Adaptation Controversy: AVATAR’s THE LAST AIRBENDER

Hi everyone,

this will be a short post, because I hope that you all read the article that I will link below. I’m not sure if you are aware of the controversy surrounding the movie THE LAST AIRBENDER. (Note: the movie Prince of Persia came under the same criticism not too long ago)

THE LAST AIRBENDER is an adaptation of a popular animated television series called AVATAR which was broadcast on Nickelodeon and Nicktoons Network. The series heavily borrows elements of traditional Asian cultures. The casting of the main characters drew the ire of several people over the world–yes, because the original series is just that popular–especially in Asia and Northern America, with some putting together videos, and several others writing about what is seen as a tiring case of hegemonic cultural pattern (aka racebending) when it comes to Hollywood’s take of stories featuring or set in a non-Western culture. Because it has become a matter of “fair equal opportunity for all”, several will boycott the movie.

Before moving further with this topic, I personally think that the situation has improved a little bit; not saying it’s enough (for my taste), but I have reasons to believe it will continue to improve (I have faith in the people getting together and actually doing something about it). I’m thinking of Disney’s the Princess and the Frog, Mulan, the latest Karate Kid (the title stirs another debate, but what an enjoyable movie)… However The Last Airbender has me shake my head once again (a setback) and raises a number of questions, best expressed in this article by Q. Le. Here’s an extract of the article:
“Though I’m not a particular fan of the show (nor do I dislike it) and am simply neutral overall, I feel that it is necessary to state for several reasons why I will not support this movie for professional, philosophical and personal reasons. “
What follows is a thorough explanation and exploration of the positive and negative aspects of that issue. I command the author for his/her extensive research.

Courtesy of Q. Le’s page, here’s a picture of the original cast and the one in the movie.

So the same old question rises again:
o Does race matter?
o One of the excuses given by Night Shyamalan, the movie director, is that the story is set in a fictional world. Okay. Does race matter?
o The original work was geared toward children. So is the movie, for the most part. Does race matter?

Edited 07/01/2010: Tarie, thank you for bringing Q. Le’s article to my attention!

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About Nathalie Mvondo

Nathalie Mvondo lives in Northern California and studies anthropology and nutrition. She is a Christian and children's story writer. Nathalie Mvondo vit dans le nord de la Californie, aux Etats-Unis, et fait des études d'anthropologie et de nutrition. En tant qu'écrivain, elle se spécialise en litérature chrétienne et pour enfants de tous âges.
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9 Responses to Adaptation Controversy: AVATAR’s THE LAST AIRBENDER

  1. Doret says:

    I only just discovered that M. Night Shyamalan was the director of The Last Airbender today. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that a director of color would be okay with this but I was. And I agree with Q. Le, Shyamalan is on my NO NO list for life.

    Though its not a big loss since I think Shyamalan, over thinks his films, trying so hard too make them different. Its only worked with two of his films – Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
    I did not care for Signs and I passed on everything else.

    I have my fingers crossed that Last Airbender does badly.

    • Doret, the Last Airbender is actually off to a bad start. The reviews (as seen on Rotten Tomatoes) are terrible…

      What I don’t get is how oblivious the execs and whoever else has a big say on the movie seem to be, and how they can’t begin to fathom what goes through the head of a child who loves and admires the characters just as they are (ethnicity plays a bigger role than acknowledged by the big shots, and the cultural diversity represented conveys a positive message), and (what happens when the child) sees them radically different on the big screen. To me it is as biased as letting a kid read a story where characters are described as “dark skinned” but changing the cover of the book (for whatever reasons, mistake or not).

      My eyes are on those, in Hollywood, who are working hard behind the scenes for more equality and less hypocrisy. For example it took Don Cheadle five years before he could make Hotel Rwanda happen (coming up with the money, convincing movie producers to take a chance, etc…). The result was more than admirable. I know that there are several more teaming up and working relentlessly.

  2. lindacovella says:

    I’m not familiar with the TV show or movie, but it’s mind-blowing that those actors were cast to play those characters. Shyamalan’s excuses are ridiculous. I’m like, huh?

    • I tend to be protective when it comes to children and to any kid-related material.
      An adult can handle or protest significant changes made to an “adaptation,” while in my opinion the same “changes” can send the wrong message to a child…

  3. Karin says:

    Race only matters if we as a viewer makes it an issue. Or they rely on stereo-typical things to push a story along that don’t properly go along with what society things or believes.
    As a child, probably under the age of 5, they don’t even notice skin color or differences, and if/when they do it’s all about how the person answering the child’s question relates or handles it (i.e. judgements, tone of voice, etc)

    • Hi Karin, I appreciate your point of view, especially regarding children under 5.

      From my experience (not speaking on behalf of others, of course) and from what I observed, while they do not notice skin color or some other differences, children under five would be particularly sensitive to how adults behave in that regard, impacted by whatever race related comment they hear at home, see/hear on TV and around them…

      The Last Airbender has some older kids, teenagers and adults talking about the ethnic representation. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but hope that something good will come out of these discussions.

  4. tamekafbrown says:

    I and my family are Avatar (the cartoon) junkies. And to be honest, the cartoon whitewashes these main characters as well, at least as far as appearance is concerned. If you watch the cartoon, Katara and Sokka (sp?) are NEVER depicted as dark as the photos you have posted. They all look like white kids to me, as does Aang (aka, the last airbender). I pointed this out to my family when we first started watching the series on DVD.

    I find it psychologically interesting that so much commentary has been written about the whitewashing of the characters in the movie, but I didn’t hear anything about it at all re: the cartoon. Why do you think that is? I’d have complained about both. (But I really do love the cartoon! The movie was less than “meh”.)

    • Hi Tameka, so interesting that you brought up the cartoon! I noticed that, indeed, some of the characters appear more tanned in the comic book. Too bad that whole casting thing is distracting potential viewers away from the story.

  5. Troy Horne says:

    I just found this site and I think….. no I KNOW I am HOME! For the longest time I thought that I was the only one bothered by this. I thought that I was the only one that stood at the local Red Box and looked for a movie with a diverse cast refusing to rent anything else. I thought that I was the only one that was a little sickened at the lack of diversity on one of my favorite online TV websites HULU. I thought that I was the only one that watched (or use to watch) poll results frustrated because I know that they didn’t poll people of color. Yet I digress. I think that the power comes in what you all are doing here. Saying shame on you will not do anything for anyone we need to start supporting films, filmmakers, authors, etc with our dollars. The more we do that the more we will see what we desire. DIVERSITY IN MEDIA. Like they say talk is cheap.

    Thank you for creating this space and for informing people about artists that they can support.

    Peace

    Troy Horne
    onebug.org

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