Friday, May 27, 2011


Ursula Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon, which means that during my life there I’ve run across her in person now and then.  She is small and has been gray for a while, so she can blend into the surroundings pretty well.  Her books have been a mainstay of mine for a very long time, but I’ve been afraid to watch “Earthsea” the movie.  I used to tease my mother for her refusal to watch beloved movies from the past because they would look awkward and old-fashioned by modern standards and spoil the magic, but something similar is the case with this tale.

In fact, this made for TV in 2004 movie is far more low-budget than “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” but bungles the Jungian approach and ancient myths.  At least the main set -- the San Juan Islands were there and indestructible.  The reviews are scathing attacks.  The best part of the whole thing is that it’s so bad that someday someone will make it again and do the job properly.   It's doesn't interfere with one's imagined Earthsea, because there's no relationship.

I think the real truth is that the world does not have an English speaking culture that CAN produce this story.  It is deeply anthropological, naturally, given that her family is rooted in that context.  But the insensitivity of this version -- things like Ged’s original wizard-tutor, Danny Glover, having a name that is pronounced much like “OJ” -- are close to malicious.  Robert Lieberman is a Canadian director of commercials who has done a lot of youth programs.  All this certainly shows, plus the suspicion that he doesn’t have a strong liberal arts background.  He appears to be part of the Lucas crowd, which rather explains how Star Wars keeps sneaking in.  Since Kevin Brown, a black actor with whom Lieberman had worked, was said by Lieberman to have helped with the script, it’s hard to know why all the black or brown characters have been bleached, except for sales purposes.

What I’m really saying that it probably didn’t matter how good the writing and direction was -- probably the producers had them by the throat and producers are quality killers, neither balls nor brains.  Certainly not what it would take to create a true Le Guin tale.  (She confides calmly in a YouTube vid that she has balls.)

Most of the set dressing seems to be a matter of  great clusters of candles (mostly beeswax pillar candles -- very popular now, particularly if something is intimate (bedroom, bathroom) or medieval.  Having used that many candles myself once, I’m glad they were outside in wet country. 

Isabella Rossellini and Danny Glover were fine and I suspect their names were important in getting even this low budget version made.  Rossellini has that Ingrid Bergman echo of saints and nuns.  Glover is the familiar black-man-as-conscience figure.  But the imdb critics are right: most of the rest of the actors are beginners who slur and slip their lines, such as they are.

“A Wizard of Earthsea,” the series, began to be published in 1968, so those who see the derivatives should know that the ideas came FROM, not TO “Earthsea”.  In fact, it’s not so much a series of books as it is an invented world context that Le Guin uses for a whole set of books, like Faulkner or Steinbeck.  More than just a description of the San Juan Islands, it is a web of cultural assumptions that might naturally have developed in such a setting.  There is a later animated version that Studio Gibhli, a major Japanese company, created and a BBC radio version narrated by Judi Dench.  They say Le Guin disliked both movies.  The radio version sounds more promising.

The main trouble with this TV version is that in spite of a few CGI tricks, they can’t handle the half-here/half-there shadowy, misty quality of the Pacific Northwest itself or the story.  Everything is made too explicit and familiar.  I miss the little creature who lived in Ged’s hood (maybe it turned into the kinkajou by the bedside of the villain) or the shadow that slipped around in corners, always seen out of the corner of the eye, always watching.  (I can’t check some of this because I sent my basic set of Earthsea books to someone who was in emotional trouble in hopes that it would help them.  The tales have a strong element of consolation.)

I had imagined that Le Guin knew Ishi (you know, of course, that he was the last of the California Indians and was taken in by the Kroebers, her parents, in an awkward mix of friendship and study) and maybe played with him.  But she wasn’t born until after Ishi died.  It’s worth going to her website.  But for a short insight into what went wrong with the TV “Earthsea,” the below is invaluable.

Ursula K Le Guin  chose 
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) as the Sci-Fi writers who influenced her most.

You can't write science fiction well if you haven't read it, though not all who try to write it know this. But nor can you write it well if you haven't read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup. Useful models may be found quite outside the genre. I learned a lot from reading the ever-subversive Virginia Woolf.

I was 17 when I read Orlando. It was half-revelation, half-confusion to me at that age, but one thing was clear: that she imagined a society vastly different from our own, an exotic world, and brought it dramatically alive. I'm thinking of the Elizabethan scenes, the winter when the Thames froze over. Reading, I was there, saw the bonfires blazing in the ice, felt the marvellous strangeness of that moment 500 years ago – the authentic thrill of being taken absolutely elsewhere.

How did she do it? By precise, specific descriptive details, not heaped up and not explained: a vivid, telling imagery, highly selected, encouraging the reader's imagination to fill out the picture and see it luminous, complete.
In Flush, Woolf gets inside a dog's mind, that is, a non-human brain, an alien mentality – very science-fictional if you look at it that way. Again what I learned was the power of accurate, vivid, highly selected detail. I imagine Woolf looking down at the dog asleep beside the ratty armchair she wrote in and thinking what are your dreams? and listening . . . sniffing the wind . . . after the rabbit, out on the hills, in the dog's timeless world.
Useful stuff, for those who like to see through eyes other than our own.

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