The Problem with Live Action Adaptations in Hollywood

Aang is not white

First name: 安昂 Last name: Brown… Wait, what?

Most of us tend to despise live action adaptations of the anime/manga and cartoons we love, mostly because there is always something wrong with them. Whether it be adaptation decay, whitewashing, miscasting, character derailment… you name it. Most of the live action adaptations I’ve ever hated come from Hollywood because they usually combine all of these elements into one big clusterfuck of fail.

Do not proceed if you are a white supremacist, a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, or if you enjoyed most of his movies that are not The Sixth Sense.

Dragon Ball

Written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama in 1984, Dragon Ball was an adventure series that was heavily based on the Chinese story Journey to the West during the first several chapters. During the manga’s run, the story has changed from adventure to martial arts to science fiction while still maintaining a quirky sense of humor found in most of Toriyama’s works.

In the recent decade, a couple of self-proclaimed “fans” decided to direct a movie based off of this memorable Japanese manga… entitled Dragon Ball Evolution.

You guys all probably know a lot about Son Goku by now. Strongest being in the Dragon Ball universe, brawny but still a child at heart. Before we find out he’s an alien from another planet inhabited by the strongest race of people in the universe, he was just some strange human boy raised in the forest, with immense strength that would make the majority of sumo wrestlers piss their mawashi.

Somehow, the people behind the making of Dragon Ball Evolution decided to shoehorn Goku into a high school setting in order to have a cheesy romance develop with his future wife (in the manga) Chi-Chi. They also give him confidence problems such as being the target of bullying and rather unusual name calling. The problem is, they never explain why Goku is being picked on in school – HE LOOKS AND DRESSES THE SAME AS EVERYONE ELSE! And when you think about it, this is Goku. Goku! He shouldn’t be the type of person who would give a shit if he gets his bike stolen or something. He can easily kick anyone’s ass in his weakest state (him at the beginning of the manga).

Not to mention, he’s someone who is socially inept when it comes to anything other than fighting, so he really shouldn’t get these kinds of confidence problems because he would just shrug it off. The person who decided to cast GOKU as a scrawny teenage boy with self-confidence problems was most likely sniffing something unholy during the production.

Who the fuck are you?!

You do not look like Goku simply by spiking up your hair, kid.

Goku vs. Superman

One of the gripes people have against the movie is the fact that Goku is played by a Caucasian actor instead of an Asian one. This is usually refuted with the “Goku isn’t a specific race, he’s an alien!” claim.

Very good point, but I neither agree or disagree with people wanting Son Goku to be played by an Asian actor. Honestly, is him being an alien a really good excuse to cast him as a Cacausian? I know plenty of people would get pretty pissed if Superman were to be cast as an Asian guy. Are we forgetting that Superman’s an alien too? The fact that Dragon Ball was initially based on Journey to the West, a Chinese story, and Goku being modeled from Sun Wukong, a Chinese character (whose Japanese name is Goku)… it makes much more sense if he was cast with a Chinese actor. Just my two cents.

This character derailment is only part of the reason why the movie was bad. Guess how much the rest of the movie sucked. =D

Avatar is totally not Asian
The Last Airbender… Even though the source material, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is not exactly an anime, the creators took heavy influence on East Asian and Inuit cultures and created a “fantastical Asian world” (as described by Nickelodeon). Not only that, they made sure that the cultural elements in the show were accurate to their real-life counterparts. The story and characters were also very colorful, and proved that a cartoon doesn’t have to be made in Japan to have a certain amount of depth to it.

The movie adaptation, on the other hand, took all of the good things that made the psuedo-anime series a cult hit and threw it all out in favor of whitewashing the lead characters and churning out a story you can only get from watching only three episodes of the show.

What a disaster.

I admit, I’m afraid to even watch the movie because of the 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I’ll take their word for it after reading detailed comparisons and summaries of the movie written by avid fans. From what I’ve heard, the only thing good about the movie are the fancy effects, which is a bad reason to watch a movie. If the script is terrible, if the movie is a failed adaptation of a beloved cartoon series, if the acting is a lifeless performance, and if the movie is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, I refuse to watch it.

Apparently, the dark-skinned Inuits (Katara and Sokka) were white people in the movie, the Chinese and Japanese-inspired villains of the movie (the Fire Nation) were either Indian or Middle Eastern, the only East Asian actors you see are background characters (the prisoners and stuff…), and the main character with the appearance of a Buddhist monk and the Chinese name “Aang” in the cartoon is played by a white boy in the movie. Before anyone accuses me of anything, I’m not exactly being racist myself here, seeing as the acting was considered bad as soon as the movie was released in theaters and I doubt the actors were chosen because of their skill. Are you honestly telling me that these Caucasian actors were more suited to play an Asian role than actual Asians? White people portray Inuits better than Inuits? wut?

One argument would be that this is a fantasy world, and therefore, the characters aren’t really Asians. Yet, this is telling me, fantasy world = “Whites saving the Asians in an Asian-inspired movie while fighting against the colored folks”. Yes, Prince Zuko does a Heel Face Turn later in the series and is pretty badass, but he’s played by an Indian (South Asian)… Take a wild guess at the director’s ethnic background. And the director claims that Zuko will be the REAL hero of the series. Of course.

Really, everything in the series points to Avatar being set in a “fantastical Asian world”. I don’t see how you can get “white” from that… unless it’s in Hollywood (see: 21). Ohandbtw, the casting call was “Looking for Caucasians and any other race.”


Death Note Live Action

If Hollywood even thinks about touching Death Note, riots will ensue.

Let me ask you Fullmetal Alchemist fans something: Would you be satisfied if they made a live adaptation of a European-inspired series in Asia? I thought not. There always seems to be a double standard when it comes to Asian American actors in Hollywood, and frankly (as an Asian), I’m tired of it.

I could go on to and complain about the Super Mario Bros. movie, but that movie was so bad it was good.

19 thoughts on “The Problem with Live Action Adaptations in Hollywood”

  1. Woah, for a second I thought Super Mario Bros. was fake until I searched it up @_@

    I have got to watch that.

    The problem with Hollywood, IMO, is that Americans don’t really watch non-American movies. They’re used to the same old “White guy kills people with a gun and has [censored] with white chick”, so they can’t really “accept” an Asian film. Even Jackie Chan is in Western scenarios; his first movies were yeah, kung fu, epicness, and now most/all of his movies are Western comedies. :/

  2. The Airbender movie isn’t as bad as it seems. Not perfect, by any stretch, but not horrible. “Meh” is probably a good description, but the effects were very good.

    I agree with the complaints about Sokka’s and Kitara’s race, but Shyamalan does try to inject a reasoning for that by making their grandmother and pretty much all of the Northern Water Tribe white as well, although he does leave out the reveal that their grandmother is from the NWT… Frankly I don’t see why they couldn’t split the middle and make the sibs biracial-looking
    (lots of good Hispanic actors out there) and the NWT a little less whitewashed. The fact that he singled out Nicola Peltz as Katara before casting even began probably initiated the whole mess, and since she was probably the worst actor of the bunch (contrary to popular net opinion, the guy playing Sokka was actually pretty good, but in a weak role), I can’t really defend him for that.

    As for Aang, I personally think his white casting was a decent idea, and fed on a little theory that had been hinted at in the series but is more or less confirmed as true for the movie. In the movie, as in the series, all Air Nomads are also airbenders. This is completely not the case for the other three countries, as there are benders and muggles present. May took this as evidence that the airenders are more mystical and closer to [insert source of bending here], but I personally took it as those showing airbending talent being selected from the other kingdoms (perhaps by wandering airbending masters) when they show that talent. They’re called the Air Nomads, and yet we clearly see that they have two permanent “homes”, and we never see any kind of familial structure. In the movie this appears more explicit, as there are mulitracial airbending acolytes and masters, and Aang’s master (forget his name) is black. If that is your basis for the Air Nomads, then any race is okay, and the inclusion of a few “token white guys” is arguably warranted…

    As for the absence of East Asian races, that shouldn’t be an issue for the next movie. All the earthbenders we see in this one are East Asian, it’s just with the compressed storyline, that is limited to the prisoner breakout scene. As long as Toph is some cute Asian girl, I see this as a non-issue.

    All the Fire Nation characters are awesome, though (after a little narmishness by Zuko at the beginning, which was admittedly similar to his series debut), and sufficiently racially homogenized. If your inner conspiracy theorist wants to chalk that up to them being of similar race to the director, then so be it.

    If you liked the series, I recommend seeing it as a “slightly different take” (there are more core differences than racial casting), or at least Netflix it when it hits BD/DVD. Just don’t see it in 3D. Biggest waste of money in my life…

  3. @Mushyrulez: Jackie Chan’s Chinese movies are still pretty good. I tend to stay away from his American flicks (except for Rush Hour).
    People need to remember that America IS NOT a white country, it was built on a mix of races and cultures. We shouldn’t need to go to Asia just to see Asians get good roles in good movies, right? What really constitutes as an “American” movie? We, as Americans, really need to think about that.
    Super Mario Bros. is worth a watch for kicks. xD

    quigonkenny: Being an East Asian, the fact that the movie is diverse ASIDE from the main leads bothers me due to how Asian Americans are usually treated within Hollywood. Can’t deny that the background characters are pretty diverse, but all the heroes are white people who were originally Asian in the cartoon, saving the Asian people in the movie. It would really just be a thought in the back of my head if it wasn’t for the fact that they were specifically looking for Caucasians for those roles. That seems pretty racist to me, and in my opinion, racism can’t really be “justified”. If they really wanted diversity, don’t focus that aspect on just the background characters, focus that aspect on the heroes too…. or don’t adapt Avatar, a “fantastical Asian world”.
    (Not really trying to accuse M. Night of anything particular, but it is a pretty amusing coincidence that the only “Asian/non-white” that would join the protagonists’ side is the director’s very own race, not to mention M. Night also said he’s excited to give a ton of focus on Zuko in the upcoming movies. I’m not going any further than that, but if anyone wants to make something of it, be my guest.)
    Let’s just agree to disagree, however, I still won’t be watching the movie. I’ve already gone to the theaters and watched an excellent movie today, Inception, and The Last Airbender will really look more horrible than it is if I watch it right after… I’ve heard that pretty much all the humor and personalities are sucked out in the movie, so I figure I wouldn’t enjoy it regardless, since that’s what made the TV series for me. To be honest, even though the casting gives me bad memories of 21, the casting isn’t the only reason I refuse to watch the movie and potentially waste my money (and time xD), which I lack a lot of in the first place.

    lol, if I ever change my mind, I won’t be watching it in 3D, certainly. I’ve already heard that it made no difference besides the beginning and end. o_o

  4. Agreed! For certain adaptations, I would not mind a caucasian cast, but for Avatar, I thought it should have had an Asian male lead. The story is clearly flavored after Buddhist/ Taoist ideas. The characters and designs have heavy Asian influences. I just think it might be nice if the director kept the feel consistent by casting.

    Of course, that isn’t the only thing wrong with this movie. I felt really bad about paying for 3D after I watched it. 🙁

  5. @Yi: Yeah. Besides the horrible taste the movie generally left in my mouth, I didn’t mind the Caucasian casting for Dragon Ball Evolution. The only other thing it needed was to be…well, faithful and good.
    It’s one thing to cast Dragon Ball‘s characters as white, and another thing to cast Avatar, of all movies, like that. Some of the things that made the cartoon good would have translated well into live action form if they stuck to its origins a little better, whitewashing or not. ):
    And aw, hope you still have enough money for Inception though (recommended!). Very thought-provoking film and has a lot of action. xD

  6. crap sorry for double post

    “lol, if I ever change my mind, I won’t be watching it in 3D, certainly. I’ve already heard that it made no difference besides the beginning and end. o_o”

    we watched it in 3D and the only 3D there was the subtitles… X_X

  7. @baka~: Oh well. I guess a white guy being called Light Yagami would be the most funniest thing ever… 😛
    I can understand Cowboy Bebop, but why Death Note of all things? That’s just screaming whitewash right there, or casting other Asians as the Japanese (:rolleyes:)… Unless they film it in Japan and have English subtitles, but that’s highly unlikely for Hollywood. Oh well, let’s hope that everything else is good.
    Also, extreme The Last Airbender in Avatar ftw! xD

  8. I guess very rich people would like to waste away their money, riding on the popularity of various media produced nowadays, only to make a s***tload of fail adaptation. If you’ll look up Nostalgia Critic’s review of Street Fighter the movie as well as Mortal Kombat in youtube or google, there will always be a pattern on how western adaptations fail X_X

    as my friend said, The Last Airbender should’ve been entitled “The Last M.Night Shyamalan” Movie XD

  9. @baka~: What a fitting name…lol
    Never understood that mindset with the people that shell out money for bad adaptations. One would think they would get more money if people hear it’s a good money instead of a couple thousand people going to the movie, telling their friends it was horrible, and getting less.
    Then again, some people have really bad taste. A certain psuedo vampire flick gets more money than it deserves… As a teenager, who knew my female counterparts could be so easily warped?! D:

  10. If i’m guessing it right about this “pseudo vampire flick”, a friend once mentioned that its popularity might’ve been influenced by a boom in teen angst… well, i never really watched that movie so i could never understand his point but if anything, just by observing local fans in my country, that movie was very much overrated *facepalm*

  11. @baka~: From what I’ve seen from the movie when I was forced to watch it in class (GOD), your friend pretty much summed up its popularity in those very words. 😛

  12. @baka~: Actually, Mortal Kombat was entirely Anerican from the beginning (the game was created by Midway for the US), with primarily (one) white guy(s) in masks and makeup as the character models (except for the women, Liu Kang, and Shang Tsung), since that’s what they had to work with. And the actors for the lead character and main villain in the first movie were both Asian. And it wasn’t bad (certainly better that either of the Street Fighter adaptations).

    Of course the second one was probably one of the worst movies of all time (right down there with Highlander 2 and Crow: City of Angels), and had a white dude playing a maskless Shao Khan, so you might be on to something… ^_^

  13. @quigonkenny: I think he was talking about Western adaptations in general (regardless of source material). Otherwise, I would have scratched my head too. xD
    Yeah, the first Mortal Combat movie was actually pretty good. It wasn’t until the sequel that the movie series started to be shit. xD I hated how they killed off Johnny Cage immediately…

  14. @quigonkenny: The race-casting was the only thing they did right if we’re talking about street fighter and mortal kombat (except for mk2?) and as Mikoto says, i’m talking about western adaptations in general.

    remember dead or alive? it could’ve been better but ayane had just to wear a wig and one of my friends complained on how the boobs weren’t real *facepalm* and quite recently, we noticed a poster of tekken the movie. we were like “wtf! jin had his hair straightened?!” but as far as tekken was concerned, we have to wait and see for positive reviews before we head out and watch it.

  15. Personally I haven’t got any gripes with casting anime characters as white. After all the cartoon figures are stylized to such an extent that it’s difficult to perceive them as any particular race through looks.

    ATLA is another case, since there’s a clear distinction between races there.

  16. @Grimmer: Well, it’s not just appearance, but the way the characters eat and dress too. Inspirations are pretty important also. Dragon Ball was initially based on a Chinese story, after all. I don’t have any gripes on casting him with another race either – he is an alien, after all. As long as he isn’t miscast with a guy that doesn’t fit the part of “Goku”… which unfortunately happened. 😛
    I mean, unless they’re exclusively looking for Caucasians or something to be the heroes, which is the case with TLA.

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