Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea

I'm a huge science-fiction fan. I've read sci-fi books and magazines since I was a little kid, and I'm showing no signs of slowing down now that I'm an adult. The list of great sci-fi writers is certainly a long one. I wouldn't try to list them all - I'm sure I'd leave someone out. But if I could list them all, Ursula K. Le Guin would be in among them. She is a uniquely original writer, who is unafraid of dealing with the unfamiliar. The characters in her stories are complex, yet easy to identify with, and they often deal with serious moral issues that have no simple solutions. No matter what unusual or far-flung elements she chooses to introduce, she always seems to focus on themes that are deeply, poignantly human.

Needless to say I really became excited when I saw that The Sci-Fi Channel was making a miniseries based on her Earthsea novels. I loved the Earthsea novels, which are set in a fantasy setting and written in a simple direct prose that makes them a great read for children and adults alike. Typical to Le Guin's style, these short novels are easy to read and understand, but are filled with genuinely involving characters who are wrought with serious moral dilemmas. Throughout the stories the characters always have to deal with the consquences of their actions, and although they grow, mature, and become wiser, there are never any perfect solutions or completely happy endings. (They're an uplifting read nonetheless.)

The Sci-Fi miniseries Legends of Earthsea, which aired earlier this week, boasted a cast of quality actors. It obviously received a more than adequate budget as the sets, costumes, and special effects were great. What it lacked were screenwriters and a director who had ever read the books or understood them in the least. I fully accept that when converting a book to the screen, many changes must be made. Some items must be left out, others added, and often elements must be altered in order to convey the message or theme more effectively. I never expected the miniseries to be just like the books or even be as good as the books, but the miniseries so completely lacked the feel of the original stories as to make me wonder why they bothered to call it Earthsea at all. None of the scenes were really true to the books. If they had just changed the names of the characters it would have been such a divergence from the original stories that I wonder if Le Guin could have sued for copyright infringement had they not paid her for the rights. It's not that it was completely lacking in entertainment value, but the characters were all goodie-goodies or super-evil, the resolutions all perfect and complete, and the magic so Harry Potterish that it seemed to contradict the actual intent of the original books.

I guess my only real complaint is that someone who watched the miniseries might actually think they got a glimpse of the great works of Ursula K. Le Guin. In the books the heroes make serious mistakes, the vilians have real human motivations, and even the fantasy elements of magic and dragons have 'realistic' components and consequences. Ultimately, the miniseries was simply its own thing and not at all representative of the books.


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