The Last Airbender is a live action movie coming out on the weekend of July 4th based on a Nickelodean cartoons series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is being directed by M. Night Shyamalan and there is great controversy over various aspects of the film. I will be referring to the cartoon series as “Avatar”, not to be confused with James Cameron’s Avatar film.
I’ve blogged about Avatar before, noting how great it was to see a tv series geared towards children that featured a monk using Buddhist principles as the hero. Here is a very brief overview of what the tv series is about. Four Nations exist in a fantasy world – the Air, Fire, Water, and Earth nation. The Fire nation is waging war against the others, trying to take over the world they live in. They have successfully wiped out the Air Nation, composed mostly of monks, except for one child named Aang, who is the Avatar, or the one destined to save the universe. Certain people from each nation have the power to control their respective elements, hence, Aang is an airbender, or one who controls Air. Since Aang is the Avatar, is the only one with the skills to master all the elements and save the world from being destroyed by the Fire Nation. Aang been asleep for several years and has now reawakened to stop the Fire Nation.
Within the cartoon series, the Air Nation is heavily influenced by Buddhist culture and the main character Aang journeys through his mission of saving the world using Buddhist values and philosophy. Shyamalan recognizes the Buddhist culture in Avatar, noting that “I loved the characters in the story and I felt like I could be me inside this larger canvas of this very long-form movie […] Cultural differences at the center. It has Buddhism, Hinduism, things I’m interested in.”¹ Examples of Buddhist culture within Avatar are Buddhist attire (robes), meditation, reincarnation, nonviolence, and monk-hood. For more details of actual Buddhist concepts as part of the script, please see my previous Avatar blog post.
While the controversy over Shymalan’s live action adaptation of the cartoon series mainly revolves around the whitewashing of the cast (for more information, please see Racebending), another interesting deviation from the cartoon series is Aang’s body tattoos. The tattoos is characteristic of the Air Nation people and in the cartoon series, it looks like this.
However, the live action movie has chosen to change the look of the tattoos to this.
There is a notable difference in detail and shape, in that the live action movie has chosen to portray the tattoos to resemble Christian symbols. The tattoo is shaped much like a cross and it brings up the question of whether there is an attempt to dilute the Buddhist presence in the movie.
One might say that such a claim is too farfetched and that there is no need to make such a big fuss over such a small detail. Yet, there is reason to suspect that changing Aang’s tattoos has larger implications for how American media tends to portray its heroes. There have already been significant changes made in the making of the movie. First, the chosen cast does not physically represent the cast of the cartoon series (yellowface and whitewashing), which is important because this is one of the view cartoon series that features a full cast of characters that look Asian/Pacific Islander. Second, Shyamalan has chosen to remove the Chinese calligraphy that can be scene in the beginning segment of the cartoon series as well as on signs, books, and other items throughout the show. In a sense, there seems to be an attempt to take away the Eastern influences and replace them with more ambiguous imagery. While many people argue that Avatar is located in a fantasy world, I liken the show to Lord of the Rings, in which Middle Earth is a fantasy world but obviously influenced by European culture.
As more of the film is being gradually released (and eventually, Paramount plans to expand the movie to a trilogy), Aang’s tattoos may just be the beginning. Shyamalan’s decisions spark the question of whether it is okay for the one destined to be the world’s savior to resemble a Buddhist monk. I find it interesting that Shyamalan isn’t taking full advantage of Buddhism for his film. Buddhism is already openly used in mainstream American culture to sell and promote consumer items, whether related to Buddhism or not. While it is okay in much of mainstream advertising for Buddhism to make its appearance on lip balm health spas, and True Religion jeans, is it too much for an American audience to witness a Buddhist monk saving the world in Hollywood? Buddhism has certainly made its appearance in American films, but for a film originally targeted for young children, catered to envelop children in a fantasy world of friendship, development, and adventure, developed to match the popularity of Harry Potter, is Shyamalan afraid American audiences will not be willing to spend their bucks watching a monk save the world?
Even though altered adaptations in the film industry are fairly common, the movement against this film’s deviations is certainly a new and interesting phenomenon. Fans from all backgrounds have come together to speak against what they see as an unfaithful portrayal of the cartoon series they grown to love. Whether you find yourself judging the film from a cultural, racial, religious, or simply entertainment perspective, supporting or boycotting the movie, Avatar has been a pre-packaged opportunity for Hollywood to diversify film casting and feature aspects of Buddhism in an appropriate, meaningful context. While I won’t make definite judgments until I see the film, let’s just hope Shyamalan learns to take advantage of this opportunity to go beyond the precedents set in Hollywood.
“I’ve had enough movies now that I know that it’s really about the consistency and theintegrity of the work. There will be some that have huge successes box-office wise and some lesser, but the consistency of being honest to myself as an artist, the integrity is felt by the audience.
“You can feel it when somebody is chasing the audience or sold out in some way when they did something they didn’t 100-percent believe in.”
-M. Night Shyamalan, June 2008¹