How I would have converted The Last Airbender from TV season to Film

I admit that The Last Airbender film has plenty of flaws.  I will also admit to enjoying the film immensely once you get past those.  Seeing the various forms of bending in live action is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.  The problems I have with the translation from the small screen have to do with the pronunciation of names and the characters not all being as they were in the series, Aang and Sokka being furthest from what I wanted from them.  The levity those characters bring to the cartoon is needed so that the Fire Nation’s invasion isn’t all depressing.

That said, here’s what I would have done, and was under the impression that Shyamalan was doing.  I would take a page from how they convert a book to the big screen.

Watch and outline the whole series

I would watch the whole series, and write it all out in an outline.  It would be a massive outline, but thorough.  This is something that Shyamalan did do.  In fact, he was so thorough that the show’s creators sent him notes about which characters they think could be cut out, and what sequences weren’t necessary.  He literally had included everything.

Note Cards

Put all of the major scenes down onto note cards, listing all appearing characters with color coded names for ease of site.  Spread those cards out on pin boards around a writing room.  Seeing the characters and sequences all laid out through the entirety of the story helps to find the important characters and through-lines.

I would take the cards and figure out what the overall storyline is, and what scenes are absolutely necessary to include to get that storyline told.  In this series, the storyline is about Aang acceptance of his role, above all else, so I’d look though his story to make sure that it is told to the full.  Then I’d look at all of his scenes and see what other characters appear in his scenes.  I’d find out how they are important to the story and what sequences to include that are important to their characters.  In this case, it’s Zuko, Iroh, Sokka and Katara – at least in Book One.

Editing the Series

Now, here’s where the fun begins.  I would take the animated series itself into my editing software and cut each book down to a feature length film that contains all of the important character arcs.  This would probably take multiple cuts to get it down to the proper length.  Each book is roughly 7 and a half hours long, with the last being about 8.  I’d give myself an extended edition cut to work with, that gives me a Lord of the Rings length of three hours per film.

By this time, I’d know what I did very clearly, and would ask some friends to watch my feature length edits of the series, to see if it works for them.  It would be best if they had never seen the series.

I would then work on refining that animated cut to make sure the film has everything that it needs.  It is also possible that new scenes will be needed to fill out some of the story in a way that was different than the animated version could convey.  Now you’ve got a working pre-viz storyboard that you can show to the studio to give them a good idea of what you’re going to be shooting for in live action.

Script writing

Now I’d start writing the first draft of the script.  I’d start with a line-by-line transcript of the film that I had cut together from the animated series.  It’s likely that I’d also need to re-write some sequences or bits of dialog to get a message across that the film was missing.

I’d send that script off to the show’s creators to have them provide notes on things, and then I’d re-write it.  I’d then hand the script over to the studio to get it budgeted.  (This is something that is typical of all films with special effects this intensive, they estimate the potential budget for the script that they have been given.)  Usually, this is followed by another re-write, and by the time the filming begins, it’s a near-final seventh draft.  I say near-final, because sometimes the script will change on the set, and stronger scenes are written as filming goes on.


After the script is finally approved, and a budget is agreed on and approved, the film is green-lit and goes into heavy pre-production.  It is here that I would find my cast, and we’d do a table read of the screenplay, and all sorts of effects work, set building and training begins.

And this is when the magic comes to life.

And that, folks, is how I would convert the animated series into a live-action film.

Why couldn’t Night accomplish this?

He had the whole series outlined, right?  Well, for one thing, he only watched the series a known single time.  It’s possible he watched it more than that, but he definitely watched the whole series once.  He grew up hearing the names pronounced correctly, and in the animated series, the names had very different pronunciations than Night was likely used to.  He thought it was doing the right thing, and I don’t fault him for that.  I do fault him, however, for throwing away the pronunciations that we’re all used to from watching the series play out over 4 years, and talking to friends about the show.  (There was one instance that a character pronounced Aang in the way that the tv series does, and it sounded so natural, I almost missed it.)

He was also given limitations on the run time for the film.  The shorter a film, the more screenings it can have per day, the more people can see the film each day.  This is something that had a negative effect on Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven.  Apparently the director’s cut of the film is incredible, while the 2 hour theatrical cut was missing a lot of story, including a whole character that had been cut out.

He has since said that it was self-imposed, that he hasn’t yet “earned the right” to make a longer movie.  I don’t buy that for a minute.  I think he’s just saving face, and that it was a studio imposed length to shoot for.  I would have loved for him to pull a Peter Jackson and shoot for the long form, fan edition.

When it comes to the music, James Newton Howard did a terrific job on the film score, though I would have also asked him to subtly include the themes from the series as well.

What do you think?

Would this work?  Has anyone created a feature film length edit of the animated series?  Is that something that you’d be willing to try?

The other question has to do with the legality of the screenplay – if it was written as a transcript of your own edit of the series, did you really write it, or did all of the original writers?  Is that legal?  Probably not, as far as the Writer’s Guild of America is concerned – as well as the other writers.  It wouldn’t be original enough, at least at first, but upon re-writes would become moreso.  Your thoughts?


  1. i really agree with all of this, although 95 percent of other readers might not. You can’t blame one person for the failure of an entire film. Maybe the movie studio can take some blame, maybe night erred, maybe jackson rathbone could’ve brought more humour to sokka. (he can do humour, watch the 100 monkeys ‘ugly girl’ music vid on youtube) Still hoping for the sequals.

    • I don’t blame Night for the limitations. In fact, if you read the article, the subtext of my writing blames the studio for putting limitations on Night’s creative process. Plus, I think Night needs some sort of cheerleader telling him that he can do it, rather than telling him that he can’t (which his subconscious seemed to be saying to him).

  2. The thing is is that M. Nigth DID MAKE A TWO HOUR MOVIE OF BOOK 1. Sadly the studio wanted to convert it into 3D so they can compete against other studios for 3D screens. Now I believe that M. Night did watch the show very carefully to understand the material. When I saw TLA the second time Katara’s grandmother mention HAMA her friend which is the evil witch who created bloodbending. Now Hama is not metion in Book 1 in the series but that tells you M. Night saw the whole thing thru Book 3. He can said the studio force him for the 3D convertion, many fanatical fans don’t get this thru their thick heads. M. NIGHT HAS A CONTRACT WITH THE STUDIO FOR THE TRILOGYIF HE STEPS OUT OF LINE HE CAN KISS HIS OTHER TWO FILMS GOODBYE. That been said he has to bow down for what the studio demand for the film. But the studio did mcuh worst thing, and is that they did not wanted to pay extra money for the 3D convertion make M. Night with the painstaking task into cut the film without losing the essentials. What I am mad about the studio is that they paid more on the THOR MOVIE FOR THE 3d CONVERTION. The Thor movie is about 115 minutes which is 12 minutes more than TLA movie. So in the end it all comes down to which movie is most important in the studio to invest. Sadly TLA was not on the right side of the road.

  3. Clever analysis, Paul. I would do the same. M.Night stated that he kinda lost the track and was nervous and he also stated that since this is his first time making a huge movie, he’s surprised how Peter Jackson is still alive after LOTR films. 🙂

    Not sure if he’s coming back to make TLA, but I am sure he will do a great job.

  4. Sad thing is, this has happened before. Remember in 2008 when the Golden Compass came out. Well once again, the studio wanted a shorter cut. No real reason, they just wanted to cut it down a bit, which included putting the film out of order, and cutting out the ending scene. The Director, Chris Weitz has gone on record saying that the editing process was almost taken out of his hands entirely. What’s even worse is that only a few of the deleted scenes are only available through the tie-in game. It’s extremely frustrating, and makes the editors look disgusting. Please M. Night, do it for the fans.

    • This has also happened a number of other times:

      The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
      City of Ember (which is actually a great movie, it just way underperformed)

      It’s a shame when something like this happens, and sadly it’s become fairly commonplace.

      • It also happened to an animated film called “The Thief and the Cobbler” which was in production for about 30 years before taken away from the director and made into a Disney clone.

        • Oh I remember that anime film, it should have been a live action film that would be better.

  5. sadly it seems only us Night fans understanding these nuances of film making. You’re right, Specter, it’s sad that Night’s become the new Hollywood scapegoat. I still believe it’s largely due to the media’s obsession with politically correctness that this film was perceived a failure (the racial mix up). The film’s so-called flaws just made the negative reaction worse.

  6. plus, never have such high expectations of movie adaptations of any story, you’ll always be dissappointed. Enjoy the books/cartoon/play for the sake of just that and enjoy the movie version for the movie version. Otherwise, don’t watch the movie.

    • BINGO! You nailed it! That’s what I have been saying for years regarding the Narnia films.

  7. and that’s how i feel about the Harry Potter films! The movies led me to the books. Saw the first 3 before i started reading the books. TLA made me curious about the cartoon, largely due to Night’s visual portrayal of that world. Now i’m a fan (:

  8. I truly believe Shyamalan will do a complete turn-around on the next book. He is a talented story teller. He has been taking a lot of flack his last few films, but I think once you get passed the critics, we still remember his “flack” films. Though this is not one of his stories and he realy has never done a trilogy, I, for the most part, liked the film.
    Here are the negatives: acting was not the best, running time was too short, and dialog needed some brushing up.
    Here are the positives: action was great, special effects worked, the score was awesome.
    What I would have done different: I would slow the story down, give it a longer running time. Give the audiance a chance to take in the scenes and characters. I would go-all-out on the ways I could use the elements, like water slicing and quicker fire throwing. I would also speed up the benders techniques to controling the elements; what I mean by that is, the benders take a long time with their moves, in order to get the element started, and I understand if bending was possible, it would take some time to master… but (I could walk up to the enemy and upper-cut them by the time the could throw a bucket of water or flame on me) If your gonna make an epic film, you gotta “push the envelope” and BRING IT!
    Anyway… Overall, I liked the film, I am a fan of the series, and pray that the next one out does the first– to give the fans what they deserve and to get the critics off Shyamalans back.

  9. Specter, I think you have an absolutely brilliant idea for how to convert the series. Editing each season down to a full length movie would be a genius way to feel-out the story.

    That said, my main problem with the movie was not Night’s story structure (although I was not happy with his choices) no, my main problem was with the characters. Aang was not Aang, Sokka was not Sokka, Katara was not Katara, Iroh was not Iroh… – and i’m not talking about name pronunciation, I’m talking about character ‘essence.’

    From my perspective, the characters in the movie (with the exception of Zuko) are absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all like the characters I fell in love with. For example, in the movie, Aang is joyless, Sokka humorless, Katara powerless and Iroh completely devoid of ‘Irohness.’

    Having been in the film-industry, I am aware of the difficulties behind mounting such a mammoth undertaking, but one must never forget that the audience first connects with characters. Plot is second. And special effects place a very distance third.

    In the end, it’s all about heart, and the animated series was overflowing with it. Whereas, from my perspective, the movie was devoid of it. Which is why continuing with the sequels makes no sense to me. The roots were not tended to properly, so the plant will struggle to grow.

    • Indeed, part of editing the series would also show the characters in their animation form, which would show the strength of their characteristics as well.

  10. i think the movie is great..but i think it would be more better coz i was wondering if they have cut many scenes.. and i think that is the reason why many ATLAB fans are having a bad comment

  11. I really liked the movie a lot and I have seen it many time. It would be a shame not to make more. I think the studio executives needs to take there heads out of there butts and let there be more.

  12. My son & I have seen every single episode of the cartoon Avatar a billion times! When you made the movie we were ecstatic!!!! We seen the movie over & over again! We are patiently awaiting the sequels!!! There is no way you could do the first book and not finish the rest!!! I loved the movie!! LOVED IT!!! Plus the Final Book where Aang fights the fire lord amongst the comet is by far going to be the best movie!!!! Putting all the characters in a screen play
    & making them come alive is awesome!!! I personally think that this movie along with the sequels can be better then the potter series!!!! I love Avatar please finish the sequels I want to see who toff is and I want to see the hill Billy swamp people and all of the obstacles they go thru along the way!!!! Hope to see them soon!!!!

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