platform) and wait for the release of the live action series (still in very early production with no firm release date), we can only speculate whether the adaptation will do justice to the original and prove to be a great series in itself, or if it will underwhelm fans and fall to a similar fate as the 2010 film. To properly assess the situation and discuss the prospect of a new live action Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation, we must first examine the 2010 adaptation and how that will affect the upcoming series, discuss what we know about the project thus far, and assess how the creators will have to adapt to the new medium.

The Past

Breaking down all the faults of the 2010’s The Last Airbender live action film could be an article in itself. In a nutshell, the cast was white-washed, the bending is underwhelming and uninteresting, the childish and fun-loving spirit of the characters is abandoned, the acting is mostly horrific, and many of the critical arcs of the show are forsaken in order for "Book 1" to fit into a movie format. Even without regard for the original subject material, this movie would be considered horrible. Because of the greatness of the original animated show, the film just feels like a downright betrayal, which is why it is generally accepted as one of the worst films of all time. Due to the utter disappointment following the release of the movie, many fans may be skeptical of what is to come from yet another live action adaptation. However, this gigantic misstep in the history of the franchise (and the history of film) may actually turn out to be a blessing going forward.

What We Know So Far

From what little we know, it seems that the team creating the upcoming Netflix series has already taken measures to avoid the same mistakes made by the 2010 film. The original creators of the animated Nickelodeon show, Michael DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko (who had very little control in the making of the live action film), are back on board and spearheading production of the Netflix series. Because of the love that the original creators have for the characters & lore of the “Avatar Universe”, this is a great way to ensure that the nature of the world, the spirit of the characters, and the mechanics of bending are all respected. In fact, the creators have already pledged to make the show “culturally appropriate, [with a] non-whitewashed cast.” These small pieces of information are surely promising, and show an awareness of the past and a conscious approach to avoid similar mistakes.

In addition, it seems that Netflix is taking the proper amount of time to make sure justice is done to the beloved show. In a post on Instagram shared by creator Bryan Konietzko, he stated “Our core team is growing. We’re writing, planning, and testing.” He also stated “For those who are eager to see this new series and are asking if we have a trailer yet: thank you for your enthusiasm, sincerely, but you wouldn’t want to see a version of this series that was made within 9 months. Too much Hollywood fare is fast-tracked and the results speak for themselves. Thankfully for us and this series, Netflix is committed to doing it right.” Though fans may have to wait a bit longer for the release of the series, this commitment to quality rather than stringent deadlines is surely a promising sign that care is being taken to honor the original subject material and create something great.

The Medium

The format of a Netflix series is a much more fitting medium for the retelling of the Avatar story, as the film was forced to cut-out critical plot-points and missed many of the beats touched on by the original show. Though yet to be confirmed, it is likely that the series (if you look at Netflix’s usual formula) will have hour-long episodes and shorter seasons. This may allow extra time to further develop some of the aspects of the Avatar story, and perhaps allow the story to span over double the amount of seasons (if each “Book” is broken into two parts). However, this may also take away from something that makes the original story so beautiful: its ability to succinctly and eloquently tell individual stories within each episode that both serve as stand-alone plots while advancing the overall narrative. Though the longer format could help further develop certain aspects of the story while allowing for more world-building, it may also make certain arcs (especially weaker ones) feel a bit dragged out or unnecessary, especially if seasons are shortened. The show could perhaps take a more linear approach, focusing on moving the narrative forward rather than exploring a new arc each episode. Though this may be fitting for the format, it would certainly take away from the identity of each episode and drain from the fun and light-hearted nature of the original (a complaint many have about the sequel show The Legend of Korra). Either way, there is always a chance that the Avatar formula and the Netflix formula will conflict.

This is not to mention the transition from animation to live action. It is undeniable that part of the beauty of the original Nickelodeon show is the medium in which it was told: an anime-inspired, animated children’s show. This allowed the series to have a light-hearted feel most of the time but deliver serious moments when necessary, offer both grand action-sequences and hilarious comedic moments, and bring to life the art of “bending” without the real-life restrictions of the laws of physics. Though modern-day technology can allow live-action shows & movies to reach new heights in terms of action while still making things look realistic, it may feel odd seeing the elements being consistently manipulated in ways the real world doesn’t allow. In addition, it will certainly be difficult to deliver action on the same scale as the original series while under budget constraints. In essence, the animation style used in the original show was surely the perfect medium to tell the story of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and bring to life the universe of element-bending. Will this transition into live-action take some of the childish nature out of the show? Will the creators own the new medium and shift the tone to cater more towards the now-adult audience? Will live action take away the magic of element-bending as it did in the 2010 film?

Can It Be Done?

From what we know so far, every aspect surrounding this Netflix retelling is promising. The original creators are back, pledging to cast appropriately, and taking the necessary time to ensure quality. However, the goal of the series itself already puts it at a disadvantage: retelling a near-perfect story with immensely passionate fans. Even if the show touches on every beat of the original and offers an engaging story with impressive action, it will be an extremely difficult task to re-establish the world & characters in a way that honors them and offers something new. It will undoubtedly make viewers uneasy when they first see new portrayals of their favorite characters, and will take copious amounts of work to establish these portrayals as genuine versions in the hearts of fans. This means the creators will have their hands full creating believable renditions of Avatar Aang and the rest of the Gaang while honoring the nature of the original characters. It is no doubt that characters with rich personalities like Sokka, Zuko, Toph, and Iroh will be especially difficult & pivotal to capture. This is in addition to creating a similar chemistry between these characters, and delivering on emotional moments and grand action sequences that have already occurred in another format.

The retelling of such a beloved story is certainly a risky endeavor. Perhaps the creators would be better off exploring an original live action story within the Avatar universe (a tale of a past or future Avatar, or a show bridging the gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender & Legend of Korra) rather than rehashing the story of Avatar Aang and the Hundred Year War. However, this reboot may be the best way to re-engage fans and breathe new life into the franchise while also ensuring high viewership and large profits. Perhaps it will open the door for future live action projects that could expand the Avatar Universe or retell other stories (such as The Legend of Korra or the other Avatar comics). The outlook is promising for the reboot, and there is a high probability that the original creators will be able to deliver something great. Though it can certainly be successful, it is a near-impossible task to deliver something that rivals the near-perfect animated series that is Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Written by Nick Mandala

Edited by Jake Zall

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