My Cautious Optimism About the Live Action ATLA Has Downgraded to Just Caution

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Gordon Cormier as Aang, Ian Ousley as Sokka in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023

I understand that it’s important not to judge a series or film before seeing it, that interview quotes can be taken out of context, and that adaptations are always going to make changes to fit the new medium. But I’ll be honest, everything I’ve been hearing about the upcoming live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation, which premieres on Netflix later this month, has me a little bit concerned.

When news broke that original creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko decided to leave the project, naturally people began to worry. Especially considering that they exited due to “creative differences”, which could literally mean anything. You try to take news like that with a grain of salt and not let your imagination run wild, but it’s hard.

I admit that I was cautiously optimistic about the series after the trailer dropped late last year. The production quality of the trailer is amazing. Visually, everything looks great. They didn’t whitewash it, which is more than I can say for some other live-action adaptations. So, yes, I was starting to think this may not be the worst thing that ever happened. 

But with the premiere date approaching, the press tour has begun, and the cast and crew are starting to talk about some of the changes. And honestly, some of the things that I’m hearing have me worried that the creative team has just completely missed the point of the series. I have downgraded my “cautious optimism” to simply “caution”.

Take this quote from showrunner Albert Kim, from a recent interview with IGN: “We had to make it a serialized Netflix drama, which meant it couldn’t just be for kids. It had to also appeal to the people who are big fans of Game of Thrones.”

First of all, comparing anything to Game of Thrones in 2024 is just asking for me to judge you harshly. Game of Thrones was a cultural touchstone that fell completely off the pop culture map after its disastrous eighth season essentially butchered the story that they had spent years developing. I’m sure there are people out there that didn’t mind or even liked the finale, but I personally haven’t met any. People may be loving House of the Dragon, but that’s not really the same. 

Also, I am absolutely, completely sick of everyone assuming that making something appealing to adults means making it dark and gritty. I hate dark and gritty. I like fluff and romance and happy endings. Yes, I was a fan of Game of Thrones, but you know what? I was simultaneously a fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender. A person can be both. People are like ogres and onions in that they have layers.

I actually like Avatar: The Last Airbender for all of the reasons that it’s not like Game of Thrones. Imagine that.

There is plenty of media out there that’s made for kids that still manages to attract a huge adult fanbase. Case in point, Avatar: The Last Airbender. And it’s not just people who grew up watching it who are now adults. I was in college when the series first started airing and didn’t watch any of it until I was in my 30s and it became available for free on Amazon Prime. I’m a fan of Voltron Legendary Defender and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. These are both shows aimed at children that I started watching as an adult, because they are so well-written and filled with compelling characters and good storytelling that they transcend age.

I think one of the changes to make this more Game of Thrones-esque is that they intend to show the massacre of the Air Nomads, something that was only alluded to in the cartoon and never portrayed. Personally, I think it’s more horrifying to not know what happened. Also, with how much they have to cut, adding that in seems unnecessary.

Also, everything doesn’t need to be universal. I know that in this age of streaming, shows need to have massive numbers for streamers to even consider granting a second season. Netflix in particular is known for axing shows with small, dedicated fanbases because they’re expecting everything to have the same booming global popularity. But you know, it’s OK for shows to be niche. It’s OK to not appeal to everyone. I would honestly worry most about appealing to fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, considering that’s the show that you’re doing.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Ian Ousley as Sokka, Kiawentiio as Katara, Gordon Cormier as Aang in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

It’s not only that, though. There have been a couple of reveals that have had people talking – I’ve seen something like a dozen TikToks about this when I was scrolling my feed over the weekend – because they’re basically changing fundamental aspects of some of the characters.

Case in point, this quote from Kim from the same IGN interview: “We decided to make Aang’s narrative drive a little clearer. In the first season of the animated series, he’s kind of going from place to place looking for adventures. He even says, ‘First, we’ve got to go and ride the elephant koi.’ It’s a little looser as befits a cartoon. We needed to make sure that he had that drive from the start. […] We essentially give him this vision of what’s going to happen and he says, ‘I have to get to the Northern Water Tribe to stop this from happening.’ That gives him much more narrative compulsion going forward.”

The first season of the live-action consists of eight hour-long episodes, but it needs to cover the same material as the cartoon, which is told over twenty 20-minute episodes. Clearly some stuff needs to be cut to fit time constraints. And I know they were concerned about the actors’ aging between seasons. I understand that. But giving Aang this drive right from the start completely changes him as a character.

A huge part of his growth in the first season is moving from someone who just wanted to be a kid to someone who was going to become the Avatar. He is, after all, 12 years old. Aang feeling overwhelmed by his looming responsibilities is why he ran away and got frozen in the first place. He didn’t want to be the Avatar. That isn’t going to disappear immediately.

Not to mention that a lot of the detours the gaang takes help to build out the world, which is part of what gave the cartoon its charm. How much world-building are we going to get in this slimmed down, sleeker Netflix version?

There was the news that they were going to be removing a lot of the sexism that Sokka exhibits. Which is, again, kind of central to his character development. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kiawentiio Tarbell (Katara) said, “I feel like we also took out the element of how sexist [Sokka] was. I feel like there were a lot of moments in the original show that were iffy.”

Ian Ousley (Sokka) agreed, adding, “Yeah, totally. There are things that were redirected just because it might play a little differently [in live action].” 

Characters are allowed to be flawed. Those “iffy” moments in the original were not dated references or opinions espoused by the narrative; they were intentional. There is a difference between a piece of media being sexist (a lot of comedies from the 1980s just did not age well) and a specific character being sexist, particularly when learning and overcoming that sexism is an important part of their growth.

Sokka starts out with very sexist tendencies – in fact, him being a jerk is what prompts Katara to perform her massive feat of waterbending that busts Aang out of the iceberg in the first place. That’s what’s so important about Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors; they humble Sokka and help him realize that his views are problematic. It inspires him to change.

By removing this behavior from Sokka’s character arc, it changes who he is. But more than that, it takes away the ability of the live-action to educate its audience in the same way that Sokka himself is educated. It’s not like sexism and misogyny are long-forgotten concepts. They are alive and well and, with the landscape of global politics shifting ever to the right, more relevant than ever. It would be hugely beneficial for a major production to have a sexist character realize that this is bad and learn from it, because it shows boys that they can do the same.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Ian Ousley as Sokka in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Likewise, they are adjusting Katara’s role as unofficial team mom which was, all together now, kind of central to her character. As Kim said in the afore-mentioned IGN interview, “There are certain roles I think that Katara did in the cartoon that we didn’t necessarily also do here. I mean, I don’t want to really get into a lot of that, but some gender issues that didn’t quite translate.”

Admittedly, I don’t understand what that means. How does something like that “not translate”? Does he think that this doesn’t still happen?

Katara’s mothering instincts were largely due to the death of her own mother, trauma she was still dealing with when the show starts, and continues to deal with throughout the series. She had to mature way too quickly in order to keep what remained of her family functioning and together. Overcoming this ingrained behavior is, say it with me now, a fundamental part of her character arc. She is unlearning this mindset that she was forced into because both of her parents were gone.

Again, characters are allowed to have flaws. They’re allowed to be messy and, dare I say, unlikeable at times. These are children who are still figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world. Bringing them in as fully-realized individuals seems inauthentic. 

Besides, the sanding down of Katara’s rougher edges feels more insidious than doing so to Sokka or Aang because of the pervasive idea in society that a woman must always be likeable. It’s like no one even paid attention to America Ferrera’s Oscar-worthy speech in Barbie. Please, I’m begging you, let women be imperfect.

By altering these characteristics, it seems to indicate that the live-action intends to be more plot-driven than character-driven, the way the original show was. This makes sense, given the fact that it’s only eight episodes. But the sticking point of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and shows like it that resonate with so many people, is how much people love the characters. And how much can we get to know the characters if we never spend any time developing them?

I feel like a lot of these issues could be solved if Netflix wasn’t so married to eight-episode seasons. Let shows breathe; it’s not the end of the world. Bring back the so-called “filler” episodes where the emphasis was on character and not plot. Give me a reason to care about these people in the first place.  A lot of the newer shows I’ve been watching lately have been adaptations because I already know these characters. It’s harder for me to get into original shows.

These changes may not matter in the grand scheme of things. The show isn’t even out yet; I’ve only seen the trailer. It’s really easy to take quotes out of context, and I know it can also be hard to formulate your thoughts in a way that conveys exactly what you’re hoping to say. This series may end up being amazing.

But little things add up, and this news makes me wary. Whereas I might have watched this show the day it drops, now I may wait to see what other people have to say about it. Or maybe I’ll just rewatch the original.

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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