The Source Material (E2W9)
Over the past few years I’ve noticed that the topic of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation — the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture in a negative or positive manner — have both been pointed out greatly in all sources of media. This is partially because people are starting to notice more how American writers, directors and producers are still seeming to have trouble when it comes to the inclusion and accurate depiction of other cultures in television and film. These incidences range from larger issues such as movies about Ancient Egypt, an African country, with an all-white main cast — like Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings — to smaller occurrences like a live adaption
film of a Japanese anime that didn’t have an Asian actor casted as the main character — like James Wong’s Dragonball: Evolution.
As people start to notice these incidents more the movies and television shows that lack these key cultural representations have started to become less successful than anticipated; like Exodus: Gods and Kings which used an estimated budget of $140,000,000 yet ended up not meeting its costs by only grossing $65,007,045 in American theaters. With this trend in mind many people involved in the media creation process, from producers, to directors, and even writers, have started to become more inclusive and do more research on other cultures that will or should be represented in their media. However, all have not been successful in those attempts at inclusion. A prime example would be the movie The Last Airbender, the live action film adaption of the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
This movie was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and released in American theaters in the summer of 2010. This film, as does the cartoon , revolves around a magical elemental based world torn apart by war where a young boy reawakens from a 100 year sleep to undertake a dangerous journey to fulfill his destiny as the Avatar. This movie was very highly anticipated, being that it was crafted from one of the most popular American made cartoons to date. However, everything changed once the movie premiered. M. Night Shyamalan made major changes from the original cartoon to the movie with intent to increase the inclusion of other cultures in the film yet still was not able to properly represent those cultures. In this writing, I will show how even when specific efforts are put forth to promote cultural inclusion in a film the film could still be able to lack proper cultural representation — which will then show how important and influential the inclusion and appreciation of various cultures are to a film’s, and other sources of media’s, overall success.
My first concerns with The Last Airbender arrived very early on with the production of the film when the casting was announced, but I will get back to this issue later. My actual criticisms arrived after watching the film in theaters and seeing the changes that were made. At the moment, these criticisms may seem very inconsequential, as if I’m trying to find any little thing wrong with the film to complain about, but bear with me as I tie all of this together to the bigger picture. “Avatar” is the recognizable word that represents the entire cartoon series, it being the title of the main character and the title of the actual cartoon. Shyamalan was not able to use the word “Avatar” in his film title because it was already taken by James Cameron, and his movie Avatar. Fans were upset about this but it wasn’t much anyone could do considering Cameroon was is the process of creating his film before Avatar: The Last Airbender was even released. So since Shyamalan could not have the word in the title people expected it to be heavily emphasized in the film, they were wrong. Yes, Shyamalan did include the actual word “Avatar” in the film — being it was a major part of the story line and would have been very difficult to not mention — but the pronunciation of the word was wrong. In the original series the title word “Avatar” is pronounced using the short “a” sound similar to that heard when saying the word “apple”. However, in the movie it was pronounced with the letter “o” sound similar to what’s heard when saying “operation”. A similar variation occurred when pronouncing the main character’s name — which went from “Aang” to “Ong”. Iroh, another major character, was pronounced “eye-row” in the original TV series but became “ear-row” in the movie and Sokka went from “Sock-ah” to “Soak-ah”. Shyamalan’s defense of this was noted in the beginning of the article The Last Airbender Question Every Fan Wants to Know: Why Ahng Instead of Aaang? , which quotes Shyamalan saying,
‘I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say “Ahng” instead of “Aaang” because it’s correct. It’s not “I-rack,” it’s “ee-Rock.” I’m literally fighting for all this.’ — So yes, the actors didn’t start pronouncing Aang’s name “Ahng” because they wanted to, they were directed to do so by M. Night. It seems odd that Shyamalan would go to such great efforts to, from what he’s saying above, change up the pronunciation because he thinks this is how it should be pronounced rather than how the show did it. Ego much?
At first the name changes made from the television series to film seemed to only fulfill the purpose of annoying fans and showing Shyamalan just how much power he actually had over an original story that he did not create but that was until Shyamalan gave another, somewhat contradicting, explanation to his decisions. The Last Airbender Review, is a YouTube video starring Matthew Provenzano, whose screen name is “Mattimation” who goes through the entire movie and points out all of its flaws, being the flaws as a movie and also flaws as a live action adaption to the original series. As a fan of the original series he doesn’t take long to point out the name change issue. At the five minute mark of the video he says,
“What’s up with these pronunciations?! Well M. Night Shyamalan actually said the reason he changed the way they sounded was because, and I quote, he wanted to stay true to the source material…HERE’S YOUR SOURCE MATERIAL! *holds up the season 2 DVD box-set of Avatar: The Last Airbender*. Its based off of a show! Respect the show!” (5:00–5:24).
The source material that Shyamalan was referring to here is our world’s Eastern-Asian culture. As I stated before Avatar: The Last Airbender was based in a completely fabricated and fictional world that, in Shyamalan’s defense, did have a very strong Eastern-Asian influence. Nonetheless, his “stay true to the source material” comment is where his contradictions start and my criticisms strengthens.
So now let us double back to that casting issue.
“In December 2008, producers of the film adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender set off a firestorm of criticism when they announced their casting decisions. Despite the fact that the television show seemed to have appropriated cultural practices, architecture, religious iconography, costumes, calligraphy, and other aesthetic elements from East Asian and Inuit cultures, four white actors had been cast in the lead roles”.
This is an excerpt from page 431 of Lori Kido Lopez of the University of Southern California article, Fan Activists and the Politics of Race in The Last Airbender. Earlier Shyamalan claimed that he wanted to add our world’s Eastern-Asian culture into The Last Airbender in order to stay true to the source material, yet there weren’t any Eastern-Asian or Asian-American actors portraying main characters in the film. Like Lopez explained, based on factors such as clothing, skin tones, architecture and other features found in the characters and countries of the original series it has been deciphered that the four ethnic groups depicted in the series stem from Inuit, Chinese, Korean and Tibetan influences. Yet, there weren’t any Inuit, Chinese, Korean or Tibetan people playing those main character roles in the film.
Richard Corliss wrote the article, The Last Airbender: Worst Movie Epic Ever?, almost immediately after the movie released and in his introduction he touches on the topic by saying,
“Asian Americans, I hear your agitation. For the past few weeks, you and your allies in ethnic correctness have clogged the blogosphere with complaints about the casting in M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action movie version of the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
While most critics and fans failed to believe that Shyamalan couldn’t find Asian actors to portray these characters — after he later on gave that reasoning in an interview — I’m willing to entertain that idea for the moment. Many main characters in the original series could have easily been portrayed by European descent people, and there were in fact European descent people in the film but the issue was that they weren’t playing in the roles that they should have been playing in. If we were to look at skin tone factors alone, a European descent person could have gotten away with playing a Chinese or Korean based character and a Middle Eastern, African, or even Hispanic descent person could have played an Inuit or Tibetan character — but that did not happen. Actually, the complete opposite occurred. As far as main characters go, Dev Patel and Aasif Mandvi — both Indian descent — played Chinese and Korean like characters; while Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone — both Caucasian — played the Inuit like characters. That alone was good enough to make true fans of the series very hostile but add that on to the fact that the Inuit like, now White portrayed, characters were the heroes of the film while the Japanese like, now Indian, characters portrayed the villains made this an issue much larger and looked at by a broader scale of people, both film critics and enthusiasts.
Of course the “white-washing” phrase was thrown around as well as “why are the brown people portrayed as villains in the film when they were heroes in the cartoon” rhetoric but even for the people who didn’t care much for the
racial aspect the overall general question was just, “Why?”. Why would Shyamalan change around the names to respect the Easter-Asian culture that influenced the cartoon but then not even cast the Eastern-Asian people, he was proposing to respect, in main character roles in the movie? This is why fans and the original cartoon series’ creators were not buying Shyamalan’s “true to the source material” concept.
By making those particular changes to the film Shyamalan was taking away some major features of the original series. The main characters names and how you pronounce them were one of the main features of the show and therefore something that should have stayed true to the original source material. The characters and what they looked like were one of the main features of the show as well and had Shyamalan actually stayed true to the source material he would have been able to handle the cultural inclusion and appreciation factor through casting without having to overthink it, but he didn’t. Shyamalan being ridiculed for his good intentions would lead people to think that the task of cultural inclusion isn’t even worth it if people are going to complain either way but the real case in this scenario is that Shyamalan made the situation way more difficult than it had to be. Changing the character’s names for the purpose of cultural inclusion actually took away more than it was putting in because the names were a very important factor of the original cartoon but they weren’t an equally important factor in terms of an act to establish cultural representation.
Take the live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film directed by Jonathan Liebesman as an example of “staying true to the source material”. This is a film, which evolved from a comic book turned cartoon turned live action movie, which constantly stayed true to its original source material. Liebesman was given main characters whose names are actually derived from real people
being the famous artists Michelangelo, Leonardo — as in da Vinci, Raphael and Donatello. All of those people are famous Italian artists and have Italian rooted names but Liebesman didn’t decide that in the movie he was going to change the common English pronunciations of those names, which the original source uses, to the Italian pronunciations in order to appreciate the Italian culture because “it’s correct” like Shyamalan stated. Liebesman respected that the fans have always recognized the characters over the years by how their names and nick-names were pronounced in the cartoon so he did not feel the need to make any unfamiliar changes, therefore not leading to any unnecessary backlash from the Ninja Turtle fan base. So, as fans of the original Avatar cartoon there was a mutual understanding that everything that was depicted in twenty 30 minute episodes of the first season of the series was not going to all make it on to the big screen. However, the features that Shyamalan did have control over, like the name pronunciations and casting, were thought to be something that would stay true to the original source material. So while Shyamalan was attempting to appreciate the Eastern-Asian culture that influenced the series he forgot to appreciate the actual series. Which made his thoughtful acts turn out to be a bunch of dissatisfying decisions.
Rob Keyes wrote “The Last Airbender” Review, where he voiced the movie’s common criticisms saying, “The Last Airbender is a poorly constructed film with no sense of plot, character or emotion — and aside from the visuals, there are little to no redeeming qualities in this wasted opportunity of a fantastic property, which was ripe for a film adaptation” (Paragraph 3). All of Keyes’ observations are very true which makes the lack of representation even more upsetting because it turned out to be a make or break factor which could have caused a domino effect for success instead of failure. This adaption was the perfect opportunity for a film to show how you could heavily represent other cultures in a movie and it could still be a hit. Even if the proper inclusion, being Chinese, Japanese, Inuit and Tibetan actors, couldn’t have happened fans would have been happy with any actor of any cultural or racial background had they actually looked similar to the characters of the original cartoon. Yet that still would have gave this movie the opportunity to become one of the most diversely cast and successful films to date. However, the bad domino effect happened and the lack of proper representation in the cast turned out to be the first turn off to the film. If it were done correctly it could have actually got people into the theaters where they could have potentially got past how bad the acting was because the visual effects — a big part of the original cartoon — were amazing. However, being that this did not happen, it made the change in name pronunciations pointless because people weren’t even showing up to theaters to hear them.
Had this film been portrayed more accurately we would be looking at a present where, instead of seeing nothing but pages of bad reviews and rants when Google searching “The Last Airbender”, you would instead see how the next movie in the trilogy is currently in production. The Last Airbender will always be a prime example of how cultural appreciation and inclusion is a very important factor in the creation of films, especially those with established cultural sources, and how it now has the potential to make or break the success of all outlets of media. M. Night Shyamalan will always be a prime example of this phenomenon showing just how difficult a task to include foreign cultures can be made even when the director thinks hard on it. Shyamalan and The Last Airbender shows producers, directors and writers, both current and future, that when a cultural source is already established in the media you are creating then you should take every given opportunity to stay true to that original source material; and in instances when changes are absolutely necessary make all efforts towards representation and inclusion as blatant and direct as possible so your efforts won’t go unnoticed or be deemed useless. If these mistakes of M. Night Shyamalan and The Last Airbender are learned from and those lessons learned are properly executed then a lack of cultural representation and inclusion will not be a factor that will negatively contribute to any source of media’s success.
I’d like to thank my English 110 Professor Joseph Harris and my Graduate Teaching Assistant Habibeh Syed as well as my class mates: Hailey Cornell, Matthew Evans, and Benét Burton all for helping me develop my creative thinking process throughout this piece and for asking me the questions I wasn’t asking myself and helping me figure out how to answer them. I’d also like to thank my mother who helped give me the motivation to focus on this piece when I wasn’t sure what I needed to change or revise which could have possibly led to me ultimately turning in an essay that wasn’t my best work.
As I was in the process of writing this essay I wasn’t completely sure what the point of it was. I knew that I wanted to go into this paper focused on the movie The Last Airbender and to criticize M. Night Shyamalan but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to criticize nor why I even found it important. I later realized that I didn’t need to tear Shyamalan apart in order to get my point across as long as my argument itself was strong. I went through the process of changing the title with every revision I made as I figured out what this writing was actually about. I feel that my final draft not only has a point to it but actually gets that point across much better than my first draft of this essay did. Given the fact I’m a die-hard fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender the series I knew I would have a motivation and drive to write about this, which I knew I would need when creating my last essay of the semester. I feel most proud of my argument of the topic of cultural appreciation and inclusion. When I created my first draft to this essay I didn’t even know that I was arguing this topic but as a started to understand my own work I realized that it was evident that I was bringing it up a lot. Overall I’m pretty proud of this piece being that this is a topic I’ve wanted to vent about for a long time.
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