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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How I Would Adapt Avatar: The Last Airbender (Book One)

One of the greatest shows on television is coming to an end this week, and for the second time. And yes, even though Legend of Korra is a cartoon, I will firmly defend its and prequel series Avatar: The Last Airbender’s collective spot as the greatest show on television (I realize I haven’t not seen every show on television, but bear with this hyperbole for a moment).

For that reason, I wanted to write something about the show. I couldn’t think of anything for the current episodes, though. Which is when I turned my thoughts towards the future of the franchise, including possible adaptations.

I realize that the M. Night Shyamalan film exists, and is a large failure. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have reason to avoid it, though. However, I don’t think the failure was on the part of the source material based on its quality, and I am of the opinion that anything could work as a movie if you do it correctly.

So yes, I think a Last Airbender movie could work; however, you would have to do it pragmatically. Something like the Scott Pilgrim movie (the gold standard for adaptations, in my mind; the movie stands out just as much as the source graphic novel) could work, where the changes are all necessary to fit the medium, but make sense in the context of the story just as well. It lost a lot of the detail of the comic, but still made for a fantastic movie by just simplifying a lot of the plot in sensible ways.

With that in mind, what would be essential in a pragmatic adaptation of The Last Airbender? What if we wanted to reduce Book One to a single movie (that was longer than 100 minutes), or possibly even a two-part film? Well, in season one at least, we have these episodes:

The Boy in the Iceburg/The Avatar Returns, The Southern Air Temple, The Warriors of Kyoshi, The King of Omashu, Imprisoned, The Spirit World 1/2, The Waterbending Scroll, Jet, The Great Divide, The Storm, The Blue Spirit, The Fortune Teller, Bato, The Deserter, The Northern Air Temple, The Waterbending Master, The Siege of the North 1/2

Obviously, the essentials of that list are the the first two, the last two, and The Great Divide. We need to find Aang in the iceberg and we need the climatic showdown. The character development in The Southern Air Temple (where Aang learns of the destruction of the Air Nomads), The Storm (which reveals why Aang went missing), and The Blue Spirit (which sets up a lot of Zuko’s story arc) are all key elements of the universe, but we might be able to redistribute it depending on time constraints. Similarly, The Spirit World and Zhao need to be in it, although they don't need to mirror the show exactly if we're being economical.

The rest, though, I think can be cut depending on time constraints (which depends on whether you're dealing with a single 2 hour movie, two 2.5 hour movies, or anything in between). Without hesitation, I'd say that we can cut The Waterbending Scroll, The Great Divide, The Fortune Teller, Bato of the Water Tribe, and The Waterbending Master. Also, The Warriors of Kyoshi, The King of Omashu, Imprisoned, Jet, The Deserter, and The Northern Air Temple, while they have interesting characters, aren't nearly as critical as introducing the Gaang, Zuko, Iroh, and Zhao. Maybe, if there's time, pick one or merge several of them into one (I'd lean towards Kyoshi or Omashu, as the side characters in those two I'd argue have greater lasting impact on the show as a whole; or Imprisoned, because it would be very easy to translate that plot onto another location or to different characters).

So, what would this singular entity look like?

-We'll probably need at least a half hour for the opening and ending pairs of episodes, give or take. They were 44 minutes in show, but we could probably condense it for a movie (I'd argue more weight to the Northern Tribe part, as I feel the intro is easier to condense).

-The Gaang should stop by the Southern Air Temple. Aang has his freakout, and if we're in the super condensed 1 movie version, we add in the bit from The Storm as well. Like in the show, this could be a good point to introduce Zhao, in much the same way: as a concurrent Zuko side story. This might be fifteen minutes if necessary, although twenty minutes is more likely, maybe more if we get 2 movies.

-Zhao captures Aang, who is rescued by Zuko like in the show. This might be a good way to work in Kyoshi, Imprisoned, or Omashu if needed, by combining the two (say, have Sokka and Katara captured rather than ill, where they help spark a rebellion while Aang gets captured trying to save them). With a longer battle, this could be a half hour.

-This might also be a good place to introduce the Spirit World if we're on a one-movie plan, with a trapped Aang meditating and seeing his past life Avatar Roku to reflect on his situation, although that might make the scene too long. Worst case scenario, we mention the Spirit World here, then fully introduce it in the final confrontation as a climax moment.

-If we're dealing with one movie, I'd cut it off there, as we'd probably run over a lot from my estimations. If we get a second movie/ an extra two hours or so, though, we could extend action sequences in each of those.

-Plus, I would add a second Earth Kingdom town outside of the Blue Spirit sequence that isn't under subjugation, but is actively fighting the Fire Nation to give a sense of the larger world in play (that can be Omashu or Kyoshi, more than likely; I think the best way to do it would be to have Kyoshi taken, with Katara and Sokka meeting the Kyoshi warriors and others in prison, and Omashu as the safe haven, with a little less of a trial sequence from Bumi). Also, I would add extra time at the North Pole to show more Water Tribe civilization. Also, I might separate the first Spirit World scene from the Blue Spirit scene a little more, although now that I look at it, that seems like a decent placement. 

So there you have it; my plan for a one- or two-part Avatar: Book One movie. Obviously, this is only a rough sketch, but I think that a barebones framework is still interesting, especially given the number of times I’ve seen people suggest that the sheer length of the show makes it impossible to adapt well. I doubt that we’ll ever get something like this (at the very least, in the near future), but it’s fun to speculate and reminisce as the show draws to a close.

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