Tag Archives: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.

 

Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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Go For The Heart

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.

Why?

‘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!

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A Series Of Arcs

I decided to sit down and watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes once, and by old I mean Season One. It was weird to watch since everyone was well, so different from where they are in the more recent seasons. It’s jarring in light of where they end up.

This, of course, is one of the great things about TV shows: character development. When you have a couple dozen episodes per season you can spend a lot more time with the protagonists and working out who they are.

Now, character development in this case is different from a character arc. A character arc is more often seen in movies, like Carl going from grumpy old man to loving surrogate-grandfather in Up, or Columbus deciding to actually step up and be a hero in Zombieland, or Scott learning the power of self-respect and becoming a decent human being in Scott Pilgrim VS The World. Arc’s are a character getting from a to b.

Development, on the other hand (or at least as I’m using it) is where a character goes from a to b to c to d. It’s a series of arcs, one after another. It also takes time and is often far more nuanced than in a movie.

Let’s take Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts off as the skeptic in the party (Team Avatar, that is), and proves very useful as our exposition man. As the series progresses, Sokka loses his skepticism (to point b), finds his place as the idea man/tactician of the group (point c) and eventually the de facto leader of Team Avatar (point d). It takes all three seasons for him to get to that point. The Sokka of Book One is wildly different from the Sokka we see at the end. It takes time for him to get there.

Similarly, Zuko in the same series has his own very complex character development. He’s introduced as a selfish antagonist hellbent on capturing the Avatar. Within the first season we come to know him and his relationship with his uncle. Through it we’re given hints that beneath his exterior he does have traits worth redeeming.

Come Book Two we see him grow in his own right to be an honorable, if still mildly maligned, young man. He eventually rejects the call of the light side and winds up starting Book Three with everything he ever wanted from the beginning. In light of what’s happened to him, though, he decides it’s not worth it and finally switches sides. Even then it still takes time for him to become a proper hero. It’s a convoluted, bumpy arc of redemption, but all the more rewarding for it.

Stories of redemption tend to benefit most from the format. Sawyer, in Lost, started out as the guy no one liked. Over time we found out that he didn’t want any one to like him because, as far as he was concerned, no one ought to like him. As the story goes on he becomes a sympathetic character to us and, through a con on the part of a friend, ends up ingratiating himself to the other survivors (see episode “Left Behind”).

Later on, Sawyer quite literally faces his personal demons. That done, he can progress from his original arc (a vengeful man haunted by his past) to what’s next in store for him. Sawyer becomes a protector of the others and, eventually, a man who just wants to live life as it is. It’s a marked change from the selfish prick the series started out with.

Video Games can do this too. Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed II is introduced as a bit of a brat. Granted, he’s seventeen, but he’s not the best guy you’ll find. His family gets wrongly executed and he finds himself thrust into a world of espionage and conspiracy he didn’t know existed. Ezio is forced to grow. He gains responsibility, takes up the mantle of an Assassin, and by the second sequel (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations ) is radically different from where he started out from.

It’s not just one arc, though, it’s a bunch of small ones and moments that tell us not only who he is but who he’s becoming.

That’s the hallmark of character development: those little moments along the way that show us where a character is. It could be Sokka guiding the blind Toph onto a boat or Sawyer running through a gauntlet of gunfire as he carries Claire to safety. It could be Willow deciding she doesn’t need the ghost sheet outfit anymore or Jayne sliding the cup of booze across the table at Simon.

It’s those moments where you look at characters and realize that wow, they’ve changed. And you hardly noticed while it was happening.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s a collection of short stories however, so no epic character arcs.

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Shawarma

So the other day I was looking for lunch and ended up ordering shawarma at a falafel joint. As such there is a picture of me taking a Thor-sized bite out of it on Twitter. To those curious, it tastes more like a doner kebab than a gyro, just different toppings and stuff. And more Middle-Easty.

But why shawarma? I was hungry, but why’d I pick some middle-eastern delicacy over barbecue, burgers or brisket? It wasn’t cheaper and I wasn’t even sure if I liked it (but I like meat, pita bread, and food, so there’s that).

If you stayed to the end of the credits of The Avengers — and by the end I mean the end after every last name has rolled past the screen — you’ll have seen this wonderful little scene. It’s the titular heroes sitting in a restaurant and eating shawarma. There’s no dialogue; it’s just them eating after the battle.

It’s a quiet scene, and a bit of a joke too since there’s no big epic stinger as was the case for the other Marvel movies.

But it’s important, because it’s about them. The shawarma scene shows that after saving New York City and the world, they need a break. Again, it’s about them, taking time together at a point where there’s nothing left to say.

I’m not going to lie: these sorts of scenes are my favorites. I love character relations in my media (see: Firefly, Community, Super 8…) as much as I love adventure.

So what are some other great examples of quiet character moments?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is rife with them. The episode ‘The Runaway’ focuses on the personality clash between Toph and Katara. We’ve got shenanigans aplenty in town and bits of excitement strewn all over. But the best part?

Toph and Sokka sit down and talk about Katara and how they all work together. It’s just talking, but it accentuates who they are.

Better still is a moment during the finale. Team Avatar is getting ready for Aang to confront the Fire Lord and save the day. Everyone knows there’s a massive epic battle coming up. One of the ‘members’ of Team Avatar, Zuko, spent most prior episodes as an antagonist. He’s helping them now, but he feels like an outsider.

There’s a group hug for reassurance before they set out, and Katara sees that Zuko chose to stand it out. Now, Katara was the one who distrusted him most, the one who just about hated him. But now she turns to him and tells him that “being part of the group also means being part of group hugs”. That’s it, no big spiel about forgiveness or redemption, just acceptance.

Later on the finale Zuko is reunited with the uncle he betrayed. He feels undeserving of even speaking to him and quietly waits at his bedside for him to wake up. When Iroh wakes and sees his nephew, he doesn’t even let Zuko get a word out before capturing him in an embrace. We’ve followed these characters for three seasons, we feel the same relief as the prodigal nephew and the same joy as the loving uncle.

Besides Avatar, I begun watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this summer. The premiere episode for season two, ‘When She Was Bad’, has Buffy acting remorselessly towards everyone else, friend and foe alike. She alienates and manipulates one of her best friends and later viciously tortures a vampire for information. In the aftermath she’s scared and feels terribly alone.

The next morning she goes to school, unsure of where she stands. The way she sees it she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven or even treated with a shred of warmth by her friends.

But they’ve saved her a seat, they make plans for the day, joke about teachers and the events of the night before. The camera pulls away and their conversation fades out. Without outright saying it, we know they still love her and still accept her as one of them. It’s simple, quiet, and wonderful.

Character moments are special, since that’s our most basic way of relating to them. Like them, we have relationships, we have friends who see us at our best and worst and put up with our crap. We have that sense of familiarity when we see it happen on screen, whether it’s an impromptu game of what might be basketball in Serenity’s cargo hold or a group of superheroes sitting together silently.

In any case, I liked my shawarma.

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Sacrifice

There’s this trope in fiction called the Heroic Sacrifice. The idea is that a character gives himself up so another can live or succeed. When done right it can be an incredibly powerful writing tool.

Doesn’t have to be sacrificing your own life, though. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has just saved Commissioner Gordon’s son and the fallen Harvey Dent has tumbled to his death. There is blood on Dent’s hands; the man who came close to saving Gotham has come crashing down and his stellar reputation will follow. So Batman tells Gordon to pin every one of Dent’s crimes on him. Batman will take responsibility for what Dent did so that the late District Attorney’s work will not be undone. Gordon agrees reluctantly and Batman disappears into the night and we are left marveling at the self-sacrifice of the Dark Knight. Gotham has been saved, at the expense of Batman’s character.

Of course, the trope of sacrifice can be done wrong. In the terrible live-action adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the interaction between two characters (Sokka and Princess Yue) is treated from the get-go as comic relief. It’s amusing to see them bumbling over themselves as their attraction grows. Then suddenly the plot necessitates a sacrifice and the only one who can do it is the Princess.

The relationship that we’ve only seen snippets of (and has thus far been used exclusively as comic relief) is suddenly thrust forward as drama. Before we get a chance to realize that it isn’t a joke, she’s dead and everyone forgets about her as the climax continues. It’s forgettable and fails to add any tension or poignancy. The general crappiness of the script, acting, and direction probably doesn’t help any.

(Do note: in the cartoon series the sacrifice had punch and weight and genuinely felt sad)

A far stronger example comes from the TV series Lost. Sawyer is never presented as a particularly ‘good’ character. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not someone worth liking and no one could possibly hate him more than he does.

The plot continues and Sawyer faces his demons and grows into a protector of the other castaways. As Season Four draws to a close a handful of the castaways are given the chance to get off the island. Sawyer is among them.

But the helicopter is too heavy; they need to lighten the load. So someone has to jump from the copter. Though Sawyer isn’t killed from his sacrifice, it serves as the climax to his arc. He’s gone from the selfish murderer when he arrived on the island to someone who would give up his spot for another. It’s a story of redemption and sacrifice.

Sometimes everything comes together to form a simply beautiful sequence. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek opens with the USS Kelvin being viciously attacked by an unknown enemy. George Kirk has only been captain for a few minutes and orders the evacuation of the entire crew; including his wife and about-to-be-born child. To buy time for the lifeboats he resorts to ramming his ship headlong into the enemy. Autopilot’s gone and only he is left to pilot it in.

The gravity of the moment is accentuated not only by Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score (see Up for further reference) but by the heartbreaking conversation he has with his wife. Within a few minutes we’re caught up in this valiant act that not only sets up the plot but gives his son a standing to aspire to. It’s a universal notion: the idea of giving up one’s own life for a loved one, one that draws us in and makes us feel.

The midnight release of The Dark Knight Rises was marred by the Aurora Shooting. Yet even in the most horrible circumstances, light can shine out. Three men, three unrelated individuals, had one instinct when the shooter opened fire: get their girlfriends out of harm’s way. Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves all died to save the ones they loved. There was no fanfare, no triumphant score as they fell to the ground. Just sacrificial love. Though the press will follow the shooter until he receives his judgement and beyond, it’s these stories, the actions of Blunk, McQuinn, and Teves that should be remembered. Because of what they did three young women still have life. Because of them we’re reminded that though some of us may be absolute bastards, some of us are still good.

I’ve written of heroes on this blog before. I’ve said that one of the reasons heroes inspire us is because we hope that we can be like them. We read and watch our fiction about brave heroes who will die to save the day. Then we see before us real people who willingly gave their lives. All of a sudden the notion of the heroic sacrifice ceases to be a trope in fiction and it becomes real.

And heroes ARE real. And Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves ARE heroes.

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Worlds Need Rules

I like writing. No, not just my weekly essay (which is certainly not a rant), but fiction. Sometimes I write stuff grounded firmly in this world, but I really enjoy building worlds of fantasy or science fiction. I’ve got a science fiction side project I like to fiddle with here and there and I run a fantasy RPG with some friends. For both of these I’ve made intricate worlds with some semblance of a history and culture. But just as important as the setting of a story is the exact nature of the world. Any ‘magical’ force, be it mystical or scientific, needs rules to go with it.
Mass Effect is set several centuries in the future, after humanity has made contact with not only the technology of an ancient race that came before but with the various alien species that populate the world today. How does this work? The titular mass effect fields that can increase or decrease the mass of a volume of space time. This technology allows usual science fiction tropes like shields, faster-than-light travel, and artificial gravity; or provides mundane justifications like how buildings can be so tall or preventing spaceships from being hit by space debris.
What makes this so wonderful isn’t just the encyclopedia’s worth of pseudo-science, it’s that everything within the universe adheres to this rules. Because of this we can’t have, say, a ship the size of the Normandy obliterating a planet. No matter how much you’d want to chalk it up to a mass effect field, the rules of the universe prevent it. The writers have their rules to limit the extent of their technology in the world. So long as they don’t supersede these rules, the universe works.
Harry Potter is about magic. Simple. You say a spell (or do it silently if you’re good enough) and magic happens. Feeling lazy? Accio remote!* Someone’s making you really mad? Avada Kadavra. Of course, that means you really do mean it and have created a very permanent solution to what was probably a very minor problem, you overreacting overreactor. But want to make yourself immortal, or make someone love you? No can do. That’s the rules of the universe.
Prior to writing the books, J.K. Rowling spent years detailing exactly how magic would work in her world. She had to set limits and rules on just how it worked. Something couldn’t come from nothing, for example. The world still has to function, magic or not.
*Yes, I know wizards don’t use remotes. Relax.
The ‘physics’ of bending are established fairly early in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like how benders need the element to control it (except for firebenders who channel their own chi into fire). That’s the main rule and anything that the characters do follows that paradigm. Were Katara to suddenly conjure up a burst of water in a desert our suspension of disbelief would be broken. Not because she can control water, but because the show broke their own rules.
We like to get lost in other worlds. But we need these worlds to be believable. This doesn’t mean whatever phlebotinum or plot device you have must be ‘realistic’ or particularly grounded in reality, it means that if you say something is a certain way, than that is the way it must be. We, the audience, will willing suspend our disbelief so long as the fantastical element remains internally consistent. Call it Aristotle’s Law Of Identity or Magic A is magic A, it’s the foundation of a believable world.
And if we can’t believe it then we won’t be invested.

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