It’s Not the Same Story

My staycation continues. It’s amazing that I can suddenly watch so much TV. I don’t watch much under ordinary circumstances, and when I’m in deadline mode I only turn the thing on to play video games for stress relief. Thus I’m usually horribly behind on just about any show that’s “hot”. I’m just now about to watch the first season of “Heroes” and the third season of Doctor Who… yeah, I know. But when people ask me how I find time to write… well, that’s how. This usually applies to movies, too. I think I’ve missed Iron Man 2; don’t know if it’s still playing anywhere nearby. Might make it to The Kung Fu Karate Kid, because I keep hearing that it’s not as faily as its title. We’ll see.

Speaking of faily films, though… The Last Airbender debuts this week, but I’m not planning to see it. This is despite the fact that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (its source cartoon) was, in my opinion, the best original fantasy produced by an American company since Jim Henson’s death. It was a children’s cartoon that was Shakespearean in its themes and weight, yet it managed to remain fundamentally young at heart. I was disappointed with the ending — I think the whole last season was rushed and incomplete (argh wtf happened to A Certain Character’s mother?!) — but aside from this, it was one of the few shows I watched religiously, and recommend to others unreservedly.

But the film version of “The Last Airbender” is not the same story, and I’m not interested in spending money on it.

The race issue is part of this, of course. I’ve previously referenced the film’s whitewashing (which fans call racebending), and yeah, it pisses me off. Film!TLA is not the same story as cartoon!ATLA because the latter was groundbreaking in its treatment of race and culture, and the former reinforces all the old bad paradigms — brown people relegated to background irrelevance, victimhood, or villainy; white people to the rescue at the forefront. This is not just a problem because of Hollywood’s (well, America’s) long history of marginalizing and objectifying people of color, “yellowface”, etc. It’s also problematic because in this case, changing the race of the characters actually changes the story.

This is not so for every case of colorblind casting, IMO, and I want to state clearly that I’m in favor of this practice in most cases. It makes sense more often than it doesn’t*. I’m a firm believer in the concept of universality: most good stories can be told by anyone, and enjoyed by anyone. I’ve tried to model this in my own writing. But in the case of film!TLA, its producers and director have ignored the fact that the characters’ race is fundamental to their development. Everyone in the cartoon!ATLA world was some flavor of Asian, and this racial context informs their relationships, their philosophies, their lifestyles, and all their choices. Specific, carefully-researched and thoughtfully-appropriated elements from dozens of distinct Asian cultures were used to depict the world’s diversity in a way that was nuanced and realistic. It mattered that Aang’s design and personality were inspired by Tibet’s Dalai Lama. (That’s why the show was called “Avatar.” See “Tibetan Buddhism.”) It mattered that Katara had to struggle against her tribe’s gender-role customs; this was common in Inuit societies. It mattered that each of the martial arts used in the cartoon were rooted in philosophical differences as significant as those between libertarians and socialists, or Buddhists and Baptists, or pacifists and war-hawks. To ignore all these distinctions and reduce them to a simplified mishmash erases many of the vital, fascinating details that made the characters of cartoon!ATLA feel so plausible and identifiable. Erase too many such details about these characters, and you don’t have the same characters anymore.

But the damage goes deeper than that, I fear. The ATLA cartoon treated its characters as three-dimensional people. We got to see that Aang is a cheerful, goofy kid — who, under tremendous pressure and despite horrific trauma, retains his sense of self and becomes a cheerful, goofy young man by the end of the series. The support he receives from friends and community (and the obligatory dead mentor (s)) are part of how he stays himself. And most of those people had complementary skills, since Aang was by no means all-powerful — which is why cartoon!ATLA was truly an ensemble show. It was never just Aang and his sidekicks. But there’s no evidence of this in the trailers for the film, or even in the director’s commentary to date. (Case in point: cartoon!ATLA wasn’t anime. I have no idea why Shyamalan keeps calling it that. Is James Clavell’s Shogun Japanese literature? Yeesh.) Instead we’re treated to endless shots of Aang as the cliched “badass martial artist” — a lone warrior, stoically emotionless or scowling mightily, executing feats of physical or magical Awesoma Powa. I think there’s only one trailer in which the boy speaks — I say “I think” because I’m not even sure that line was his. Yet his character in the ATLA cartoon was, though young, a teacher, diplomat, and spiritual guide. Talking was his main modus operandi; fighting was only his backup plan. This was fundamental to his character. Without this personality trait we don’t get Aang; we get a bald, prepubescent Bruce Lee. We get Hollywood’s vision of the acceptable Asian male: dangerous, inscrutable… and wearing a white face.

I don’t believe that only an Asian actor could’ve conveyed these nuances accurately. But I do believe that only film producers who respected the source material and its fans, and its fans’ reasons for loving the show, could have translated the cartoon to live action in a way that would satisfy me.** And this film — which replaces the source’s Chinese writing with “Asian-inspired” gibberish, which clumsily patches Christian symbolism onto a character who is quintessentially Buddhist, and which only backed away from a total whitewash of the film to placate furious fans… nah, I’m not feeling a lot of respect here.

I don’t think a good story can grow from such carelessly-handled roots. I think it will be a mediocre story — the same story Hollywood tells over and over again with slightly different window dressing each time, constantly hoping that this time the story won’t fail miserably. This one might succeed; I wish them luck, if only for the sake of the young actors’ careers. But it won’t be the story I fell in love with, and I’m not interested in that same old mediocre story, so I’ll stay home, thanks.

* PoC in Shakespeare? Heckyeah. The Bard himself wrote about the “blackamoors” (Moors), and there were traders from other continents present in England throughout, before, and after the Elizabethan era. But Thor… Okay. I like Idris Elba. He’s hot. He can act. But after all the research I did for the Inheritance Trilogy, I cannot overlook the fact that most ancient peoples envisioned their deities — where they visualized them — as reflections of themselves. In that context, this casting doesn’t make sense. HOWEVER, in the context of Hollywood, and the nonsensical whitewashing that continually happens to PoC, I’ve decided to view Elba’s casting here as repayment of a debt. Now PoC-cast-as-white-characters just needs to happen 500 more times, and include some leading roles, and then we can get back to sensible colorblind casting.

(I’m joking.)

(Mostly.)

** Here’s where Shyamalan could’ve learned something from anime, if he actually knew anything about it and wasn’t just wielding the word as a +10 defensive shield against criticism. American companies importing anime and manga have wrestled with the balance between respecting the source and respecting the audience’s intelligence for decades; they’ve mostly gotten to be quite good at it. But yanno, I somehow don’t think Shyamalan is much of an anime fan.

35 Responses »

  1. The casting completely killed this film for me. I understand that this is a regular practice in Hollywood but this issue still leaves a bad taste.

    I didn’t know that Dev Patel was not originally casted in the film. Go figure. The original casting for Ang was “12-15 years old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. We are looking for a young man to play the lead role in a motion picture franchise.”

    This is interesting.
    http://humblecomics.com/blog/index.php?entry=entry100524-195255

  2. I’ve never seen the avatar cartoon so I’ve been pretty excited to watch the movie. A couple of friends of mine who saw the cartoon are convinced the movie is going to be epic but now, I’m not so sure. I’ll probably watch the movie then leave another comment here letting you know what I thought of it, though it probably wouldn’t be fair to the series since I’ve never seen the cartoon XD.

    By the way, please, please, please save yourself the agony of watching Heroes. Don’t get me wrong, the show starts out amazingly awesome. I fell in love with it, but by the end of the third season, it crashes to the ground so hard that you forget why you fell in love in the first place. Ridiculously enough, just when the show appeared to have gone back to its grand roots, they canceled it…

    I’d recommend Supernatural, if you want to watch something great. Best show on television imo.

  3. I agree with Orlando: save yourself the trouble and don’t bother with heroes. You’re going to be very, very disappointed in the end. You’ll probably like the first season, but after that …

    As for the last airbender, it’s starting to look less and less like the cartoon I fell in love with and I’m still in love with, and more and more like a racist white man’s sex dream.

    I won’t be watching it.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this.

  5. It’s a shame because the A:tLA world seemed to have the right mix of ‘drawn from life’, ‘drawn from myth-made-life’, and ‘newness’ that makes a good fantasy world, and it actually felt like the main cast was traveling a world, rather than ‘the same (European-clone) country copied and pasted a couple of times, plus a (non-European) one to be the exotic foreign land’*. Plus it had good characters, especially good female characters**.

    * Not that you couldn’t tell a good fantasy story set in a single town. But don’t try to tell me this is an epic, global tale when I’d see more cultural diversity on my last cross-US roadtrip.

    ** Which is not to sell Sokka, Aang, Zuko, Iroh, Ozai, etc. short, but that too many shows, especially action shows, seem to forget women can be things other than sidekicks, moms and love interests, or ‘obligatory female villain so that female sidekick/love interest can do something while the (male) hero and villain fight’. (Azula fought Katara. She also fought her brother, and Aang.)

  6. Thank you for writing about this. I was going to see it for the sake of seeing it (and reporting what I saw) but I’ve changed my mind. To quote the (cliche) editor about a manuscript only partly read: “One doesn’t have to eat the whole egg to know it’s rotten.”

    Besides I somehow rented “Earthsea” from Netflix in a fit of “okay it can’t be that bad right?” and I’m still smarting from that one. Oy.

  7. I was planning to see it purely out of morbid curiosity, but now you’ve got me wondering if I should. The racebending is pretty infuriating (and it just goes to show how spot-on your concerns about a 100K movie would be), to say nothing of Shyamalan’s apparent goal of sucking every bit of fun and humor out a show that so beautifully balanced light and dark tones.

    If I do go, I suppose I’ll just buy a ticket to a different movie that’s actually worth supporting. Winter’s Bone, perhaps.

  8. The Last Airbender film is making me so sad. It could’ve been such an awesome opportunity. And it’s really making it obvious how little most privileged people care about equality. So many people are perfectly fine with the casting, either because they don’t see anything wrong with it or because they do but think a bit of racism is not that big of a deal, really. It’s just so depressing.

    Also, I agree with everything in this post, but I’ve got to say that this:

    “It mattered that Katara had to struggle against her tribe’s gender-role customs; this was common in Inuit societies.”

    …was (and to varying extents still is) common in ALL societies. Each and every one.

  9. Making Aang into a morose little creature is like the final slap in the face. On top of everything else, on top of all the trivialization and dismissal of culture and cleverness and work that went into this thing, the protagonist doesn’t just get a different face, he gets a different SELF. Now I’m not even tempted to find a bootleg. Just make it go away. What’s the point.

  10. (um… not endorsing bootlegging!!!)

  11. Thanks for this post. Is it okay if I quote some of this for a post of my own that I’m planning on making this week?

    I am sad that there are people who are still willing to pay to see this “out of curiosity”. The filmmakers don’t care if you actually liked it, once you’ve paid for it you’ve given them your approval to continue making films like these.

    (BTW I loved Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.)

  12. Some commenter in a blog I frequent suggested that Elba would be playing Heimdall “to spite Stormfronters who are really into Thor.” Even though that’s certainly not the real reason, the thought of it rather won me over.

  13. Yep, Patel was the runner-up; they really wanted a blond white boy to play Zuko.

  14. Okay, but if you really must see the movie, can you try not going to see it next weekend? Opening weekend box office is how a film’s success is judged these days — even if it makes the same money spread out over weeks, it still gets the stigma of being a flop if it doesn’t break records from the get-go. I won’t suggest anything illegal like bootlegging, or paying for a different movie and sneaking into TLA, but just delaying your gratification will help send a message.

    And yeah, I’ve been warned about Heroes. But I still want to give it a shot. =)

  15. Yes, that’s another reason I’m so disappointed in the final season of ATLA — Azula was so fantastic until then. She didn’t deserve to go out like that.

  16. Honestly, I don’t think 100K would ever be optioned for film rights, or greenlit and produced even if the rights sell. The book just does too many things Hollywood doesn’t like — potentially-expensive special effects, a story that ends with the first book and can’t be made easily into a franchise, more. But the stuff that’s happened with TLA is one of the reasons why I have so little hope — the biggest obstacle is probably Yeine, a woman of color protagonist. As long as this kind of whitewashing is common — and rewarded by filmgoer dollars — Yeine’s got no chance.

  17. Most people in the US have grown up with Hollywood’s racism, and they don’t question it. In fact they tend to get defensive when it’s pointed out, because they don’t like that they haven’t noticed it before. It makes them wonder if they’re racist, and then they think you’re accusing them of something. So when fans say, “TLA’s casting is racist!” they hear “YOU’RE IN THE KKK!!! DIE!!!”

    So they downplay it. The whitewashing is no big deal. Nobody ever complained about it before (actually they did, but most people don’t notice that either). Limiting the casting to Asians is racist. Noticing race is racist. Blah blah blah.

    Yeah, it’s privilege, and a lot more. But that’s why I’m trying to boost the signal about efforts like Racebending, because if TLA gets a shitload of press about this, I’m hoping Hollywood studios will think twice about the next case of whitewashing. They may just not cast PoC; racism takes a lot of forms. But hopefully they’ll also begin to realize that their audience isn’t as racist, or as white, as they seem to think it is.

  18. ::rofl:: I can get behind that one, too.

  19. I’ve been following the reaction to The Last Airbender for quite a while. I haven’t seen the show, but I am nonetheless still horrified by the treatment it’s received and the impact that’s had. There was one post in particular that had something in it that really stuck with me, though I can’t remember the name of the blog/LJ now. The author was Asian, and she was talking about how her younger family members were always so excited to play Avatar on the playground because FINALLY there were heroes that looked like them. When they found out that Aang was going to be played by a white boy in the live action film, the blogger wrote that they asked her if that meant they couldn’t be Aang when they played anymore. Reading that just killed me inside. What a shame the film can’t have the same impact the animated series did.

  20. Thank you SO much for writing this much more eloquently than I ever could. I’m totally linking/quoting from this to help spread the word.

  21. No offense, but it’s not your right to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do.

    I’ve loved Avatar since season 2, and everything about it. Katara was always amazing to me, and so beautiful. I could look up to her because she was strong and independent, unlike a lot of girls in shows. And her skin was beautiful to me. However, I am white (Although, most people assume I’m Brazilian or Italian because I’m pretty dark naturally).

    Would it have been nice if they stayed true to the skin colors of the characters? Yes. However, I did not watch the show because of skin color. I watched it because I loved the story, Katara, the chemistry, etc.

    So I’m going to see it, and I’m going to see it on opening night. If you loved the show for other reasons than mine and don’t want to see it, then don’t. But don’t go out and attack people who see it on opening night/week. We are simply too hooked on it.

  22. NO ONE is ‘attacking’ anyone. The only ones under attack are Paramount and M. Night; their actions in regards to the casting are looked upon as racial discrimination, something prevalent in Hollywood media

    This isn’t about watching the show because of the characters color; this is about the fact that this show was one of the VERY FEW (and I do mean VERY few) animated shows that centered on non-White characters and portrayed them honestly and realistically, not bound by stereotypes (good or bad). I dare you to flip through the channels. How many kids shows out there star non-White leads? How many of them are shown with the same honesty and integrity?

    It is very rare for a script to come along in Hollywood that was written for Asian leads. This show was MADE with Asian/Inuit actors in mind for a live-action version. To see that taken away is a slap in the face to the hard work Mike and Bryan put in and to all the young Asian and Inuit actors who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to star in a Hollywood film.

  23. Kayy,

    She didn’t attack, nor did she tell; she ASKED. Y’know, that respectful thing folks on this side of the argument keep getting accused of not being?

    But y’know, way to exemplify the tone argument, right there. Ask someone something if they’d consider doing something, and suddenly you’re attacking them.

    Also, you seem to have missed the bit where Orlando actually came closer to telling someone what to do. Might wanna take another look at that before you throw words like ‘attack’ around.

    (Orlando, I don’t think you were wrong to do this, just to be clear; but if Kayy’s gonna make that argument about NK’s response to you, I think zie needs to perhaps follow through a bit more)

  24. Oh wow, Marina, that kills me inside too. That’s heartbreaking.

  25. I think your handling of race in HTK was excellent; it was relevant but inclusive, if that makes sense. I tend to read more than watch TV and I actively dislike going to the movies. So I won’t see ATLA at least until I can rent it on DVD, if then. But my son adored the cartoon, and I ended up buying the entire series on DVD for him. I liked a lot of what I saw as well, especially that violence is not the first resort of most of the characters

  26. Oh, I know this one! Ciderpress, http://ciderpress.livejournal.com/209919.html.

    That post makes me see red every. single. time.

  27. I’ll see what happens with Avatar. And lol you might end up disappointed with Heroes, but your peril :p

  28. I don’t think she attacked, just gave her opinion I’d say. But yeah, Jennifer, I agree that Kayy should look at my little suggestion before claiming NK is attacking folks. What I did could be considered the same in a different, even if I believe I was just trying to save people from seeing a potentially favorite show fall from its pedestal. But that’s life, I guess. You say something and someone somewhere has to deem it an attack or a command or something…

  29. Um, Kayy? Where in the post do you see me telling people what they should and shouldn’t do? I’m telling people what I’m going to do, and why. Do you see the question-mark in my suggestion to Orlando? Do you notice that it is a suggestion? Do you imagine that I have so much AWESOMA AUTHA POWA that any suggestion I make instantly turns people into mindless zombies who will obey my every suggestion?

    (buy my book buy my book buy my book. Just in case.)

    And where do you see me attacking anyone? If you’re determined to go see it on opening night, more power to you. Like I said, I hope the movie doesn’t fail, because I don’t want to see the actors’ careers take a hit. All I want is for Hollywood to get the message that the story — including its racial components — should not be disrespected. Because I love ATLA as much as you.

  30. This has always been the part I find most upsetting, and, well, selfish. With all the roles, not only numerous but diverse, that white children get to see, with all the models and examples and identities they get to play out and pattern themselves after, with all the stories they get to project themselves into, how can anyone be so churlish as to begrudge ONE predominantly Asian film, or call the desire to see one “racist”? It makes me feel very alternate-universe. But I don’t think I’m the crazy one.

    Too many people are seeing this as “picking on” one example when it is, more importantly, pointing out a harmful trend. (Trend ha, ingrained institution more like.)

    That story is heartbreaking — that child was given something precious and had it snatched away. (Luckily the original cartoon itself is already in existence and this cannot be undone.)

  31. I don’t know, I thought it was somewhat appropriate that Azula was so strong and ruthless that the only person who could really defeat her was herself.

    I got the sense that she was so narrowly focused on being ambitious and manipulating people that once she actually became Fire Lord and no longer had a goal to chase (and had gotten screwed over by her dad into being just a figurehead), she had nothing left to drive her. So she could really do nothing but unravel. It was a surprisingly tragic story of what the singleminded pursuit of selfish personal success can do to a person who’s so amazingly talented.

    I do wish we had seen what happened to her after that last fight. Presumably she’s in that prison with her father. Is she plotting escape? Being kicked down to the bottom of the barrel might be the only thing that could bring out her fighting spirit again.

  32. Also, uh, retroactive ***SPOILER WARNING***. Sorry about that.

  33. Oh awesome! Thank you for remembering and linking. I felt so lame when I couldn’t find it again.

  34. The only actor’s career I would worry about would be Dev Patel’s. In a recent interview, he stated that he was aware that casting agents considered his ethnicity and that there are very few roles open to him. He also stated that he feared that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ wouldn’t only be his debut, but his ‘swansong’.

    Peltz, Rathburn and even Ringer have projects lined up after ‘Airbender’. As it stands now, Patel has none.

    Secondly; reviews are out… and it’s NOT looking good for this film.

    Reviews taking this long to come out is NEVER a good sign.

  35. No projects lined up for him? That’s adding insult to injury, or possibly injury to insult on top of injury–especially considering that he’s the only cast member being singled out for great praise, over and over again, in almost every single terrible review. That he’s the only one with nothing next on his slate is beyond wrong.