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30 December 2004




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Frankenstein's Earthsea

by Ursula K. Le Guin

For people who wonder "why I let them" make the miniseries Legends of Earthsea, here's some background.

The producers approached us (my dramatic agency at that time was William Morris) with a reasonable offer. The contract of course gave me only the standard status of "consultant." That means exactly what the producers want it to mean, almost always little or nothing. But they talked as if they genuinely meant to consult with me when planning the film.

They were talking of using the first two books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. As I'd done a rough script of those books myself with Michael Powell, years ago, and also worked with another scriptwriter to plan his script of A Wizard, I was in a position to be useful to them. I knew some of the difficulties in carrying this story over to film. And some of the possibilities, too — the kind of thing a movie can do that a book can't.

They were talking in terms of a large-scale theater film, with a TV miniseries as a possibility. They said that they had already secured Philippa Boyen (who co-scripted The Lord of the Rings) as principal script writer, and reported that she was eager to work on an Earthsea film. As the script was, to me, all-important, her presence was the key factor in our decision to sell them the option.

Time went by. By the time they got backing from the Sci-Fi Channel for the miniseries and Robert Halmi Sr. had come aboard, they'd lost Boyen.

That was a blow. But I had just seen Mr Halmi's miniseries Dreamtalkers with its stunning Native American cast, so I said hey, maybe Mr Halmi will cast some of those great actors in Earthsea? I was given to understand that he had found it very difficult to work with those people.

Well, I said, you do realise that most of the people in Earthsea are "those people," or anyhow not white?

I don't remember what their answer to that was — it may have used that wonderful weasel word "colorblind" — but it wasn't reassuring, because I do remember saying to my husband, oh, gee, I hope they don't have a honky Ged....

This was in the spring of 2004. They were moving very fast, finally, because if they didn't get into production, they'd lose their rights to the property. I have the record of a couple of friendly e-mail exchanges. I offered a list of name pronunciations, and said that although I knew well that a film must differ greatly from a book, I hoped they were making no unnecessary changes in the plot or to the characters — a dangerous thing to do, since the books have been known to millions of people for over 30 years. To this they replied that they could change the books' story and characters any way they liked, because they reached lots more millions of people than I did.

They then sent me the script and told me that shooting had already begun. In other words, I was out of the process. I'd never been in it.

I withdrew my offered pronunciation guide (so Ogion, which rhymes with bogy-on, is "Oh-jee-on" in the film).

When I saw the script, I realised that what the writer had done was kill the books, cut them up, take out an eye here, a leg there, and stick these bits into a totally different story, stitching it all together with catgut and hokum. They were going to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a silly plot based on sex and violence.

There was nothing I could do about it. There is nothing the book author can do about it: not with the standard Hollywood contract. A lot of people don't know that. Even professional movie reviewers, who should know better, often write as if the book author were responsible for the movie. The very rare exception (such as J.K. Rowling's control over the Harry Potter films) is thought to be the rule. But in most cases, the truth of a film to the book is entirely up to the honor, intelligence, and artistic integrity of the filmmakers.

Larry Landsman, who looks after the book end of things at Sci-Fi Channel, and who was kind and supportive to me throughout the ordeal, sent me an early CD of the film, so I saw it about a month before it was screened.

There was still nothing I could do about it, and I said nothing in public. It seemed mean-spirited to bash the thing before other people had a chance to see it. Anyhow, what's the use whining? Take the money and run, as whoever it is said. Someday, somebody would make a real Earthsea movie....

But then Mr Lieberman, one of the producers, published a statement telling people what "Ursula" (whom he has never met) "intended" by the books.

That changed the situation. They were taking advantage of my silence by sticking words in my mouth. I put a reply on my website, which is still there.

And now that the film's been shown, I can speak freely. But there's still no use whining. Here in Locus, what I want to do is single out three things about the film that I think not only betray the books, but betray fantasy itself — some things we (writers and fans) shouldn't let Hollywood keep doing to us. Some assumptions we shouldn't let Hollywood make.

People who see movies and TV don't read books. People who read books don't watch movies and TV. Therefore nobody will care if the film screws up the book, and if they do care, screw them.

This is so arrogant! Why do we sit and take it?

Fantasy is for kids and morons and people who want easy answers. What happens in a fantasy doesn't need to make sense, because it "isn't real."

Case in point: In the "Earthsea" books the way magic works is quite specific, a matter of language and names; it has rules, which give it a necessary limitation; and the nature of this magic is one of the fundamental metaphors on which the story is built.

There is no sense or coherence to the magic in the film, it's just special FX. The dragons are just monsters, the Old Powers are just Bad. The funniest thing is that the scriptwriter even reversed Ged's true, secret name of power and his nickname — so that poor old Oh-jee-on has to solemnly baptize him as "Sparrowhawk"!

When in the first book, Ged meets his Shadow and they speak each other's true name, it's the climax of the book. In the film, the scene is a pointless wrestling match with a standard-issue monster. It makes no sense. How could it? The world, the events, the values of the film are arbitary and incoherent.

A colored actor or two makes the casting "colorblind" so that everybody else in the cast can be white.

In Earthsea, the Archipelagans are brown, copper-red, black, the much less numerous Kargs are white-skinned with dark or fair hair. Tenar is a Karg, a brunette white person. Ged is an Archipelagan, a redbrown man. Vetch, an Archipelagan, is black.

In the film, Oh-jee-on (Archipelagan) is black, and there are a couple of colored faces in the "Kargide" Army of King Tyvek (I hope I have the king's name right; he's not a character I know). Tenar is played by an actress evidently of partly Asian ancestry, very beautiful. But how did she get there? How did Oh-jee-on get there? What the hell islands are they from?

Oh, come on, it isn't real. It's just a fantasy. It's just a movie. It doesn't matter.

It does matter. It matters a whole lot. I live in a racially bigoted country. From the start, I saw my Earthsea as a deliberate refusal to go along with the prejudice that sees white as the norm, and the fantasy tradition that accepts the prejudice.

If you're white, ask a colored reader of fantasy whether it matters. Ask them how often they found themselves in fantasy books or movies when they were growing up, and how they felt about it.

I'm only sorry it took me to Book Four of Earthsea to be able to refuse the prejudice that sees male as the norm. That matters, too. And in this respect the filmmakers did pretty well, even allowing girls to go to Roke School. One of them's named Penelope. Cool name, huh? Only, maybe the wrong archipelago?

I want to say that I am very sorry for the actors. They all tried really hard. I'm not sorry for myself, or for my books. We're doing fine, thanks. But I am sorry for people who tuned in to the show thinking they were going to see something by me, or about Earthsea. I will try to be more careful in future, and not let either myself or my readers be fooled.

And I am totally grateful to all the people who have got in touch with me to commiserate with me, to curse the filmmakers, to mourn the chance lost, and to tell me: Otaks Rule!

Ursula K. Le Guin

Note: Le Guin has posted a Thank You to the people who wrote her about the Earthsea miniseries.


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