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Both Jonah Hex and The Last Airbender have found themselves being on the receiving end of both lousy reviews and terrible box office attendance recently, which makes me wonder: Do they provide a guide as to what not to do when adapting a property into a movie?
Think about it: Both Airbender and Hex have run afoul of fans of their franchises by making changes for a mainstream movie audience that doesn’t seem that interested in their movies in the first place – Hex gained supernatural powers, and The Last Airbender gained an especially caucasian cast. This strikes me as a decision that’s either surprisingly ballsy or – more likely – the first big mistake. Both changes weren’t minor, like updating Iron Man‘s origin to the modern day Middle East or whatever; removing Airbender‘s multiculturalism takes a large part away from the appeal of the original series, just as adding the supernatural undercuts the (admittedly limited) realism that made Hex such an interesting character in the first place, which raises the question: Why do it?
If there’s one thing that moviemakers should have taken from the success of things like Lord Of The Rings, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies or the Iron Man movies, it’s that fidelity to the source material is the key to success. Not necessarily slavish devotion – That way lies overlong madness, after all – but enough to show to fans that the moviemakers not only understand the material, but understand why the material is so important to the fans. The way I see it, when you’re doing an adaptation of an existing (and, especially, popular – moreso The Last Airbender than Jonah Hex here, admittedly) property, fans are invaluable, both as something resembling a conscience/early warning system, and also as unpaid advance publicity agents – They’re the people who can make others excited about your project, but also the ones who can tell you when you’re messing with the stuff that made you want to make the movie/TV show/video game/whatever in the first place.
It’s in everyone’s best interests to listen to, and in some sense, appease the hardcore fanbase: Just as much as those making the adaptation, the fans want it to be successful – They want others to see what they’ve been excited about, and to make them understand – and they’re willing to help make that happen. I can’t help but feel that, when Airbender fans started (justifiably) freaking out over the casting of the movie, it would’ve been to the movie’s ultimate benefit if the producers had stopped and thought, Wait, why is this a big deal? Maybe if they’d done that, then they might have realized what made the original Avatar: The Last Airbender different, and special, and more than just the cliched special effects engine that its movie version has become doomed as.