As you can tell from the title of this post, this is going to be one of those times where I let my geek flag fly. If you have any problem with that, I'm surprised you didn't abandon my blog when I mentioned my love for The Avengers, The Lord of the Rings, and Joss Whedon. However, I will discuss elements of writing so hang on.
Due to equally geeky friends, I have been encouraged in recent weeks to watch the Nickelodeon kids' TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have to say, I really enjoyed it - it was as good as I was told. The story is epic (actually reminded me of a children's LOTR in several episodes), intricate and well-told. The best part was the vibrant characters. After watching the series, I watched M. Night Shyamalan live-action film The Last Airbender, widely acknowledged by fans of the TV show as a terrible movie. I had first seen the film before watching the series, so I wanted to understand why it was so painful to watch.
I understand now. Watching the film, it felt like something was lacking. After giving it some thought, I figured out why that was: the TV show is character-driven, but the film is made by an artist who excels at telling plot-driven stories.
Shyamalan is an excellent filmmaker - Signs and The Sixth Sense are classics. He is a master at the plot-driven film, the movie you watch not to necessarily see character development but because you know you're going to get blindsided with some revelation before the end (think Sixth Sense). Quick definition: plot-driven stories are ones where the main point of the story is the plot. What happens, rather than who it happens to. They ask, "What if the world were like this? What would happen?" whereas character-driven stories ask, "If this happened, how would this person react? What would happen as a result of that character's actions?" My personal rule of thumb for telling the two apart is if I find myself caring more about finding out what's about to happen next than what the characters do, it's plot-driven.
Plot-driven is excellent for suspense - you're supposed to care more about what's about to happen because a good suspense storyteller can put you in the place of the protagonist. I don't think anyone will argue that Shyamalan is no good at the suspense film. The problem with The Last Airbender is it based on a series that is character-driven, but made by a man who does plot-driven stories. Thus, in the film the power of the characters in the TV show are sacrificed to make way for the plot. Aang isn't as energetic and peace-loving. Katara loses her fight. Sokka's not nearly as funny. And, though I can't believe I'm saying this, Zuko isn't angry enough. Fans never watched the series for the plot, since from the first two episodes you know exactly how the show is going to end. They watched it for the characters, so when those characters appeared in the film as pale and weakened versions of themselves, they rejected the movie.
I'm not going to bash on the film. As it stands alone, it's not too bad. But it could have been better if a writer/producer who typically writes character-driven stories had taken on the project. M. Night Shyamalan, sadly, was not in his element in this case. And for those of you familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, the pun in the last sentence was totally intended.