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Real-Life Event that Inspired ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

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Avatar: The Last Airbender is a masterful work of fantasy fiction. The creators of this show met at school and shared a dream of creating a hit animated TV show. They collaborated with Nickelodeon but needed an idea for a show that was incredible and appropriate for children. However, it was a real-life event that ended up being the initial inspiration for Avatar.

How Aang, Appa, and Momo came into existence

The creators of Avatar, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, started with creating the idea of the show by sketching various concepts and just putting them on the table. In the documentary Avatar Spirits, DiMartino recalled:
We spread out all of our ideas on the table … and one of the drawings was something Bryan had done.
Real-Life Event that Inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender
Wikimedia Commons
The sketch was of a young, bald boy with two companions. One of them was a cyclops robot monkey with an arrow on his head, and the other was a polar bear dog that could walk upright on its hind legs. You can see the image forming now, the robot monkey ended up becoming Momo and the polar bear dog ended up becoming Appa. And the arrow? They decided to put it on the young, bald boy instead, making him Avatar Aang, the Last Airbender.

Now that the characters were visually drawn, it was time to give them a back story. And that’s where the writers took inspiration from a real-life event

The Antarctica expedition that inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender

Real-Life Event that Inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender
Nickelodeon ©

When thinking about the story that would get the Avatar: The Last Airbender kicking, he thought of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition on the Endurance. Shackleton led several expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s. However, the element of survival from his stories is what truly inspired DiMartino. For example, in 1915, the Endurance sank in Antarctica, leaving 28 crew members stranded. However, the crew did not give up and journeyed by foot for months until they were rescued. The best part was that all 28 of the crew members survived. DiMartino said in the Avatar Spirits documentary:

I had been watching documentaries about Shackleton’s crazy Antarctic expedition. And the ship getting caught in the ice and all these guys surviving against all odds.

Such an incredible drive for survival in the harshest climates on Earth inspired DiMartino and Konietzko. Konietzko was doing yoga, completely drenched in sweat when he thought of merging the story of the bald kid with the crew members of the Endurance. And the merging of the two stories was clear as night and day in the pilot episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, ‘The Boy in the Iceberg’. Katara and Sokka discovered Aang, who against all odds, survived in an iceberg for a century because of the Avatar State. It’s a lot like how Shackleton’s crew marched for months with the will to survive.

Such an amazing start paved the way for the rest of the series

Moreover, this is a testament to good writing. It shows how the writer molded a story of perseverance, that wouldn’t be of interest to children, into a series that resonates with the audience to this day and for many years to come. All DiMartino and Konietzko needed was a strong start, and they sure did get one. And later on, they built on it masterfully, not only creating an incredible children’s show but also one of the greatest shows ever made.

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