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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Ursula Le Guin's Complaint

Ursula K. Le Guin is, arguably, the most important U. S. fantastic writer of the twentieth century. She is still alive, and still writing.

On December 13th and 14th, 2004, the Sci-Fi Channel broadcast "The Legend of Earthsea," based on Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. Le Guin let it be known that she was not happy, in a posting to her own web site, a month in advance of the showing, and in an article on Slate, published on December 16th.

In the Slate article, Le Guin complained mostly about the lack of diversity of the actors. She wrote the books as if most of the people were brown, but, except for Danny Glover as Ogion, and a spear carrier or two, the actors were white.

The depiction of race is an important issue. However, in the posting on her own web site, Le Guin is more upset with a statement made by those responsible for the movie, "that the production tries to be faithful to the Ursula K. Le Guin novels upon which it was based." She strongly rejects such "faithfulness." Her main complaint is that the director tried to tell the story as a conflict between two belief systems, which he calls spirituality and paganism, and said that this was also Le Guin's intent. Le Guin responds that she had no such intent, and that the director should not have attributed such intent to her.

I watched the miniseries, and would like to comment on a number of differences, some trivial, some, like the ones Le Guin has written about, not so trivial.

Names. One of the important properties of Earthsea is that everyone, at least everyone in most of the islands, has a use name, and a true name. The use name is what everyone knows you by. The true name is given by a wizard, in secret, and is not shared with anyone except those who are most trusted, as knowledge of it may give others power over you.

In the miniseries, this concept is, indeed, applied to Ged, the main character. He is named by Ogion, the wizard, but Ged is his use name. In the books, it is his true name. The miniseries also shows the sharing of true names between Ged and Vetch, his best friend in the school for wizards at Roke, as do the books.

The miniseries, as Le Guin said, badly distorted the main ideas of Le Guin's Tombs. In her book, the two main characters are Ged and a young priestess. The priestess does not have a true name. Ged comes looking for part of an arm-ring, so that he may fuse it with the other part, and thus restore the possibility of rightful order to Earthsea. He looks for it in the labyrinth under the tombs of Atuan. The priestess discovers him there. The real story of Tombs is the story of the coming of age of Tenar, linked to the changing relationship between the priestess and Ged, who begins as her prisoner, lost in the labyrinth, without food and water, or even light, unless he makes it himself, and ends up showing her that she, too, is a prisoner of the Nameless Ones. He gives her her true name, Tenar, as he reveals her self to her, and they escape from the labyrinth together. None of this evolving relationship, and little of the coming of age, is in the miniseries, and the priestess is called Tenar throughout.

The Labyrinth. How can the labyrinth, which has turns and twists that only two priestesses know, be so spacious, and so well lit? Who lit all those candles, if the place was secret? The labyrinth of the miniseries is radically different from that of the book.

The Nameless Ones. In the miniseries, the Nameless Ones are evil spirits with bodies and wings, confined in the labyrinth by a locked door, and by prayer. Why should both be needed? If they are behind a locked door, prayer wouldn't be necessary.

Again, this is radically different. In the book, the Nameless Ones are spirits, bound to the location. They have no desire to escape. Instead, they want to enslave those who come near. They are worshipped, by sacrifices and rituals, but this doesn't keep them in. They don't seem to have any bodies of their own, although they can inhabit humans, and inanimate objects.

Vetch had a much greater role in the miniseries than in the books. (He wasn't in Tombs at all.)

The Kargad king was only a minor background presence, never described in Tombs. In the miniseries, he is a major character, shown more than Ogion, or the masters of Roke.

The breach. In Wizard, Ged's prideful deed, calling a dead woman back to life to show his wizardly power, created a breach in the fabric of the world, and not only called up the dead woman, but released an evil being from another world. This breach had to be fixed. The Archmage, Nemmerle, gave his life in the act of healing the breach Ged created. This was absent from the miniseries. There was no breach, and the Archmage didn't lose anything.

The dry land. The whole concept of the other world, the Dry Land, the world of the dead, which plays so prominent a role in Wizard, and in The Farthest Shore, the third book in the series, is absent from the miniseries.

The concept of equilibrium gets some mention, in speeches by Ogion, in the miniseries, but not nearly as much as Le Guin gave it. There is no mention of the master patterner, or the immanent grove, recurring symbols in Le Guin's Earthsea books, and the center of balance of her imagined world.

Ritual is present, but not nearly so prominent in the miniseries. Le Guin is the daughter of a great anthropologist, and it seems to show in these books. There are rituals aplenty. Naming rituals, rituals performed by the wizards, rituals performed by the priestesses of the tombs, rituals performed by the common folk.

Perhaps it is possible to capture even two of Le Guin's Earthsea series in four hours of commercial TV time, perhaps not. The Sci Fi channel's production didn't do it.

Originally posted on Dec 18, 04. Minor corrections added Dec 30, 04. Addendum added Jan 4, 05.

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