On some kind of crazy whim, I rewatched a classic this past week: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. If you haven’t heard of this movie, (where have you been since 2010?) it’s a live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender that has, from the moment of its release, been a staple of “Top X Worst Movies of All Time” lists. Which yes, it’s a bad movie, but it’s also a bad adaptation of a very good television show. And I know bad adaptations. Because, when you get down to it, all bad adaptations are the same.
The failures of this film, just as any film, have been discussed elsewhere ad nauseum. I won’t comment on them any further except to say that no one is exaggerating. The penis hair was real, the Earth Bender prison was full of earth, and the Fire Lord did indeed look a little like Biggus Dickus. And the casting… not without issue.
My interest is more in what this film had in common with my other favourite adaptation ever, Game of Thrones, which still insists that it’s based in the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, even if we here know better. There were several elements that made both these pieces both bad adaptations, and just plain bad.
The Checklist Effect
This phenomenon is so prominent on GoT, that it got its very own entry in The Book Snob Glossary. It refers to those moments from the source material that you know are important, even if you’re not sure why, and you know you have to include, even if they make no sense in the context of the adaptation.
For example, in The Last Airbender, Katara is presented with the Waterbending Scroll that had played a prominent part in an episode of the first season of the show. Just out of nowhere, because this random village where they are just happens to have a stash of bending related relics. The scroll doesn’t play a particularly important role in the movie, especially since Katara’s desire to go to the North Pole to find a master for herself was more or less dispensed with, and her and Aang’s use of it was little more than something for visual interest in a travelling montage, but I guess it was super important to have it.
The same can be said about this entire tour through the Earth Kingdom to “change hearts”. I suppose it was meant to be significant in a sequel that never happened. But in this film, it added nothing to the narrative. (Such as that is.)
There are almost too many examples of this from Game of Thrones but I’ll briefly mention a few.
They really needed Margaery to end up in the clutches of the Faith. However, they wrote themselves into a corner because the way they scripted her relationship with her husband made it impossible for this to happen in anything like the same way it had in the source material. So they just came up with the ridiculous contrivance of the perjury trap and made it happen anyway. Check, check.
The same thing is in play with certain “reveals”. What was the significance to the season that it was revealed that the Children of the Forest created the Others, or that Melisandre was old, or even R+L=J? There was no significance. They were just boxes to randomly check off.
Forced Emotional Significance
This is closely related to the Checklist Effect, or even its equivalent, but for themes and characterizations. If there’s a moment, or a character development, that the source material spent a lot of time and effort earning, but that you weren’t able to establish properly in your adaptation (or maybe you just couldn’t be bothered), then just make it happen anyway, and have the actors and the soundtrack pretend that it has anything like the same significance.
Two examples stand out in The Last Airbender. Firstly is the relationship between Sokka and Yue. This grows over several episodes in the show, and even has an arc to it. But in the movie, they see each other and, oh look, they’re in love. We know because to voice-over narration told us so.
This is not at all helped by the fact that Sokka of the adaptation is a barebones character. I would say that his character has nothing in common with the sarcastic, meat-loving sword master, but that would imply he has a character at all, so… And Yue’s commitment to serving her people over her own needs is just mentioned right before she sacrifices herself, rather than being an intrinsic aspect of her entire relationship with Sokka. But in any case, two cardboard characters and a speech about how they believe in their beliefs does not a compelling romance make.
Secondly, Katara is also not much of a character. As I’ve already had cause to mention, her own desire to become a Waterbending master is more or less omitted from the story, (so is the fact that she’s a lot better at it than Aang is), so when she stands up to Zuko and declares that she’s “the last waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe” it just doesn’t pack the punch it was probably meant to.
Game of Thrones has sixty hours of television to work with so far, so we’re spoiled for choice, but few things exemplified this more than the character of Barristan Selmy.
He had one very badass scene in the first season then spent the next three years on the outer periphery of Daenerys’s plotline. That is, of course, until the same episode where he was killed off and we’re treated to a scene of him and Dany bonding over his relationship with her dead brother Rhaegar. But her strong feeling when he died still felt unearned.
And speaking of Rhaegar… This year, we got the Tower of Joy, which try very hard to be significant, but failed rather miserably. Quite apart from the fact that saying “The Sword of the Morning” will not magically give the phrase meaningful to show-only watchers, they did such a poor job seeding Lyanna and Rhaegar’s relationship that many people thought that Lyanna and Ned had an incestuous relationship. So… not what they were going for. And certainly not anything approaching the emotional significance of the source material.
Horribly Awkward Exposition
Surprisingly, this is also related to the other two characteristics. Exposition is hard at the best of times, and when you switch mediums, it can be especially challenging. Unfortunately, bad adaptations are often the products of very bad writers. They need their audience to know things, but they’re too incompetent to make it happen in an organic way.
The Last Airbender is rather infamous for this, and examples abound, whether it’s Katara and Sokka’s grandmother randomly teaching them about the Spirit World, or a little boy telling Zuko his own backstory, this was not the most seamless info-dumping.
But Commander Zhao, the main villain, is the best. More than once, he begins a speech with the phrase “as you know.” Um, dude? If he knows, then why are you telling him, exactly?
GoT also has trouble balancing exposition and foreshadowing with… dialogue that’s not cringe worthy. Few can forget the clumsy way that Olly’s betrayal of Jon was seeded. Or when they desperately tried to make up for four years of neglect by having Littlefinger tell the story of the Tournament at Harrenhal. (what.) Many watcher guessed that wildfire would feature strongly in the finale after Tyrion Lannister clumsy exposited about the existence of secret caches of the substance in the episode before.
In both works, the plot always drives to a halt whenever there’s an “exposition scene.” Though I will admit, as bad as Game of Thrones’s exposition is, The Last Airbender takes it to a whole new level of awful.
I’m not sure why this is always such a strong feature of bad adaptations. It may be, again, just because they tend to come from bad writers.
Pacing is a rather ineffable quality about a piece of fiction. It’s very easy to tell when it’s bad, but it’s not so easy to explain why. There’s just this feeling that things are either going too slow, or less often, too fast for you to get what’s going on. Obviously this is always a challenge when you adapt anything. ATLA was a remarkably well-paced show, and comparing the pacing of a television series to a novel series is not even possible. But the common feature is really very odd choices on what to spend time on, and which things to emphasise.
In The Last Airbender almost half the film is devoted to the Siege of the Northern Water Tribe. This takes up three episodes in a season that is mostly concerned with their travels, helping people and making friends and allies. Almost all of whom end up being quite important. The film reduces most of this to a montage, with the exception of the Earthbender prison and the sequence with the Blue Spirit.
But even these scenes have an odd, plodding quality to them. Like the film is running in slow motion. And I don’t mean the slow-mo Shyamalan likes to use in his fight scenes. (The fight scenes are hilarious, btw.)
Once we get to the North, the pace moves to break-neck. We spend very little time establishing the situation, or seeing much about this society. So when the battle comes, there aren’t any real states for the viewer. And yes, I realize that it’s very hard to fit all this into a movie that’s less than 2 hours long. But maybe that’s something you should have thought of before you spend $150 million. Just saying.
The pacing problems on Game of Thrones have been getting increasingly distracting as the series has gone on, but in season 6 the story in King’s Landing was one of the worse paced things I have ever seen.
The first five or six episode of the season at least could have easily been condensed into one, since they just have the same three scenes over and over. (Cersei and Jaime declare they love in some way, the High Sparrow makes a speech, Lady Olenna is sassy. I wish I was exaggerating.)
Then in the last two episodes, so many things happen that it’s a little mind-blowing. The absolutely huge development of Cersei destroying the Great Sept of Baelor is barely seeded or established. (Apart from the WILDFIRE foreshadowing, which doesn’t even happen in this plotline.) All the set-up for this happens off screen. And yet we had time for at least 6 High Sparrow monologues?
An Obsession with “Fixing” the Source Material
There is sometimes a tendency for fan of source material being adapted to cry “they changed it, now it sucks!” but that is not what I’m talking about her. What I’m talking about it is “Why did they change something that wasn’t broken in the first place when that change added nothing?”
There are several sub-categories here. Let’s start with characterization.
Who are any of these characters in The Last Airbender? The Aang of the show is a dopey kid who likes to joke around and waste time, and just be 12. This guy is a ball of humourless nothing. Same with Sokka. He’s often the comic relief on the show, but he’s also a creative thinker. The Sokka of the movie kind of has the same hair, and that’s about it.
The change that upsets me the most is that to Fire Lord Ozai. In the show, he’s a very mysterious figure for two seasons, only ever seen in silhouette. Here, he’s just some guy. It’s very difficult to take him seriously as an object of just profound terror.
When it comes to Game of Thrones, you can really pick at random to find a character that’s been altered beyond recognition from the source material. The lowest hanging fruit is probably “Ellaria Sand” who was changed from a woman who pleads for an end to the cycle of violence for the sake of her children, to a woman who’s the main perpetrator of that cycle.
There’s also a tendency to make the narrative warp to service the needs or the writers’ clearly favoured characters. Along with changing characters, bad adaptations also feel themselves at liberty to change details about the world building. Even very major ones.
The example that sticks out in The Last Airbender has to be the bizarre decision to change the rules of Firebending. Rather than being able to create fire from their qi as a matter of course, Firebenders in the film require an existing fire to bend. And this is kind of a huge deal. Only the greatest masters can produce their own fire, apparently.
This change is just mystifying to me. It doesn’t really add anything, and just creates problems for the story to solve that don’t need to be there. Just.. why, M.Night? Why? I’m so confused.
The people behind Game of Thrones also like to change the world building on a whim. It might be the sexual mores of the Reach, or the laws of succession on the Iron Islands. Or perhaps it might just be the patriarchy itself. Which only exists when it’s convenient.
Then there are the smaller things that don’t really matter, except they kind of do. Especially if they add up the way they did in both these works.
It was a giant buggabear within the ATLA fandom when many of the names of characters in the movie were pronounced differently than on the show. This is complicated by the fact that sometimes the pronunciation in the film is actually more accurate to the pronunciations of Asian languages, but this was quite distracting for many fans.
There are also a few things that annoyed, like Aang being told that the Avatar can’t have a family, something contradicted by the source material, or how Yue rules the Northern Water Tribe because her father died. (So she’s Chief? Nope, she’s still just “Princess”.) Both of these changes add nothing, and just make you scratch your head.
Likewise, on Game of Thrones there are many changes that seem to happen just because the writers can change stuff. Iconic lines are the worst casualties here. Why was Jaime threaten to launch Edmure’s son out of a catapult instead of a trebuchet? No one knows.
Name changes on GoT can usually be justified, albeit feebly, by avoiding confusion among names that sound alike. But that doesn’t explain changes like the mystifying decision to give Arthur Dayne two swords, or why Margaery only has one brother.
As I said, it’s sometimes hard to separate bad adaptation from garden-variety bad writing, but there is something that about source material that contains a rich variety of well-rounded characters and extensive world building that seems to attract this kind of bad writing. Maybe it’s because the source material’s goodness can be used as a crutch, to try to fool the audience into thinking the writing has a depth it simply doesn’t show.
Nice try. We’re not fooled.