Bending Narratives: On the Feats and Failures of Production Practices and Adaptation Approaches in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Last Airbender

Tiffany Yau


           Avatar: The Last Airbender  (or ATLA) is an animated Nickelodeon show which takes place in a fantastical world whose inhabitants live in regions identified by the four elements — air, water, earth, and fire — one where several of these individuals have the ability to bend one of these elements. The show follows Aang, a young air nomad, as he joins Katara and Sokka (a brother-sister duo from the Northern water tribe) to realize his capabilities as the Avatar — the sole reincarnated figure who has the ability to master bending all four elements — in order to bring peace to the nations in the wake of a war instigated by the fire nation. ATLA, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, garnered widespread acclaim for its three-season run that originally aired on the Nickelodeon network between 2005-2008. However, despite growing a dedicated international fanbase, the highly anticipated 2010 adaptation, The Last Airbender (or TLA), by M. Night Shyamalan has since become a notorious poster child of failed live-action adaptations. As a result, I aim to examine the characteristics that set this original text apart from other animated series, thus garnering its success within a thriving media landscape, as well as the presence or lack thereof of this criterion in subsequent works which may play a hand in causing a disparity in comparative performance results. 

           By overviewing specific conditions of the Western animation sector at the time in tandem with approaches/techniques that the original ATLA production took, I aim to illuminate the way ATLA posed itself as a unique entity by departing from common practices in the Western animation sector. Specifically, I argue that race and gender representation, the targeting of an ageless audience, and innovative production approaches are the standout aspects of ATLA which have influenced its positive reception. Elements of adaptations outlined in Parody’s article, “Adaptation Essay Prize Winner: Franchising/Adaptation”, will provide groundwork to explain how veering from this framework contributed to the detriment of Shyamalan’s remake. Through these approaches, I will argue that perceived industry motives for franchise formation and profit generation led to generally poor choices in TLA’s creative direction, including the defying of narrative logic established within the original story’s universe and whitewashing through problematic casting decisions. 

Representation in ATLA

           Being the success that it was, it is evident that ATLA’s story had a clear hand in contributing to its popularity, one aspect in particular being its positive representation of historically misrepresented identities. In chapter 5 of Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship, Sarah Banet-Weiser highlights a comment that John Hardman (the then Nickelodeon Executive) made in a 1997 interview on Asian representation in children’s media, where he stated that “Asian kids are not as concerned about representation as the other groups. They accept that Asians aren’t represented and when they are, it’s often stereotypical” (Banet-Weiser 162). Having initially aired on the Nickelodeon network in 2005, it is clear that ATLA – whose fictional world consisted of characters derived from Asian and Indigenous cultural inspiration – posed as a pioneering force in Asian and Indigenous representation in media and a departure from Hardman’s complacent sentiments. Proper representation was a stand-out factor of the show, but even more so, the production’s dedication to an accurate and respectful portrayal of these influences was additionally pivotal to achieving its successful reception. 

           One example of such efforts is shown through the show’s partnership with experienced martial arts masters to inform elemental bending animation approaches. In ATLA’s behind-the-scenes featurette, Avatar Spirits, creator Bryan Konietzko expresses his own venture into learning martial arts under Sifu Kisu, who was later hired as ATLA’s martial arts consultant, and made creative decisions on defining the distinct choreography style of each element’s bending form (Mattila). In Avatar Spirits, Sifu Kisu explains waterbending’s “soft” gestures as derivative of Tai Chi, firebending being inspired by the “crisp” movements of Northern Shaolin, and earthbending’s “tight” actions stemming from Hung Gar style martial arts (Mattila 11:52-12:28). In terms of inspiration drawn from real life cultures, Yao’s article, “Animating Intimacies and Counter-Intimacies in Avatar: The Last Airbender,” also mentions how the production was careful to ensure that each nation was derivative of multiple cultures and ethnicities, as to avoid portraying a pure demonization or championing of a single culture (which would have resulted by only basing each nation off of one ethnic group) (480). On another note, ATLA was also a great proponent for strong, independent female characters. Not only was this conveyed through the exemplification of a wide array of respected female benders and warriors throughout the show’s three seasons, but also explicitly through their decision to solidify this social stance from the very first episode, where Katara denounces her brother as a “sexist, immature, nut [brain]” after he misogynistically deflects blame for hitting ice while the pair are out boating on fishing trip (“The Boy In The Iceberg” 1:55-4:10). Seeing that gender stereotyping has been a longstanding issue in media, and that Asian and Indigenous representation have only started to increase and improve in recent years (through works like Crazy Rich Asians, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Beans amongst others gaining mainstream attention), it is clear that ATLA’s pioneering of representation in the 2000s media landscape set it apart from other works, thus allowing it to be a part of the initiating wave for present-day increases in representational diversity.

ATLA’s Ageless Target Audience & Rewatchability Factor

           In addition to providing ethnic- and gender-related representation during a time where it was not an expected nor normative practice in media industries, the expert writing in ATLA’s narrative also uniquely positioned it to be received by a wider demographic in regard to age, which inadvertently increased its rewatchability rate. Having initially aired on cable TV, the cartoon/animated content landscape amongst other broadcasted works at the time posed clear divisions between child-directed versus adult/mature audience-directed programming. One example would be the introduction of Adult Swim – an evening programming block which aired animations with more mature themes – by adjacent-entity Cartoon Network (Bahr). Sarah Bahr’s interviews in “Adult Swim: How an Animation Experiment Conquered Late-Night TV” with figureheads who contributed to the creation of Adult Swim detail its cult following from teens and young adults, as well as executives’ deliberate marketing decisions to maintain this type of audience base. Examples of these efforts include the initial conceptualization of Adult Swim stemming from advertisers’ disinterest in marketing towards kids past 10pm — as most children would be asleep by then — and motivated strategies in the creative direction of their first promotion materials, which featured “an old-person aerobics class” made in “black-and-white to make it even more unattractive” to “scare kids away” from consuming their content (Bahr). Consequently, such distributive decisions in the early 2000s clearly illustrate the strategic dividing of animation audiences into target markets based on age, whereas, whether intentionally or not, ATLA’s writing actively welcomes audiences of all ages, thus breaking from this mold. 

           Although its fantastical, adventurous, and gore/violence-restricted tale was intended for children, the show discusses more mature, heavy-hitting subjects beneath its surface level narratives in various ways – one being that its portrayal of the four nations builds on colonial themes (Yao). Despite decisions made to ensure the show’s suitability for a younger audience (such as the use of elemental bending to bypass portrayals of explicit violence), these complex sentiments are displayed in the show’s narrative through ATLA’s world grappling with a war instigated by the Fire Nation, countless mentions of the eradication of Air Nation populations being motivated by hopes of killing the Avatar, as well as the nation’s general goal of global domination (Yao 487-8). In connection with ATLA’s positive gender and ethnic representation, other social justice related elements – such as Katara’s use of her water bending powers to heal folks that have been sickened by water pollution (due to the Fire Nation’s military industrial complex activities) – shows parallels between environmentalism, or rather Indigenous land defending, as well as “Traditional Ecological… or Indigenous Knowledge” (490). Yao also illuminates how the triangular shipping of Aang, Katara, and Zuko can be perceived as a method of uttering themes of reconciliation between the colonizer and the colonized (494-8). Within lower abstraction, ATLA’s general exploration of mature subjects such as issues within family relations (e.g., parental abuse, dealing with the loss of a parent) also sets it apart from the average Nickelodeon animation. As a result, these layers of nuance merge to provide an enjoyable viewing experience not only for children, but for older audiences as well. Due to ATLA’s resurgence in popularity after its syndication onto Netflix during the COVID-19 pandemic, this actualization of this theory could be observed through previous fans’ revisiting of the show. Thus, through this phenomenon, fueled by individuals who were fans of ATLA as children returning to the show as adults, it becomes evident that the narrative is not only able to cater to an audience of a wide age range, but that it also possesses the unique capacity to grow with audiences, thereby illuminating its exceptional rewatchability factor.

ATLA’s Innovations in Overseas Animation Studios Collaboration: Freeing the Artist

           Aside from the aforementioned narrative decisions that set ATLA apart from other Western animations, much of the production choices behind the scenes influenced the reception of the show in a similar nature. In an interview with Nerdist hosted by Ben Blacker, the creators specifically illuminate that half of their interest in creating the show came from a creative/artistic standpoint, while the other half stemmed from a dissatisfaction in existing norms of the animation production process and the desire to reform it (“Nerdist Writers Panel”).1 Nietzko explained his experiences of the hierarchical structures within Western animation production crews – where “writers [were] the kings,” pre-production crews were subordinate, with overseas animation studios receiving the shortest end of the stick, often being the one’s ascribed blame when animations turned out poorly – and how the exportation of labour to overseas animation studios was a common practice in said industry. In short, his glimpse into these overseas environments when visiting them to teach artists of the animation style for Invader Zim led to the realization of how “constricted” the animators were in terms of their artistic freedom (“Nerdist Writers Panel” 14:45). 

           For these reasons, the creators had a strong desire to empower artists on their own show, which they realized by removing exposure sheets that would traditionally assign a specific amount of frames to each motion (e.g., an arm movement, change of expression, etc.), thus strictly mapping out an episode’s run time, and leaving little room for creative freedom and experimentation. Instead, they created detailed storyboards and animatics that acted as the creative direction for the overseas artists to follow, and aside from set scene lengths, allowed animators “the freedom to figure out the best way to execute [scenes]” (“Nerdist Writers Panel”). Consequently, the creators noted that the work they would receive back often felt “augmented,” and that overtime, they were able to recognize who worked on certain elements of a scene, which gave the show a tangible, organic, and human essence (“Nerdist Writers Panel”; “Origin Stories Pt. 2”).2 As a result, it is evident that the holistic collaboration between the artists and creators together with an approach of open mindedness and trust in overseas studios’ ideas and potential were crucial in helping ATLA’s production realize its full artistic potential. 

Parody & Adaptations: TLA as a Failed Remake

           By now, it should be clear that characteristics unique to ATLA (positive representation, an ageless target market and rewatchability, and its approach to partnering with overseas animation studios) were methods that influenced the show’s immense success. One may therefore allude that an adaptation of the original show might garner widespread acceptance as well. However, the actual outcome of such efforts turned out to receive quite the opposite response in terms of audience reception. To understand why this was the case, Parody’s article, “Franchising/Adaptation,” which defines adaptations and researches their role within the media landscape, will provide a basis of the methods, purposes, and motivation to create franchises to analyze and explain potential reasons for TLA’s unsuccessful reception. 

           In her article, Parody cites Lance Parkin in their emphasis on the importance of a franchise valuing “the set… of ‘core concepts’ (13) or ‘conditions’(18) [from the original work] that consumers recognize and accept,” such as “tenets of character behaviour… narrative rules or formulae… laws of worldbuilding, visual, verbal, or aural motifs; or less easily definable qualities of tone or style” (Parkin qtd. in Parody 215). To this, TLA poses itself as an example which disobeys the majority of these guidelines, and has become a widely rejected piece of the franchise as a result. One way TLA fails to adhere to core concepts of ATLA is through casting. As previously mentioned, a major reason why ATLA was so beloved as a show was due its pioneering of Asian and Indigenous representation; however, TLA’s whitewashing of the lead cast (including Katara, Sokka, and the Avatar himself) eradicates this crucial aspect of the show. Even on a narrative level, the film’s use of white lead actors while using IBPOC extras to portray their fellow tribe members is illogical, although Aditya further discusses this issue present in TLA. In their article “Decoding the Politics of Hollywood Whitewashing through M. Night Shyamalan’s the Last Airbender,” they address this issue as orientalism. Through this lens, they explain that TLA’s casting of Dev Patel – a British-Indian actor – as the Fire Nation antagonist against the three white leads who star as the protagonist group clearly portrays “‘white’ and ‘color’ as binary opposites, [and] also links [them] with the concepts of Good and Evil” (5). Aditya also notes how the whitewashing of the Avatar in TLA has created a white savior narrative; therefore, the film perpetuates racism where the original animation championed diversity, disregarding this core concept of its preceding work (7). 

           Furthermore, there are unfortunately a plethora of other core concepts from the original ATLA that are overwritten in the live-action adaptation. As previously mentioned, Parody cites “narrative rules or formulae” as a core concept, and for ATLA, a key aspect that ties to this notion are the established logics regarding the bending of elements. For example, in TLA, firebenders are only able to manipulate fire from an existing source, making Uncle Iroh’s creation of fire from his own energy in the spirit oasis scene a notable peak in the film’s narrative (The Last Airbender 1:20:30). However, fans of the original show will know that this ability is far from the shockingly impressive moment it aims to be in the film, as all firebenders in ATLA have the innate ability to create fire themselves, rendering their reliance on an existent source in the film to be inaccurate, and furthermore downplays the perceived strength of firebending. To comment on Parody’s mention of “aural motifs,” TLA also goes against such aspects in ATLA in the way they change various pronunciations in the film, including those of Aang, Iroh, and Sokka’s names, as well as terms specific to this narrative universe, including Agni Kai (the name of a traditional firebender duel) and the word Avatar itself (Parody 215).3 Finally, the “easily definable [quality] of tone or style” of humour from ATLA is almost entirely eradicated from the film. Notable approaches to comedic erasure in the film include the elimination of humor in the portrayal of Sokka, a character routinely used for comedic relief in the animation, as well as the general shift in genre from more adventure-leaning to action/drama-focused through the use of darker cinematography and a more serious approach of the narrative’s war-related/colonial themes. 

           Despite a partial explanation for TLA’s failure being that it fell short of adhering to narrative logics established within ATLA, there are various additional reasons, from a production perspective, as to why this may have occurred. One possible reason was the lack of collaboration with the original creators and Shyamalan; despite being credited as executive producers in TLA’s credits, the ATLA creators allegedly had little to no involvement with the film at all. Referring back to the Nerdist podcast, DiMartino and Nietzko explicitly state that they originally “did not want [the film] to be done at all” and that “if it was going to be done, [they] wanted to do it,” but that folks from the studios who held more prominent positions of power in production decision-making refused (“Nerdist Writers Panel”).4 The creators mentioned how they eventually came to terms with the fact that Shyamalan would be attached to the adaptation, and would provide help when requested. Despite this assistance being initially welcomed, “a big falling out” later on severed the desire for DiMatrino and Nietzko’s involvement in the feature film adaptation (“Nerdist Writers Panel” 1:03:25-48). Parody’s comment thus provides a suitable explanation for this phenomenon: “Where franchise production is diasporic and development un-coordinated, canonicity, continuity, and authority become problematic concepts…[resulting in] an ‘array’ of versions[…] rather than a master narrative and stable textual corpus” (Parody 215, Collins qtd. in Parody 215). The lack of faithfulness to the original canon was a major point of contention which resulted in its mass rejection from established fanbases – a failure which reflected poorly on production choices, as outlined in Parody’s framework. Moreover, the sole writing credit attributed to Shyamalan underscores the missed opportunity to involve the original creators in the production, which likely would have better preserved the narrative logics of the original text. 

           Additionally, the presumed financial motivations for franchise formation that may have led TLA’s approach to focus on profit accumulation over artistic motivations should be thoroughly considered as affecting the quality of this adaptation. Parody’s article also discusses the financial prospects of franchises, stating that this method in media industries is “an effective way of getting maximum use out of a fictional creation, and where the source text is successful and established enough, a useful strategy for ensuring a consumer base will follow a franchise as it moves across platforms” (211). Here, Parody emphasizes that franchises do not only allow for the growing of fictional worlds of storytelling but furthermore poses them as safer ventures business-wise. TLA grossed $319 million worldwide, which is over double its budget of $150 million (Box Office Mojo); unfortunately, it is unclear whether the film was able to make a profit or how much it would have been in comparison to its budget if they did. However, due to Parody’s previously mentioned comment on financial motivations – which is a sentiment she further presses in explicitly in stating that “‘franchising’ inscribes adaptive media as territories to be colonized in the name of profit and brand presence” – financial gain was likely a partial motivation for the film’s creation given the established success of ATLA (216). Since this motivator was not present for the show as it was an original work that was distributed without such a financial safetynet, this clear distinction between the presumed economic prospects of both works should be aptly accounted for. 

Areas of Interest for Future Research & Conclusion

           Although ATLA has been shown to be an example of a well-received piece of media, it should be noted that like any work, it is not without its shortcomings. In regard to future research, this may be a point of interest for further development. For example, Yao’s argument of the imbalance of Asian and Indigenous representation, as well as lesser attention to faithfulness in their drawing of Indigenous representation leading to instances of the “‘Playing Indian’ tradition” being replicated in the show exemplify how a straightforward, glorifying perception of most media should be avoided (483). Furthermore, due to the presumed discomfort of those involved in TLA in speaking on their opinions of the film and their experiences with its production, research done on TLA’s creative decision-making and approaches was limited in comparison to that of ATLA. Thus, a thorough examination of this subject to form a more balanced view of the adapted film in relation to the stated research on the original show would be of value. Additionally, with the 2024 Netflix live-action adaptation receiving mixed reviews upon its recent release, patterns and differences in adaptation practices compared to TLA’s production – including the similarity of the lack of involvement of DiMartino and Konietzko due to their departure as a result of “’creative differences’” despite their initial onboarding, and the contrast of an improved visual integration of elemental bending – arise as areas for further inquiry (Tinubu). 

           Nonetheless, through analyzing the creative and production-related avenues that creators DiMartino and Konietzko explored which distinguished ATLA from adjacent works, and contrasting their approaches with those of TLA, it is evident that this franchise stands as an example of how quality storytelling and faithful production approaches are pivotal in leading a work to critical success. As a result, this research illuminates the ways that the inability to maintain consistency in the core characteristics within ATLA in TLA led to a failed work, indeed solidifying the significance that implementing these production measures can have in certain adaptation ventures as such in avoiding major critical rejection.

This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


[1] See 14:18-15:06 of “Nerdist Writers Panel” for more details.

[2] In relation to the production process, it should also be noted that aside from the creators giving overseas artists artistic freedom, Nickelodeon studios themselves gave the production as a whole much room to explore as well. For example, Eric Coleman (executive producer for Nickelodeon) signed off on the creator’s desire for ATLA to have a continuous story structure that carried on from episode-to-episode rather than the typical structure that allowed episodes to play as standalone works (“Origin Stories Pt. 2”).

[3] Instead of watching the entire film, various fan compilations of these mispronunciations can be found on Youtube, many of which approach the subject in a slightly humorous manner, with comedic editing and counters that increase with each mispronunciation.

[4] See 1:01:44 – 01:07:10 of the “Nerdist Writers Panel” podcast for more details. 



Aditya, R. P. “Decoding the Politics of Hollywood Whitewashing through M. Night Shyamalan’s the Last Airbender.” Offscreen, vol. 25, no. 9-10, 2021. ProQuest, ough/docview/2641523467/se-2

Avatar Spirits. Directed by Kurt Mattila, featuring Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, Prologue Pictures, 2010. 

Bahr, Sarah. “Adult Swim: How an Animation Experiment Conquered Late-Night TV”, The New York Times, 2 September 2021, . 

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Duke University Press, Aug 2007, 

Box Office Mojo. IMDbPro, DiMartino, Mike and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2008. 

Kim, Albert, creator. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Netflix, 2024. “Nerdist Writers Panel #154: Legend of Korra/Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Nerdist Writers Panel from Nerdist, 14 August 2014, nder/. 

“Origin Stories with Mike DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko Pt.2.” Avatar: Braving the Elements from Nickelodeon/iHeartPodcasts, 29 June 2021, n-stories-with-mike-dimartino-84227671/. 

Parody, Clare. “Adaptation Essay Prize Winner: Franchising/Adaptation.” Adaptation, vol. 4, issue 2, 2011, pp. 210-218. Oxford Academic

“The Boy In The Iceberg.” Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2008. 

The Last Airbender. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies, 2010. 

Tinubu, Asamide. “Netflix’s Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Is as Beautifully Crafted Disappointment: TV Review.” Variety, 24 February 2024, 235914237/. 

Yao, Xine. “Arctic and Asian Indigeneities, Asian/North American Settler/Colonialism: Animating Intimacies and Counter-Intimacies in Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 24, no. 3, 2021, pp. 471-504. ProQuest, ttler/docview/2604873226/se-2.

Vol. 5 (2024)