Does anyone remember the movie Eragon? That horrible movie based on an alright book? It was a movie so poorly made and objectively bad we could ignore how crappy an adaptation it was.
But what about when it’s a crappy adaptation too?
M. Night Shyamalan cost himself his credibility when he put out The Last Airbender. Let’s ignore the crappy script, acting, and direction for a second. The movie was pretty. The tidal wave at the end going towards the ship was absolutely gorgeous. But, the script, acting, and direction were crap; like it or not. But more than that, the film complete missed the point of the TV show.
Avatar is an incredibly layered show. Not only do we have the intricate relations between the protagonists, but we have the background complexity of the war between the countries. The heart of the show was the dynamic between Aang and crew; the big quest and saving the world was the plot and vehicle. You couldn’t have one without the other. Airbender replaced the characters with cardboard cutouts and put the quest front and center. Bending is cool and the Fire Nation must to be defeated! Screw everything else, this is what matters! To the surprise of no one, it sucked.
How would one go about making a proper adaptation of Avatar? By necessity, cut out much of the little adventures along the way but keep moments that help us establish characters (Katara and Sokka taking Aang in at the Southern Air Temple, Sokka growing trough meeting the Kyoshi warriors, Zuko choosing to rescue Iroh, etc), even if it means rearranging/combining them (an event on Kyoshi Island could result in Aang going Avatar and needing Katara to console him while Sokka and Suki help defend the island). All the while keeping that spirit of adventure. It’s not so important to hit every plot point as it is to make sure the heart of the work is there.
Let’s do another comparison! BBC put out an adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the late 80’s. It was alright at best, hit all the beats that the movie needed to to stay ‘true’ to the book and it worked well enough. It just.. wasn’t Narnia. Then came the new one in 2005. Due in no small part to advances in special effects, Narnia really came alive and proved itself to be a fantastic movie.
It wasn’t the most faithful adaptation of the book, though. The characters were all aged up by a few years, we saw the bombing of London, the characters had baggage, and the climatic battle was accentuated. But the spirit was there! The heart was the same! The movie captured that magic that makes Narnia Narnia. That’s what made the new one so much better.
Take a cursory look at some of the really good adaptations these days: The Help and The Hunger Games for example. Both of them don’t follow the book blow by blow, both skip or change parts of their books, but both still remain true to the spirit of the book. The Help still deals with treatment of, er, the help, and attitudes towards them during the early 60’s. All the main characters stay true to themselves and are undeniably them. Katniss and her struggle to survive in a hellish battlefield are still there in the film of The Hunger Games. The brutality of it all is retained through the carefully reckless use of the camera, the dynamic between Katniss and Gale is quickly well established, and The Capitol and inhabitants shown for what they are. The spirit is there.
The Lord Of The Rings stands as possibly the best adaptation. Peter Jackson glossed over several plot points, changed characters considerably (Aragorn takes most of the journey to attain the regality he takes up immediately in the books), and even altered just where the books are divided. But the core was still there. The themes of the smallest being able to change the world, of standing up to the impossible, of living for more than yourself; it’s all there! The movies may be structurally and narratively different, but it still feels like The Lord Of The Rings.
‘cuz they went for the heart.
Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s not an adaptation and probably wouldn’t work as one; so it’s a book!