Earthsea – Sci-Fi’s Betrayal?

Last weekend The Sci-Fi Channel aired Legend of Earthsea, which was a four-hour film loosely based upon Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea series of books. Legend of Earthsea came across as mediocre fantasy filled with cliche and little diversity and as a terrible interpretation of Le Guin’s books. Missing were the multi-racial faces, the cultural diversity and attenion to social differences that Le Guin took care to include in her books. Also missing was the underlying influence of Taoism, any sense of a coherant story and any clear meaning. It was, in essence, a terrible failure by the production company and the Sci-Fi Channel.
I’d like to point you toward three articles that can explain how this injustice came to be, “Earthsea” (on her official site), “A Whitewashed Earthsea – How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books” and “Earthsea in Clorox”. Below I’d like to share some important pieces of two articles to help defend Ursula K. Le Guin’s work from any misconceptions the Sci-Fi channel has created.

I don’t know what the film is about. It’s full of scenes from the story, arranged differently, in an entirely different plot, so that they make no sense. My protagonist is Ged, a boy with red-brown skin. In the film, he’s a petulant white kid. Readers who’ve been wondering why I “let them change the story” may find some answers here.
When I sold the rights to Earthsea a few years ago, my contract gave me the standard status of “consultant”—which means whatever the producers want it to mean, almost always little or nothing. My agency could not improve this clause. But the purchasers talked as though they genuinely meant to respect the books and to ask for my input when planning the film. They said they had already secured Philippa Boyens (who co-wrote the scripts for The Lord of the Rings) as principal script writer. The script was, to me, all-important, so Boyens’ presence was the key factor in my decision to sell this group the option to the film rights.
Months went by. By the time the producers got backing from the Sci Fi Channel for a miniseries—and another producer, Robert Halmi Sr., had come aboard—they had lost Boyens. That was a blow. But I had just seen Halmi’s miniseries DreamKeeper, which had a stunning Native American cast, and I hoped that Halmi might include some of those great actors in Earthsea.
At this point, things began to move very fast. Early on, the filmmakers contacted me in a friendly fashion, and I responded in kind; I asked if they’d like to have a list of name pronunciations; and I said that although I knew 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 decades. They replied that the TV audience is much larger, and entirely different, and would be unlikely to care about changes to the books’ story and characters.
They then sent me several versions of the script—and told me that shooting had already begun. I had been cut out of the process. And just as quickly, race, which had been a crucial element, had been cut out of my stories. In the miniseries, Danny Glover is the only man of color among the main characters (although there are a few others among the spear-carriers). A far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned. When I looked over the script, I realized the producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence. (UKL, Slate)

Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow. In my first big science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the only person from Earth is a black man, and everybody else in the book is Inuit (or Tibetan) brown. In the two fantasy novels the miniseries is “based on,” everybody is brown or copper-red or black, except the Kargish people in the East and their descendants in the Archipelago, who are white, with fair or dark hair. The central character Tenar, a Karg, is a white brunette. Ged, an Archipelagan, is red-brown. His friend, Vetch, is black. In the miniseries, Tenar is played by Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk, the only person in the miniseries who looks at all Asian. Ged and Vetch are white.
My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future? (UKL, Slate)

So, for the record: there is no statement in the books, nor did I ever intend to make a statement, about “the union of two belief systems.” There’s nothing at all about the “duality of spirituality and paganism,” whatever that means, either.
Earlier in the article, Robert Halmi is quoted as saying that Earthsea “has people who believe and people who do not believe.” I can only admire Mr Halmi’s imagination, but I wish he’d left mine alone.
In the books, the wizardry of the Archipelago and the ritualism of the Kargs are opposed and united, like the yang and yin. The rejoining of the broken arm-ring is a symbol of the restoration of an unresting, active balance, offering a risky chance of peace.
This has absolutely nothing to do with “people who believe and people who do not believe.” That terrible division into Believers and Unbelievers (itself a matter not of reason but of belief) is one which bedevils Christianity and Islam and drives their wars.
But the wizards of Earthsea would look on such wars as madness, and the dragons of Earthsea would laugh at them and fly away…
Toto, something tells me Earthsea isn’t Iraq.
I wonder if the people who made the film of The Lord of the Rings had ended it with Frodo putting on the Ring and ruling happily ever after, and then claimed that that was what Tolkien “intended…” would people think they’d been “very, very honest to the books”? (UKL)

Do yourself a favour and read Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Do yourself a greater favour and avoid Sci-Fi and their terrible twisting of her story. The books present a rewarding, coherent and rich story that you’ll doubtlessly enjoy. The film’s utterly a failure.

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