Let me start with something I wrote here almost three-and-a-half years ago about “Avatar, the Last Airbender:”
Suffice it to say, there is a very rich universe here to explore, and the internal mythology of this place is detailed, consistent, and engaging. It is truly epic in scope, and I don’t use that word lightly. (And the live-action motion picture has already been optioned by M. Night Shyamalan, I hope he doesn’t screw it up.)
The bad news is that my concern was valid. M. Night Shyamalan botched this movie horrible. I remain a huge fan of the series which aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon, and would rank in the top five TV shows of the last decade (alongside Lost and Battlestar Galactica.) I hoped the movie would be good enough to draw new viewers to the show. Now the opposite appears likely – people will avoid the show because the movie is just that bad.
The irony is that a show about “benders,” those who can shape the very elements through imagination and flexibility, gets horribly crammed into a movie format.
It’s not that difficult to change genres to tell the same story. (Look back at how SciFi successfully stretched a two-hour Wizard of Oz into a six-hour Tin Man.) You just have to pay closer attention to the parts of the story and narrative that play to the strengths of your format. Some types of humor play better visually than in print, and vice versa. Look at the many different versions of the Lion King story, as well.
The challenge for Shyamalan was condensing nine hours of source material – the entire first season – into a feature length film (as well as minor tasks like introducing the universe and the characters.) In the process, he committed the sin of trying to keep everything in. Peter Jackson made “Lord of the Rings” look easy, because he made longer movies and is a better storyteller himself. Chris Columbus was able to translate the Harry Potter franchise into film, by ditching much of the plot of J.K. Rowling’s books. He kept the essentials, and made them consistent with each other.
Shyalaman instead crammed his film with as many touchstone moments as he could remember, apparently worried that hardcore fans would savage him for altering the source material. But this is a story that required adjustment from the source material. Instead, we got a lot of half-baked subplots that were even less explained than they were baked. And we didn’t get any of the signature humor. These were kids, and they came across as ill-defined cardboard cutouts that speak. And the dialogue was almost completely exposition, because Shyamalan needed to squeeze every moment to propel the storylines he should have skipped.
Bending the Finger of Blame
Sure, we could blame him for ruining a great story by forcing it to fit in an incompatible container. But let’s save that blame for ourselves.
- How many times have we taken someone else’s PowerPoint slides and tried to talk through them?
- How many times have we written a boring explanation of a complex relationship when a well-crafted graph would have instantly gotten to the point?
- How many times have we started a long explanation when circumstances called for a decisive declaration?
Which leads to a fairly predictable result: an ammo-clip-worthy quantity of bullets, and text small enough to make fine print look like shouting.
It’s boring, and it’s a disservice, because you’re trying to live up to the expectations of one medium with a set of tools that are meant for another.
Be a Bender
There’s a reason they give an Oscar for “Best Adaptation.” It’s not a natural skill. It takes time and sensitivity to translate material, whether we’re talking about languages, platforms or formats. When you do, here’s where you can focus your thought:
- Who is my audience?
- What do I want the takeaway to be?
- Where is this story going?
- What is truly essential to getting from A to Z?
- What are the constraints of this medium?
- What is the ‘shorthand’ for this medium?
Follow that workflow, and you can condense just about anything. Or you can expand it. At the very least, you’ll recognize when you’re cramming anvils in egg cartons, leaving a heavy, inedible legacy.