The Least Airbender: How better writing could have saved my favorite franchise

I try not to use this space to complain about media I didn’t like. With just an exception or two, I try to focus on what’s good. And when I can’t do that, to focus on fixing what didn’t work.

Even so, I’m biting my knuckle here. See, the Internet doesn’t need another blogger telling you “The Last Airbender” is not a very good film. But here I am. And my knuckle is starting to hurt.

I love, I mean love, the original Nickelodeon cartoon that aired from 2005 to 2008. It’s a heroic quest as epic as Tolkien, while still being funny and approachable for kids and adults. If you have any interest at all in storytelling, and have the kind of open mind that permits guilt-free enjoyment of a “children’s cartoon,” I encourage you to watch the series. You’ll find far more than a kiddie cartoon.

But the recently released movie by M. Night Shyamalan … it … it saddens me. All the wonderful characters from the cartoon get Hollywooded into uninteresting shadow puppets on a journey of checklist activities. These characters, you guys, ohmigod, they are so well written in the cartoon! They’re rich and layered and funny and, and, and …

Right. Not complaining.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman parses what he think went wrong with “Airbender” in the July 23 issue. He calls out the directing by Shyamalan (“a deeply derivative filmmaker”) and the acting. He even faults the source cartoon (“a veritable trash compactor of familiar tropes”) —which tells us this guy can’t be trusted.

He is wrong, of course, about the cartoon and about the problem: The chief culprit here is the writing. It failed to live up to the richness of the source material. Let’s channel this angst into exploring how we, as writers, could have saved this movie. What follows is the first in a series … yes, a series. That’s how important this is to me. (And how much work there is to be done.)

Today’s Lesson: Cons and Prologues

On the “Lord of the Rings” DVDs, director Peter Jackson talks about the great debate at the studio level about whether or not the first movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” should open with a prologue with a narrative voiceover.

A voiceover is a controversial and often-misused device for cramming a lot of information into a story. The upside is it conveys, all at once, the details essential to understanding the setting. The downside is that it enables sloppy storytelling — the classic failure of the “show, don’t tell” rule.

Voiceovers mean the storyteller has given up on revealing the details of his world through subtler means such as dialog or character actions.

In the case of the“Airbender” cartoon, an initial voiceover tells us about a world with as much complexity and governing backstory as Lord of the Rings. What we learn in this voiceover:

  1. Humans can manipulate the four elements of air, earth, water and fire.
  2. One human at a time is the “Avatar” who can manipulate all four elements at once and who maintains “balance” on a global scale.
  3. The current Avatar, an airbender, disappeared 100 years ago.
  4. Meanwhile, the Fire Nation has waged war against the other three nations for most of those hundred years.

Whew. That’s a lot of info, but clearly the storyteller needs to jumpstart our context in this big setting if he hopes to get on with his little slice of story he wants to share with us.

This is the thinking Peter Jackson settled on, too. He opened “Fellowship” with a seven-minute prologue skimming the millennium-spanning history of the One Ring. But what a whopper of a seven minutes: duplicity among the demigods, epic war, improbable reversals of fortune, the depths of human greed, and at last, betrayal most bitter. When those seven minutes were over, you felt like you had already seen one hell of a movie.

“Airbender’s” prologue lands no such punch. It cleaves close to the TV show version, a voiceover set to a few brief images: benders, bad guys, sad guys and a lot of our icy Arctic opening setting. Some of it is essential background, some of it not. (At one point, our narrator informs us that her brother is not very good at hunting — even though his actions immediately following this statement make this clear when he loses track of a seal.)

Where Jackson’s prologue leaves the viewer hungry for more, Shyamalan’s prologue gives the viewer a rushed feeling, and a sneaking suspicion the storyteller is kind of ham-handed.

OK. We can fix this. We are, after all, storytellers. How can we make a prologue that goes fast, conveys vital background info, and doesn’t’ feel so telly? Here’s one attempt that tries to get across everything in the current version — without feeling like it’s a compulsory checklist of facts we’re being spoon fed.

(Have a better prologue idea? Write one up in the comments section!)


We open on a firebender doing martial exercises in front of a brazier of burning coal. A wise GRANDMOTHER’S VOICE speaks over all the images that follow.

(voice over)
Oh, children, you may not believe me when I say it, but time ago, all four nations lived in harmony. It’s true! Water, air and earth — we lived in peace with the fire people.

The firebender completes his exercise by punching forward; the fire of the brazier bursts forth in the fearsome, threatening form of a flying dragon.  He guides the flight of the dragon with his martial art forms in an aerial routine around the room.

In this age, the Fire Nation was not our enemy. They were our closest allies, a friend to all in the Water Tribes.

Reverse angle: The firebenders are performing for a formal feast, a state dinner for the Fire Lord, and the guests are applauding the show. Close on one spectator seated in a place of honor near the Fire Lord, a WATERBENDING WOMAN whose race and attire mark her as a visitor.

My own great-grandmother visited the Fire capital as an honored ambassador of the Southern waterbenders. She feasted on sky-bison and fine wines at the right hand of Fire Lord Sozin himself.

As the fire dragon continues to dart around the chamber, the waterbender gives an impish smirk and gestures grandly at a water pitcher on the table. A coil of water rises magically from the pitcher, then shoots rapidly into the air where the dragon flies; it forms a hoop of ice that the dragon passes through. The guests laugh and clap.

She made quite an impression on the Fire court. Well, she was kind of a show-off, really. In any case, they didn’t soon forget her.

Witnessing this display, an older Fire Nation man sitting at the left hand of the Fire Lord makes an impish smirk of his own. This is Avatar ROKU. Without calling attention to himself, he makes a small gesture that causes the ice hoop to reform as a wall of water just as dragon flies through; this extinguishes the flame, leaving only a puff of smoke. The waterbending woman looks shocked and embarrassed, mouthing to the guests around her, “It wasn’t me!”

She even made the acquaintance of the Avatar himself, who shared waterbending secrets with her and offered his eternal friendship. She never said so, but I believe she was sweet on him.

Roku makes another covert gesture, and the smoke swirls into the shape of an arrow that points accusingly at the woman. Suddenly, everyone in the room gets it: The old man has been playing tricks on the guest, and everyone, including the woman, laughs.

(voice over)
That was Avatar Ruko, wasn’t it, Old Mother?

, girl. Avatar Roku, master of all four elements. He was still alive then. Before the war. Like all Avatars, he traveled the world as a living example of how all four elements … and all four nations … could live as one.

Montage: Roku corrects the form of the waterbending woman. Cut to him in a yoga position with airbending monks, swirling a tower of leaves with each breath. Cut to him earthbending with a team of others to mend an irrigation ditch in a field.

He tended to us all like a shepherd minding a flock of arctic hens. My mother was a little girl when Roku himself visited us here in the Southern Water Village. She talked about his dragon mount for years — thought it was going to melt the whole town.

Cut to Roku at the Southern Water Village where the townsfolk have come out to bid him adieu — he waterbends an ice bridge to help him mount his pet dragon, then waves farewell as flies away. As he does so, we pull back to see the entirety of the village in its biggest and most prosperous state.

If he wants us to live as one, why doesn’t he make the war stop? Why doesn’t he keep all the soldiers away?

The image of the prosperous Water Village fades to reveal what it looked like after the war began: Buildings ruined, public works toppled, wooden structures burning. A line of firebending soldiers advances on horrified townsfolk with plumes of flame.

Because he’s a firebender, dummy. If the Avatar was a waterbender, he’da stopped those fire jerks.

Waterbenders put up a fight against the firebenders, but are no match for their number or their war machines.

That’s not it. It’s because he ran away and died, and he won’t come back, not even his spirit, and there won’t be no Avatars no more. That’s what my dad said.

Oh, pishposh. He died, that’s true enough. Killed maybe, some say.

We see Roku through fire and smoke, lying on the ground amid rivulets of flowing lava. He’s reaching to someone deeper in the smoke that we can’t quite see, but he’s clearly being left to die by the shadow figure. Cut to black.

But the Avatar, he’s much more than flesh. He’s a living link to the spirit world. And when an Avatar dies, his spirit comes back. He always returns to the living as a baby, born to a mother in the next nation in the cycle! Water, earth, fire … and air.

A baby wrapped in swaddling cloth is handed to an airbender monk by an indistinct mother figure. Cut to a line of young children practicing Tai-Chi to blow out candles with airbending — their candles only flicker in the undisciplined gusts.

Oh, he may have to relearn things each time, but that’s what keeps the Avatar spirit connected to a world that is ever-changing. He renews himself with each new life, just as he helps us to renew our world, just as he has — or she has —for hundreds of lifetimes.

At last we resolve on the present day, where the OLD WOMAN speaks to a circle of schoolchildren, including YOUNG GIRL, YOUNG GIRL 2 and YOUNG BOY.

I don’t know, Granny. I think Avatars aren’t real. They’re myths like the Snowflake Fairy.

Hush your mouth, or no more gifts from the Snowflake Fairy! Horrid child. How can you say such a thing!

Well, my dad says —

I taught your father, too, and you better believe I never let him get away with this, this, this no-Avatar talk.

Well, then, where has he been? Where is the Avatar?

The Old Woman loses her spark as she realizes she can’t answer.

If he was reborn with the Air monks, then where is he? It’s been 100 years, Old Mother. Why did he let the Fire Nation destroy us? And haul away my mom? And my brother?

And my brother.

And my dad.

I … I don’t know.

Old Mother, I’m not sure I believe in the Avatar either. Will the Snowflake Fairy still bring me presents?

This is enough for today. It’s time you we all got to the great hall and prepared for dinner.

(perking up)
Hey, what are we having tonight?

It depends on what Sokka catches on his hunt.

The children groan.

Looks like it’s refried hippo blubber again.


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6 responses to “The Least Airbender: How better writing could have saved my favorite franchise

  1. Jonathan Thompson

    You are absolutely right. I read many people’s reactions about the movie, trashing the actors — but it’s really the writing. I’m sure the actors would’ve been just fine, if they hadn’t been forced to endure the Star Wars phenomenon (Natalie Portman/Liam Neeson reading horrid dialogue). I absolutely adore the original TV show, too, and I was just so disappointed to see the lovable characters changed into lifeless shells. I really enjoyed reading your prologue narration. I’m not a very gifted writer, so I’ll have to give some thought about an effective prologue, and then I’ll post it! Maybe Shyamalan will learn his lesson and provide some better writing in the sequels (if they even get made).

  2. jdrewscott

    Thanks, Jonathan. I’m with you on the acting (which I’ll touch on in a future post). All the acting chops in the world can’t lift wooden dialog.

    Double down on that prologue — maybe Shymalan will hire us to do the rewrites for Book 2!

  3. mustafa

    you are right, the acting was way off an awkward. they better not mispronounce any names this time in book 2 and get the dam story right the first time. cant forget to maybe shorten the long dance just to shoot out some air.

    • jdrewscott

      Actually, I disagree about the acting. I blame the writing instead (and the directing, since the it’s the director’s job to get performances out of his child actors). Since we know Dev Patel can act, I’m going to assume the rest of the cast is capable of it, too. I’d just like them to try again with a better script.

  4. Mark

    I’ve not seen this movie and I don’t plan to, but I agree with you completely – it’s all about the writing. With bad writing, a movie will suck (but that is unrelated to its box office gross). Is this a game you play frequently – rewriting bad dialog?

    • jdrewscott

      Yes, rewriting dialog is a frequent pastime of mine, Mark — and please join me! When you see a crap movie, fix it with your pen, and let me know. I’ll give you star billing!

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