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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (1/17/11) 11:12pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Lots of TV this week, as I was stuck at home with bronchitis & had my new Roku box.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Avatar:  The Last Airbender [1x05-1x20], Better Off Ted [2x10-2x13]
Books:  <none>

Avatar:  The Last Airbender [1x05-1x20]
Yes, this is what happens when I'm laid up with viral bronchitis for a week:  I fire up netflix streaming and I watch the rest of season one (okay, "book one") of Avatar.

As I watched these episodes, one question quietly nudged its way to the front of my mind:  "How do you make a bad movie out of this?"  I haven't seen the M. Night Shyamalan abomination, and the only reviews I've read of it were from critics who hadn't seen the show.  So this is something of a theoretical question, at least until I get around to watching the film.  (Yes, I'm going to watch the movie, even though it's awful.)

I mean, some of the building materials for a great film are there. 

The art design is simple but clear, lifting from different cultures to create the eskimo-like water tribes or the Buddhist-monastery-like air temples.  I think they even go so far as to give each nation its own style of martial arts, but I don't know enough about fighting styles to be able to say for sure.  The monster design is just staggering -- Hei Bai is a great nod to the great spirits from, say, Princess Mononoke[1], and the Face-Stealer is a frankly terrifying monster that wouldn't be out of place in one of Neil Gaiman's works.

The rules of magic are novel and interesting, and they find clever ways to use the manipulation of the elements.  Of *course* earth-benders would create prisons out of solid walls that they could open and close at will.  Of *course* Katara could save a drowning victim by yanking the water out of his lungs.  There are lots of nice moments where you realize the showrunners thought through the rules of magic for this universe, and found interesting things to do with them.

There are certainly a lot of character arcs to draw from.  Each character has his or her own "deal" in season one, from Aang learning to grow up a bit, to Sokka getting over some of his knee-jerk sexism, to even Prince Zuko, who manages to learn a tiny bit about honor from his Uncle Iroh.  Likewise, there are lots of settings in season one, from the steampunk contraptions of the Northern Air Temple to the small fishing village at the south pole to Omashu, the earthbenders' megalopolis-on-a-hill.

But I think this starts to hint at the problems inherent in this adaptation:  there's just too much stuff.  I know we all want movies to be free-form express-what-you-want-for-ninety-minutes art-a-thons, but the bottom line is that almost all movies are about a guy in a place who wants a thing and goes after it.[2] This season of Avatar is much more TV-like:  we have a bunch of characters visiting a bunch of places and going on a bunch of adventures.  So adaptation would require some radical paring-down:  instead of a bunch of individual stories that add up to a sort of bildungsroman[3], we'd have to have one story about Aang trying to accomplish one simple goal, and lots of intriguing details would be stripped away.  We'd lose the lovely and surprising reincorporation from late in the season -- say, when Hei Bai shows up in the spirit world, or when General Zhou hires the pirates from "The Waterbending Scroll".

I'd worry that a movie version would *just* be a war movie -- that deep down, it wouldn't be about growing up any more.  We'd lose the great, Charlie-Brown-like voice acting for Aang.  We'd lose those pivotal moments where Aang does something childish and dickish that we know he'll regret later in the episode.  It could wind up being just so many plot mechanics.

Also, the cast of characters is designed for a TV show, not a film.  Zuko and Iroh are designed to counterbalance each other, and provide conflict in the Fire Nation scenes.  Sokka and Katara are designed to have conflicting outlooks on every situation that our heroes encounter.[4]  Also, they're designed to initiate stories.  There's a saying in improv:  "In real life, if you see a strange man[5] hiding in the bushes, you avoid him; in improv, you go and talk to him, because that will make a story happen."  You get the sense that these two characters would talk to the strange man; Sokka would try to start a fight with him for having the temerity to hide[6], and Katara might try to coax him out so they could help him.

In films, the secondary characters don't often get to have that life of their own.  They exist to either further the hero towards his goal or hinder the hero, and that's it.  When a character doesn't fit in either narrow category, the audience's "what is this person doing here?" detectors start going off.  This is always a problem with adapting TV to film.  (See also:  Serenity.)

The specifics of this adaptation don't sound any more promising.  M. Night Shyamalan has a very distinctive style, and that style is "quiet, creepy Hitchcock knockoff".  He's gotten good performances out of kids, but those performances have been calm, and measured, and designed to further a "something is not right here" vibe.  He doesn't seem like he'd *want* to tell a story about kids going on a rollicking adventure to a variety of magical locations that have nothing to do with Philadelphia.

Also, 3D seems like it could go badly, given that it tends to darken a movie's palette when done on the cheap.  I love the bold primary colors used for the different nations, and I'd hate to see that muted to aid a technology that still feels gimmicky to me.

Still, it's not like everything in this TV season is perfect.  The show became almost entirely episodic in the mid-season stretch, so if one episode (say, "The Great Divide") felt heavy-handed or slight on its own, there were no larger arcs to help support it.  Occasionally, the Avatar's powers seem to randomly include whatever abilities our heroes need in a given situation.  It's like when the writers paint themselves into a corner, then Aang just gets all glowy and does something physically impossible.  I got the same feeling with Yue's self-sacrifice to become the Moon Spirit; I figured she'd die one way or another, but her last beat felt like an arbitrary plot development.

But for all that, this show is still a brilliant piece of work, and far better than children deserve.  And I'm surprised to see that it was actually a commercial success as well, drawing record numbers for Nickelodeon.

I look forward to watching the remaining seasons.

Better Off Ted [2x10-2x13]
I don't really have much to add about these last four episodes of the show, as this sitcom stays firmly episodic in structure and pretty uniform in tone.  Mainly, I'm just glad the very last shot of the show consists of Linda, Phil, and Lem having a dance party in the research lab. 

For next time, I'll finally write up my reviews of The World Without Us and season two of Party Down.  I'm starting in on the second season of Avatar, and then I'll switch gears and watch lots and lots of film noir.  I imagine I'll finally start reading Einstein's Dreams -- and as always, I'll continue listening to my audiobook of A Game of Thrones.

[1] ... although a moment's reflection tells me, no, they're both drawing from the same world of Japanese traditions.  Also they might have picked up the 'whispers' from LOST and the creepy fits-of-fast-forward motion from The Ring.  Again, I like to think they're weaving odd bits of Western culture into the show's primarily Eastern inspirations.

[2] Even most beloved oh-so-edgy films fall into the basic movie framework; it's fun to look at how, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind technically follows the *exact* same story structure of your basic brain-dead rom-com.

[3] Fancy German word meaning "novel about growing up".

[4] I loved the number of different ways they found for the two siblings to conflict.  Their Scully-and-Mulder vibe in "The Fortune Teller", for instance, was a lot of fun.

[5] Canonically it's "a naked man", but I don't want this paragraph to get creepy later on.

[6] Side note:  I love the fact that Sokka keeps telling jokes that die, badly.  He'll tell a joke, and there's a long pause, usually punctuated by someone offscreen coughing.  Is this an animé convention, or are they leaning more on The Office-style Western sitcoms here?

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