Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Boss Explains Changes From the Original: Heightened Violence, Bumi Battle and More

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” now streaming on Netflix.

A cruel dictator grabs an enemy soldier by the wrist. The soldier’s eyes widen. He lets out a desperate shriek as his skin turns to a crisp — he’s being burned alive. An ashen corpse drops to the ground, and the dictator moves on with ease, ready to discuss war tactics with his men.

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This scene takes place just five minutes into the premiere of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Netflix’s live-adaptation of the Nickelodeon series of the same name that was originally animated, widely acclaimed and, notably, made for children.

“It was really important that we start that way,” says showrunner Albert Kim of the bold move to open his version of the story with such a stark image of Fire Lord Sozin’s (Hiro Kanagawa) brutality. “It’s a very clear signal that this isn’t a note-for-note translation. It’s within the mythology of the original, so fans will know what we’re doing, but we’re going off in a slightly different direction.”

The episode goes on to to depict the how the Hundred Year War began; the original series constantly nodded at the Fire Nation’s genocide against the Air Nomads, but it was never put on screen in such detail. “Showing the Southern Air Temple genocide sets the stakes for our world,” Kim says. “It’s one thing for a 12-year-old kid to say, ‘I have to stop the Fire Nation. It’s another to see what the Fire Nation did to his home, his family and everyone he loves.”

Speaking to Variety, Kim dove deep into “Avatar” lore to unpack these changes and others.

The original “Avatar” is ostensibly a kids’ show, but the violence of the story gets more visceral in live action. Were you targeting a more aged-up audience here? What was your philosophy while writing the more violent sequences?

It wasn’t about aging it up. It was about setting the stakes for this world. One of the things we wanted to do was show how dangerous bending can be. Firebending should feel dangerous; it should feel something that could hurt you. Also, as fans know, the tone of the original series starts shifting in the later seasons. It gets to some pretty dark places, so we had the benefit of hindsight. We knew that the fans understood where the show could go, so we were able to just start off in that place. And I will say, if you watch the rest of the season, I don’t think we go much farther than that. But the most important thing for us, always, was to feel true to the spirit of the original. Every choice we made was run by that litmus test: Does this feel like “Avatar”?

Let’s dive into the lore a bit. In your version, Fire Lord Sozin says that his plan is to wipe out the airbenders before a new Avatar is revealed. Why does he want to kill the Avatar instead of trapping him, since his death will lead to the birth of a new Avatar from the Water Tribes?

This is getting deeper into the mythology than most viewers will know, but there’s usually a gap in time between when an Avatar dies and a new one is born. And there’s a period of time before they are old enough to become the Avatar — typically, they’re told when they’re 16. Sozin is making a calculated gamble as to the window of time he needs to take over the world. There will be a new, reincarnated Avatar, but he’s got time, if he kills this current one, to go on and conquer the world. It’s a tomorrow problem. That’s getting into Sozin’s head a little bit — and whether or not that’s a sound strategy is up for debate. Avatar scholars can debate that.

The thing we wanted to show with the military strategy when we opened the season is Sozin pulling off a bit of misdirection. He makes us think he’s going to attack the Earth Kingdom, and instead, he attacks the Air Nomads. We close the season with Ozai [Daniel Dae Kim] doing the same thing. It’s a little bit of a bookend that we set up.

How did you envision the parts of the war you don’t show on screen? For example, if the Fire Nation thinks they sucessfully wiped out the Air Nomads, how does Zuko know he’s searching for an airbending Avatar instead of a waterbender?

Actually, I’m not sure that he knows. One hundred years have passed, and no one has seen the Avatar in that time. In the writers room, we realized it’s a little like past mythology. It’s lore that’s out there, like, “Oh, the Avatar, is that for real?” Because a few generations have come down now without ever having experienced an Avatar in their lifetime. In the mythology, there is the possibility that the Avatar line can end, so I’m sure scholars in this world have studied it and thought it has ended, or maybe it passed onto another bender, or maybe they’re in hiding.

So when Zuko’s sent out on his quest — this is one of the subtle changes we made — he’s studying the history of the Avatar. You see his notebook, his shelf of figurines. He’s traveled the world researching the cycle of the Avatar and who’s next in line. I think he’s considered the possibility of airbenders, waterbenders, all the way down. He’s not leaving any stone unturned. That’s why he’s so surprised when he sees Aang, because he thinks he may be facing someone like Kyoshi [Yvonne Chapman] or Roku [C.S. Lee], but then comes this 12-year-old Airbender.

This adaptation also offers a different take on King Bumi (Utkarsh Ambudkar). In the original, he’s a goofy old man who essentially plays tricks on Aang to make him realize he’s his old friend from 100 years ago, but here, Bumi reveals himself immediately and is a bit more cynical toward Aang. How did Bumi know Aang was the Avatar if Aang himself didn’t know until right before he got trapped in ice for a century? And why did you add that animosity to their relationship?

Again, 100 years have passed, and Bumi has lived through those 100 years. I think Bumi is someone who has thought a lot about, “Where’s the Avatar? What has happened?” I think he’s done his own research into it and figured things out. Whereas Zuko might have done library research, Bumi was alive during that period. It’s something that he’s figured out, knowing who Aang is, knowing his skills as an airbender.

Something we didn’t show, but that we’re going to, is that Bumi knew Gyatso [Lim Kay Siu] as well, because Gyatso and Aang would visit Omashu together. He knew all this stuff, and he was able to deduce that Aang was the Avatar, but that he’s disappeared. There are hints in the original that he feels like he was abandoned by the Avatar. You’re right. He doesn’t reveal his identity until the end of the episode in the animated series, but that’s a change we made because it helped our storytelling.

avatar the last airbender bumi
avatar the last airbender bumi

How did that help the storytelling?

It helps Aang realize what he’s up against. The original episode is a fun one, with him going through these various challenges. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t work in live-action and for our story. In the original episode, Bumi’s point is to show what Aang needs to go through to become the Avatar, which is part of what we work into our story as well, but the more emotional storyline is what Aang’s departure from the world meant for Bumi. He feels betrayed by his friend.

For Aang, he’s starting to feel the burden of guilt: “This is what happened because I wasn’t around. Not only did this abstract thing happen — the war — but a really good friend of mine was hurt, and I hurt him.” To tell that story, it helped that the two of them knew who each other was right away.

As well as changing some characters, you introduced some new ones, like Yukari (Tamlyn Tomita), mother of Suki (Maria Zhang). What drove that addition? Do you think you’ll continue creating new characters in future seasons?

When you think of Kyoshi Island, you think of a female-centric society, a community built around fearsome female warriors of the island. It seemed to make sense that the leader of the island would be a woman, and when we started to put those pieces together, we realized she should be a former Kyoshi Warrior, and she should be Suki’s mom. I had Tamlyn Tomita in mind from the start; we kind of wrote it for her.

And as for doing that in the future, one of our missions was to fill out the world a little bit as we went along and create some new characters, or tweak the characters that already exist. There’s certain characters who are fairly small in animated series, like Lieutenant Jee [Ruy Iskandar], and we made him a little more consequential in our storytelling. We changed the character of Hahn [Joel Oulette] in the finale. There are things that felt better for us in the live-action version than it would have been for the animated series.

Was there anything you didn’t manage to incorporate from Season 1 of the animated series that you want to explore in the future?

We pulled in elements from Season 2 into this season, so there’s no reason you can’t do the reverse. My biggest regrets in the Season 1 are the stuff we couldn’t include. The original series had so many amazing characters, storylines and scenes that I wish we could have done, but for practical, financial or just storytelling reasons, we couldn’t include.

There’s a great sequence in Roku’s temple when Aang and the gang figure out how to get into the shrine. I would have loved to have done that. We just ran out of resources. We have to make hard decisions along the way, but that’s not to say that we can’t revisit them at some point in the future.

A highlight of the first season has been getting to see Indigenous and Asian actors play these characters that were originally inspired by their cultures. Fans are also excited to see Toph in live-action. Are you committed to casting a blind actor to play her in a potential second season?

Who doesn’t love Toph? She’s amazing. But at the same time, my entire focus has been getting Season 1 across the finish line. All of those questions — which are all important questions — are a problem for tomorrow, rather than now. It’s not like we’ve come to any decisions on any of that stuff. If you’re like me, a little bit superstitious, you don’t want to jump the gun and start thinking about things that might not happen until we see how we do. All my focus has been on making sure that Season 1 is the best it could be so that we actually earn the opportunity to have those conversations.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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