Thursday, December 16, 2004

Earthsea Vs. The Salt of the Earth

I love movies. This is hardly a surprise, I know, as often as I write about them here but I just want to clarify this fact. I love, love, love movies. My wife and I have a DVD collection approaching 250 titles1. Another shock will be when I announce that I love books just as much. A Librarian? Who loves Books!? Egads!

Yes, I know. The horror, the horror. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that while books may be the backbone of our culture and movies the dominant form of entertainment in the world, Book People and Movie People tend to move in different circles and interact only in a mediated setting, something along the lines of a diplomatic treaty writing session, where the Book People-- conquered and embittered by those moving pictures, fork over rights to the Movie People for a couple of bucks so the Movie People can make millions turning well crafted and thoughtful books into Action thrillers and Saturday afternoon popcorn munchers, devoid of their native themes, characters or even stories.

It's often been lamented how unfaithful Hollywood is to the book durring the adaptation process. I have a bit of insight when it comes to this process, as I studied it extensively in undergrad (If you think Tolkienites got uppity when they left Tom Bombadil out of Lord Of The Rings, you should see how irate some Comic Book Geeks got over the changes to the X-Men, "What do you mean, Beast isn't in the movie!?!").

Adaptation is a complex process and even the successful ones (See: LOTR) must take liberties to the plot and characters. The general rule of thumb for a successful adaptation is to stay true to the spirit of the story. Retain the themes. Make only those changes that are necessary. Get in, make you movie, and get out before the corporate execs decide Aragorn needs a wisecracking parrot or Lex Luthor should have a gay robot sidekick2.

So, it's understood that some things must be changed when a story goes from the page to the screen. As popular as Tom Bombadil is with Tolkienites, he's not a pivitol character and including him in the film would have been a mistake. It would have slowed the pace durring the Black Rider's chase sequence and made no sense. Why would the Hobbits spend a month sipping tea with this wood sprite while the Black Riders are knocking down doors all across the shire looking for them? Tolkien, famoulsy, said his book was unfilmable. And he was right, in that to film it scene for scene, including every detail would make the most awful frankenstein of a film ever. Imagine Lord of the Rings as a twenty hour long musical and you begin to see that Tom Bombadil is the least of the elements that needs to be cut.

But one can go too far, as illustrated in this critique of her own books-turned-TV miniseries, Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin:

They were talking at that time of a large-scale theater movie, although the possibility of a TV miniseries was mentioned. They said that they had already secured Philippa Boyen (who scripted The Lord of the Rings) as principal scriptwriter, 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 my decision to sell them the option to the film rights.

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

That was a blow. But I had just seen Mr Halmi's miniseries Dreamkeeper with its stunning Native American cast, so I said to them in a phone conversation, hey, maybe Mr Halmi will cast some of those great actors in Earthsea! -- Oh, no, I was told -- Mr Halmi had found those people impossible to work with.

"Well," I said, "you do realise that almost everybody in Earthsea is '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 bet they're going to have a honky Ged. . .

And as anyone who's seen the commercials will know, they do get the Honkiest of Honkies, Shawn 'Ice Man' Ashmore3. The changes don't stop here, of course. Most of the cast is whitewashed, as is a fair amount of the story. As Le Guin elaborates on her own website:

When I tried to suggest the unwisdom of making radical changes to characters, events, and relationships which have been familiar to hundreds of thousands of readers all over the world for over thirty years, I was sent a copy of the script and informed that production was already under way.

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"?

Luckily, they didn't. And while it's too late for this adaptation of Earthsea, perhaps, in the future, some precocious director with the sensibilities of Peter Jackson will learn a lesson from this botched job and make a fine adaptation, one that remains faithful, even while making changes for "The Salt of the Earth..."4


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1. Or over $2000, as a friend of ours pointed out last night, much to our dismay. We'd rather not think about just how much money our obsession costs, thank you.

2. This was an actual suggestion made by an actual Hollywood exec, many moons ago when Superman was being shopped around. I heard it from an aquintence in undergrad who was an intern one summer in LA. It may be approcraphil, but the acquaintance was a pretty reliable guy.

3. No offense to the young Mr Ashmore. He's a good actor and has potential to become a great one but he's pretty much as wholesome and white bread as they come, a far cry from the brown-skinned Ged of the Earthsea books.

4. "...You know, morons."

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