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.
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.
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?