Help me stop being Shyamalan
November 22, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Why is the script for The Last Airbender movie so bad?

I write stories which I put on the interwebs. Some of them get loads of five stars and glowing reviews, while others get two stars and crappy reviews. I cannot for the life of me figure out what I am doing differently in the stories that people love and the stories that people hate.

I just watched The Last Airbender movie and I realized that I am Shyamalan. Both of us can do good stuff and awful stuff and we can't seem to tell the difference between which one we are doing. I realized that although I thought the script for The Last Airbender was abysmally awful, I cannot figure out why. So in order to learn how to stop writing my crappy stories, I would like to figure out just what it is exactly that separates Shyamalan's worst (The Last Airbender) from his best (The Sixth Sense).

I am basically trying to figure out where that script went wrong so I know what not to do. Can anyone tell me?
posted by giggleknickers to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't seen The Last Airbender and likely never will, so I can't help you there. But, you might be interested in these videos about Attack of the Clones. The guy is able to articulate exactly why the movie sucks so much (about why it's unbelievable, why you don't care about any of the characters like you do in the original movies, and what, particularly, sucks about how it's written), and you might find something of value in it. You can disregard the whole har-har-serial-killer thing in it.
posted by phunniemee at 9:44 AM on November 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

The dialogue is HORRIBLE. There are lines like “They believe in what they believe in as much as we believe in our beliefs!” and “Again, I offer my condolences on your nephew burning to death in that terrible accident.” You don't know whether to laugh out loud or sit in stunned disbelief at how many people read those lines and gave them the thumbs-up.
posted by GaelFC at 9:47 AM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading TV Tropes tends to point out a lot of the choices that were made in the writing. The existence of most tropes won't tell you that there is something wrong per se, but understanding the tropes helps you understand what mechanics the writers used to tell the story.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:47 AM on November 22, 2010

Have you tried reading reviews of the movie?
posted by nomadicink at 9:49 AM on November 22, 2010

I write stories which I put on the interwebs. Some of them get loads of five stars and glowing reviews, while others get two stars and crappy reviews.

How constructive are these reviews? My guess is that most of them are not constructive - most reviews I see of fiction posted on the web is of the "Wow, I loved your story!" or "This was dumb you suck" variety, and neither of those is helpful. And if you have different people reviewing stories all the time, that's not necessarily helpful, either.

I think you should join a formal group, whether it's an in-person group or an online one, or both. Finding (or creating) the right group can take time. You want people who can actually tell you why your story sucked, what about it was good, and how to make more of the good and less of the bad. This isn't easy, which is why most readers of web fiction stick with "I loved your story!" or "Meh. This sucked."

(I'm obviously more answering your "I can't figure out why" question and less "What was wrong with Airbender?" Feel free to flag if this is unhelpful or off-topic.)
posted by rtha at 9:51 AM on November 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Shyamalan is a Hollywood insider whose movies consistently earn money, and in this case, he was working from an already-popular property whose fanbase (read: children) do not read reviews.

Hence, he faced little oversight in this case.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:53 AM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

You also might consider joining a group like Critique Circle, which encourages people to offer detailed reviews. I found that while at least half of them don't really help, the half that do are definitely worth the time.

I've also found that articulating why something bothers me is almost more helpful than having someone critique my writing. So I think you're definitely on the right track with trying to learn why you like the stuff you like.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:54 AM on November 22, 2010

IMO, Shyamalan did one fatal thing: he ignored the source material. For a show like Avatar, where the entire medium, mythos and aesthetic revolves around the rich cultures that each Nation is based on, it's absurd to throw that all away in favor of making something "more cinematic", which, IIRC, Shyamalan claimed he was trying to do. He is woefully guilty of conducting little to no research into both the show's roots, and the show's delivery. This is Americanized-Anime we're talking about here. There should have been a great deal of slapstick comedy and goofy plot points to give the serious parts more meat.

And don't get me started on the RaceBending.
posted by patronuscharms at 9:56 AM on November 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Crap, sent too quickly. I meant to say that in ignoring the heart of the show, Shyamalan failed at adapting the story and completely alienated his primary potential fanbase.

Also, he's kind become a big, self-important doofus. I like to bring that up in these discussions as I really do feel that has an effect on his inability to tell quality stories nowadays.
posted by patronuscharms at 9:58 AM on November 22, 2010

It seems to me like a lot of the problems with The Last Airbender can be boiled down to: Show, Don't Tell.

Clearly adapting a 10-hr series into 2 hrs of movie was just Too Much - too many relationships, too much worldbuilding, too many plot points that have to be slotted into a couple acts worth of footage. Expositions is a fast way to get this sort of storytelling done, but it's boring for the reader or viewer, and it creates ridiculous lifeless dialogue like "There is a very spiritual place. The city was built around this place."
posted by muddgirl at 9:58 AM on November 22, 2010

I've heard Norman Jewison go on at length about that it's hard to know while you're working on a movie, what a general audience's reaction will be. He was talking about how some festival audiences walked out on Moonstruck.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:03 AM on November 22, 2010

I had a classics prof who once said that most of human history can be attributed to Hungry Dudes in the Hills vs Fat Dudes in the Valley. That is, civilization is a clash of lean, ambitious types with very little trying to take what they can from established, settled types with plenty. The Valleyfolks do whatever they can to keep the Hillfolks out, but eventually they'll fail and the Hillfolk will take over, thus beginning their transformation into Valleyfolk themselves and the cycle begins anew.

The MNS that wrote The Sixth Sense was Hillfolk. He was lean and hungry. The one who wrote Airbender is Valleyfolk, lazy with plenty.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:06 AM on November 22, 2010 [21 favorites]

This page contains some notes from David Mamet directed at series writers of The Unit, and reads like a checklist of what makes shows like CSI unwatchable garbage. I think you'll find a lot of what he has to say applies to Shamalyan's work as well.

In many respects, I think Mamet doesn't go far enough - he notes that whenever two people are talking about a third, that scene is garbage, but he doesn't note that whenever one person is alone and talking about another person who isn't even there, that scene is likely to be complete swill, because non-crazy humans just don't do that.
posted by mhoye at 10:14 AM on November 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think there's no straight and simple answer we can give you.

The similarities between you and Mr. Shyamalan may be nonexistent.

I notice that in his movies sometimes suffer from poor character dialogue.

You might have great dialogue in your writings, but fail in some other place. Such as pacing.

I think what's most important is to stop trying to please everyone. Be proud of your work.

Until companies start paying you buckets of money for it, the only say in the worth of your stories is you.
posted by royalsong at 10:17 AM on November 22, 2010

Almost no one really has a reliable crap detector to filter out the times when they're being selfindulgent or pompous (lady in the water) or married to an unworkable idea like adapting a long episodic cartoon into an epic action movie. The trick is having someone who will call you out when necessary, and being willing to listen to them. Writers like Stephen King or Anne Rice have a problem with getting so big that they no longer have to listen to their editors.
posted by Jeanne at 10:22 AM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think Jeanne nails the easiest thing you can do w/r/t your fear of writing poorly: get a good editor, or someone whose opinion you trust with whom to bounce ideas around. There are so many writers/artists whose early works are so good who turn to crap the second they don't have to fight to get their works produced: in addition to Stephen King and Anne Rice, you could add JK Rowling, George Lucas, Martin Scorcese, Coppola, Tim Burton, etc. etc. to that list.

Stories don't have to come fully-formed out of the head of Zeus. The best works require lots of time and drafts. There is something to be said of collaborating with people who also care about the work and who are willing to tell you when your ideas stink.
posted by nushustu at 10:42 AM on November 22, 2010

I thought this article at (believe it or not) covered most of the things that seemed wrong with the film, much of which comes down to ignoring the source material as far as I'm concerned. You have to scroll down a bit, because the article begins with a series of images... though, considering your question, you might get a kick out of those.
posted by juliplease at 10:48 AM on November 22, 2010

There are a lot of problems with the script for The Last Airbender. Among them are:

(1) A complete inability to organically integrate exposition. The characters are given dialog that makes no sense except as a means to deliver information, whether that be backstory for the world and characters or the nature of the current conflict or the characters' own motivations. The exposition is not only artless, framed in dialog that sounds stiff and unnatural -- it feels arbitrarily tacked on as well. Characters deliver huge dumps of information with little to no motivation, aside from its necessity to the plot. It's thoughtless (more on that in a moment) and sloppy.

A perfect example of this is the scene where Iroh suggests they could stay in the Earth Kingdom and start a new life, and to illustrate his objections to that plan, Zuko calls over a random boy in a tavern to help tell the story of his own banishment. From Shyamalan's perspective, this scene needed to happen so that we would learn about Zuko's backstory and motivation. But what about Zuko's perspective? Iroh was at the Agni Ki duel, and has accompanied Zuko on his quest to find the Avatar ever since. Iroh knows more about Zuko's banishment than anyone else, save Zuko himself, and the two of them have a very close relationship with each other. In response to Iroh's suggestion to settle down with a pretty girl, all Zuko would have had to say is something like, "I can think about pretty girls after I find the Avatar," and Iroh would have understood exactly what he meant.

In the original show, we find out about Zuko's backstory when Iroh explains it to members of Zuko's crew who don't know the details of what happened to him. It isn't that you can't ever have a character explain that sort of thing -- they just need to have a believable reason for doing son.

(2) Thoughtlessness on pretty much every front. Things happen for superficially obvious reasons, but their logic rarely holds up to any kind of scrutiny. The previously mentioned unmotivated info-dumps are one sort of thoughtlessness, but that barely scratches the surface. Frequently, events happen for no reason other than their necessity to the plot; changes are made to the world and magic system with no regard for the consequent damage to their consistency or believability; even the bending itself seems wholly disconnected from its effect, where the physical movements of the characters and the behavior of the elements they're controlling appear to have almost no relationship to each other.

I could go on about this for hours, but some examples: If the Firebenders can't bend without a pre-existing source of flame, how could they have nearly defeated the Northern Water Tribe -- why didn't the Waterbenders just put out the fires, or sink the flaming cages down into the ice? Why did a village of Earthbenders sit on their hands for decades surrounded by dirt and stone, only to effectively repel their Fire Nation oppressors after a few lines of dialog encouraging them? Why would Sokka and Katara's grandmother have to explain the nature of the Spirit World to them -- wouldn't they already know, as young adults participating in the culture that reveres those spirits? Why is Zhao constantly traveling back to the Fire Nation to speak to Ozai in person -- wouldn't those weeks at sea be better spent actually leading his men and continuing the war effort? Why does Katara so immediately attach herself to Aang, to the point where she'll leave behind everything and everyone she's known from birth in order to help him, after what amounts to a few hours of dragging his unconscious body around and maybe a paragraph of dialog exchanged between them? Sure, her grandmother tells her and Sokka that Aang is probably the Avatar, but Katara was dead set on going after Aang before that conversation happened.

Nearly all scripts have to take a couple of shortcuts like this, usually for the sake of pacing or brevity. But The Last Airbender is almost entirely composed of such shortcuts, and this makes it nearly impossible to invest yourself in the narrative or the characters -- if the characters' behavior is unmotivated and nonsensical, why should we care about them?

(3) Terrible editing decisions. The original script was much longer than what we see in the finished film, so it's understandable that he had to trim it down. But instead of reworking the story at a structural level so that it would flow properly in its condensed form, he just took huge chunks of it out and pasted over the gaps with badly written voiceovers. Revision is really difficult, but it's essential -- cutting corners leads to a poorly-paced, badly-structured screenplay. Shyamalan lacked either the time or the talent to do it properly.

(4) Arrogance. Within the industry, Shyamalan is notoriously in love with his own brilliance. He views himself as a misunderstood genius, whose talent and vision sometimes goes unappreciated by the masses. He didn't respect the source material -- his interviews describe A:TLA as being riddled with fart jokes and ripped-off fight scenes, a kiddie show with lots of potential which he would magnanimously help realize, as opposed to a really brilliant narrative which he was translating into another format. He doesn't think that he needs another pair of eyes and another brain to help him whip his screenplay into shape. Any number of writers (including the writing staff for the original show) would have been more than happy to help him with the undeniably difficult task of condensing a season of television into a fantastic screenplay, but he never asked them to. He's a George Lucas without a franchise of his own, trying instead to shanghai someone else's.

No one is so good that they don't need help. Especially not someone whose track record is as uneven as Shyamalan's.

To Sum Up: the fact that you're even asking this question, and acknowledging that there are areas where you need some help, makes you a better writer than Shyamalan.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:30 AM on November 22, 2010 [21 favorites]

Wow, weird -- I was about to chime in with what I thought would be an original suggestion, only to find not only was I beaten to it, but it was the very first comment!

The link phunniemee gives is really funny, but it's not just fanboy nitpicking: The guy gives a surprisingly insightful look at *why* TPM (and, subsequently, the other two) stunk. He takes you back and forth between the the movies that stunk, and the ones that didn't, and compares and contrasts. It's actually pretty educational.

- jc
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:06 PM on November 22, 2010

I just finished watching the movie. And yes, I watched the show all the way through and watched the movie partly because I wanted to see how bad it is.

The main thing you should keep in mind is this. The dud wrote it like he had a 3 year old tell him what happened in the story and went totally based on that. I was confused about things that were going on because of how choppy the plot is.

Make your plot clear. People have to have a reason for doing something or saying something. That reason needs to make sense in the world of the story. Hell, flashback dreams would have been a large improvement.
posted by theichibun at 5:51 PM on November 22, 2010

Ugh okay, I'll give those Star Wars videos another go. I had to turn it off when it got to the second scene of torturing scantily clad women. I don't suppose there is a version with the whole "LOL sexualized violence against women" edited out, is there?
posted by giggleknickers at 7:49 PM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't suppose there is a version with the whole "LOL sexualized violence against women" edited out, is there?

Not that I know of. I'm not really a fan of them myself, but I think that the guy is doing something at least a little bit interesting with them. He has a trailer for his episode 3 review out now, and it appears that the girl he's keeping locked up in her basement is coming back for revenge. It's really strange but for some reason he's managed to put an entire separate story with complete character arcs into his reviews. It seems out of place, but it feels less random torture porn and more purposeful as his reviews go on.
posted by nushustu at 12:03 PM on November 23, 2010

check out creative screenwriting's podcasts, they ask the writers good nitty-gritty questions about their process and how things work (and don't work).
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 12:06 PM on November 23, 2010

oh, actually, I agree with you about that. The guy drags that thing out way too much for my tastes. Maybe you could fast forward past those parts.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 2:29 PM on November 23, 2010

(There was this thread from May that asked a similar question, from a filmgoer's point of view. My view on "high/low expectations" ended the thread.)

How do you feel about your scripts? Do you like them all pretty consistently? Are there some you just kind of churn out? Are there ones that you feel are spot-on, but get a lackluster response? Do all of your negative reviews just seem baseless to you? Do you get a wide range of readers?

I'm not sure I've had a negative opinion of a movie but not been able to articulate why. Is your opinion of Airbender negative just because that's the general reception of it (and vice versa with Sixth Sense)?

I don't know if "It was intended for kids" is an excuse for a lousy product. There are tons of terrible "grown-up" movies.

Sometimes "They focused too much on special effects" is another convenient reason given, but again, there are movies with no effects at all that still have terrible stories/acting/dialogue.

Lack of faithfulness to source material. I loathed the live-action Transformers, but it wasn't because Bay didn't give a crap about the cartoon. It was the bad plot and characterization (for starters).

Zack Snyder was a fan of "Watchmen," and the film was about as faithful as you could be, but even he got ripped by some of the fanboy community. Jon Favreau was an Iron Man fan, and the first movie got rave reviews, but the sequel didn't. Same guy directed both.

Often it just boils down to lack of effort and/or talent. Sometimes you put out work you're not thrilled with just because you need to put out work. Who knows what Shyamalan really thought of Airbender. Maybe he's really proud of everything he's done, but his innate talent only allowed for a couple of great films.

I think the difference is, he's an individual. Individuals all have different tastes. But it's hard to know what audiences as a whole will like. If I'd had final say on (Jim Cameron's) Avatar, it never would've gotten made.

But there are general principles of what makes for "quality" filmmaking, and learning them comes from experience, trial and error, reading "how-to" books (and Metafilter), listening to interviews, etc. And people will say you only learn from watching movies and reading other scripts, but... if you don't know what makes something good, it only does so much.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:52 PM on November 23, 2010

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