It’s been a couple of years since news dropped that Netflix would be producing a live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Fan reactions at the time were mixed, but many were optimistic because original co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were attached to the ATLA adaptation. That is no longer true. So what does that mean for the new show?
DiMartino and Konietzko have exited the upcoming Netflix ATLA adaptation, per The Hollywood Reporter. Both men have published their own statements about the move – DiMartino on his website and Konietzko on his Instagram – explaining that, despite initial promises from Netflix to respect their vision of the series, it seems as though the streaming giant is determined to steer the show in its own direction.
Netflix said that it was committed to honoring our vision for this retelling and to supporting us on creating the series. And we expressed how excited we were for the opportunity to be at the helm. Unfortunately, things did not go as we had hoped.
They made a very public promise to support our vision. Unfortunately, there was no follow-through on that promise. Though I got to work with some great individuals, both on Netflix’s side and our own small development team, the general handling of the project created what I felt was a negative and nonsupportive environment.
Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, upon hearing the news, no doubt flashed back to the abomination that was M. Night Shyamalan’s feature film. (Reactions to the news are about what you’d expect.) Though some suspect that Shyamalan was stonewalled repeatedly by interfering studio executives, the director has defended the film as recently as five years ago. The film has been heavily criticized in the decade since its release, primarily for white-washing and its poor visuals (it was converted to 3D in that era when studios were rushing out 3D films), but most fans simply refuse to acknowledge that it even exists.
So with DiMartino and Konietzko out of the ATLA adaptation, what can we expect it to be? Well, there is the chance that we are all overreacting, and that Netflix will still put out a good series even if it’s not exactly what the creators envisioned. Showrunners exiting because of “creative differences” isn’t automatically a bad thing. However, if the people who created the original aren’t happy with the direction the series was going, it stands to reason fans won’t be that thrilled, either.
My biggest concerns are that the series will repeat the mistakes of the film. The most prominent, of course, is my fear that the cast will be white-washed. In the cartoon, every single character is of Asian descent, but for the film, they cast primarily white actors – except for the villains. Netflix does not have the best track record with this sort of thing. ATLA is entirely based on various Asian cultures, and those cultures are a vitally important part of the series, so the cast needs to be filled with Asian actors.
Netflix, I am telling you right now, do not cast white actors in this series. You’re gonna have a bad time.
Another worry is that they will age up the characters. While this is not an inherently poor decision (it makes Game of Thrones slightly less creepy), ATLA features a core group of young teenagers and children – Aang is 12 (biologically), but even Zuko is only 16. They deal with a lot of heavy stuff that even adults struggle with, but they are, at the end of the day, kids. Aging up the characters could potentially lead to a number of problems, such as the female characters being sexualized in a way that is not only not present in the source material but also just wrong in so many ways.
Aging up the characters also introduces the possibility of unnecessary and shoehorned-in romances. ATLA already has romances – Sokka and Yue, then Sokka and Suki, Zuko and Mai, and the series long slow-burn of Aang and Katara – and doesn’t need any more. But if you age up the characters, Netflix may fall back on the “tried and true” trope of “boy and girl of the same age and attractiveness are automatically love interests”. This is something that happened in the first Percy Jackson movie, The Lightning Thief, which aged up the characters from 12 to 18 and rushed Percy and Annabeth’s relationship, which develops much more slowly and naturally in the books.
Can you just imagine a CW-esque teen melodrama love triangle with Katara, Aang, and Zuko, where they make a big deal about who she’s going to end up with and sideline the actual plot to amp up “romantic tension”?
Adaptations also have a tendency to change character personalities. Grover from Percy Jackson was changed from a nerdy, cautious character in the books to the sarcastic comic relief in the movie. Many of Ron Weasley’s most badass and iconic moments in the books were altered in the films or given to Hermione. Netflix has put out some pretty great original content but Hollywood in general is almost always messing up adaptations.
ATLA has some amazing female characters and does a lot with dismantling harmful stereotypes about women; it’s actually a major part of Sokka’s character development that he learns to respect women. I’m concerned that the ATLA adaptation will “tokenize” the female characters and reduce them from the flawed, complex people that they are into more one-note stereotypes. (I dread the thought that Toph will become “not like other girls” or that someone will become a manic pixie dream girl.)
Basically, we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s way too soon to say. It could be awful; it could be amazing. But I will admit that my enthusiasm for this project is rapidly dwindling after this announcement.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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