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Earthsea, Ursula k Le guin & Mum

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  • Earthsea, Ursula k Le guin & Mum

    Over the Easter weekend Earthsea was televised and I asked my Mum if she'd Video it because I get atrocious reception. Anyhow, the very next day visiting the Olde Dear on the way to somewhere she's all in a tizz that she thought she hadn't recorded it, was up all night trying to find it and that my tape was terrible, jumping around and all. I explain to my neophobic mother (it was me who tuned the channels of her VCR) that I had recorded something else in Long Play. However I watch the final instalment and get to record it (the channel had been changed inexplicably to no 11 not 4) then later that evening thinking she hadn't done it I record a diabolical movie (the reception is tempermental and usually better at night) called Kull the Conqueror and just as I review what follows it, lo and behold the last 5 minutes of the previous episode of Earthsea!!! :(

    So I can't even compare it with what herself says about the mini-series but have found out it's on DVD. It's a bit like The Land that Time forgot, Mike, Mister M, or whatever your avatar name is thesedays. Didn't you ask for your name to be removed from the credits for screenplay? Why was that, exactly?


    A Whitewashed Earthsea
    How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books.
    By Ursula K. Le Guin

    Posted Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004, at 6:14 AM PT

    Ged is a pale imitation of Le Guin's protagonist

    On Tuesday night, the Sci Fi Channel aired its final installment of Legend of Earthsea, the miniseries based—loosely, as it turns out—on my Earthsea books. The books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, which were published more than 30 years ago, are about two young people finding out what their power, their freedom, and their responsibilities are. 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 mini-series, 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.

    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?

    The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I'm white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for "young adults") might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get "into Ged's skin" and only then discover it wasn't a white one.

    I was never questioned about this by any editor. No objection was ever raised. I think this is greatly to the credit of my first editors at Parnassus and Atheneum, who bought the books before they had a reputation to carry them.

    But I had endless trouble with cover art. Not on the great cover of the first edition—a strong, red-brown profile of Ged—or with Margaret Chodos Irvine's four fine paintings on the Atheneum hardcover set, but all too often. The first British Wizard was this pallid, droopy, lily-like guy—I screamed at sight of him.

    Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about covers. And very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. "Hurts sales, hurts sales" is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.

    I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being "colorblind." Nobody else does.

    I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from readers of color who told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that they felt included in—and how much this meant to them, particularly as adolescents, when they'd found nothing to read in fantasy and science fiction except the adventures of white people in white worlds. Those letters have been a tremendous reward and true joy to me.

    So far no reader of color has told me I ought to butt out, or that I got the ethnicity wrong. When they do, I'll listen. As an anthropologist's daughter, I am intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance. In a totally invented fantasy world, or in a far-future science fiction setting, in the rainbow world we can imagine, this risk is mitigated. That's the beauty of science fiction and fantasy—freedom of invention.

    But with all freedom comes responsibility. Which is something these filmmakers seem not to understand.

    Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of the Earthsea series and many other books. Her most recent book is Gifts.
    \'You know my destiny?\' said Elric eagerly. \'Tell me what it is, Niun Who Knew All.\'
    Niun opened his mouth as if to speak but then firmly shut it again. \'No,\' he said. \'I have forgotten.\'

  • #2
    I listened to her read at a little bookstore in Portland the other week, and indeed she feels mighty horrible about what they did to her books. Apparently the Sci-Fi channel told her that their viewers "don't read". My experience on the net with t.v. Sci-Fi fans is there is actually some truth to that, but it only adds to the tragedy.
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    • #3
      I have turned down several offers to film my stories on exactly these sort of grounds.

      Nobby was quite pissed off 'cos the video camera had cost him two hundred quid at Argos, and there was nothing on telly that Saturday. But he wanted to change the murder weapon to an egg-whisk, and I felt tha compromised the integrity of the character.

      So I know just how she feels.


      • #4
        A bit too flippant, Perdix... ?

        But you reminded me of that great Alas Smith & Jones sketch in which Mel Smith, dressed as a Hollywood-esque S&S hero, appears in Gryff Rhys Jones's kitchen looking for some legendary sword. Jones (call him "John") and his wife ("Janet") fob him off with their egg-whisk. He departs and you next see him atop a hill brandishing said kitchen utensil like it's a true artefact of power and declaring, "Behold! I bring you the egg-whisk of Janet and John!"

        OK, back to le Guin...



        • #5
          Too flippant?

          Moi? :roll:


          • #6
            Actually, I really feel this sort of spoliation of an author's work in the meamorphosis to film is horrible. I don't know how the studio folk can face themselves - you'd just die of embarassment - wouldn't you? If you sell your characters/ story to a film company, you can expect a good bit of editing/ revision/ merging of characters or storylines: in fact, this can sometimes be a good thing. Film is not the same as even 'cinematic' fiction, the milieu requires a different treatment, and I think an author must allow a degree of latitude in order to produce a wachable movie. The 'H. Potter' films may not have been improved by JKR's (reportedly) very tight rein on the creative direction; it's a case of suitable expertise. On the other side, Granada fiddled heavily with Conan Doyle's work to produce a fantastic fusion of The Mazarin Stone and The Three Garridebs in one TV episode - enhancing both stories in the process. They did not, of course, muck about with the key elements or the characters...

            The most nefarious scenario seems to be the one in which Ms LeGuin finds herself - assurances of veracity and creative influence comprehensively betrayed. Disgusting for anyone's work, but particularly for such a well-loved and iconic series. Makes you wonder how they managed it, legally. Bit of a fait accompli, I guess.

            See other threads regarding Mr Moorcock's travails over The Final Programme. An enjoyable romp - but nowhere near his vision, sadly :(


            • #7
              I was asked a while ago to write a piece about sf and fantasy and how it appears to have turned away from its intentions in the 60s and 70s. When I began to consider the subject I became very depressed. It seems that the only way to get a mass market, these days, is to remove all confrontational and analytical content from the work. It does seem that the Golden Age only lasted a few years, when experiment and commerce came together. I suspect Ursula, who was one of those to see the possibilities of sf and fantasy dealing with serious issues, feels as I do. It's terrible to sound like an old fart and you get self-conscious about coming on like Disgusted of Bournemouth, but while there is stuff that you could argue is 'just as good' as the best of the pre-Thatcher, pre-Reagan years -- and there are some good writers, don't get me wrong -- there is very little which makes use of sf and fantasy tropes to run its own riffs. I suppose I'm hoping for another Ballard. Anyone know of a more recent writer who seems to show the same sort of development curve ? I'm arguing that after Thatcher we ALL (including me) became far more retrospective for a while (Hello, America and Empire of the Sun can be argued to be examples, along with Warlord of the Air and so on) and that since then we have had a tendency to look backwards, to
              analyse, if you like, 'where we went wrong'. Is this a reaction to the optimism of the 60s and 70s ? Why has rock moved away from its folk (blues, blue-grass) roots and gone back to pop-classical (operetta/Cole Porter/big band)/ecclesiastical (gospel/soul) 19th century popular music ?
              I remember the hope we placed on experimental sf and rock (Beefheart, for instance). Only Dylan seems concerned about finding new forms (to the dismay of many fans). What's the reason for the reaction against experimentalism ? Is it because we expect to have that same fusion between experiment and commerce today, when it's just plain unrealistic ?
              Have I gone off-thread ?
              Sorry, I just felt like discussing this and getting some input perhaps from people who didn't have the pleasure of getting that 60s buzz. :)

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              • #8
                I'm not sure that the trends you perceive either (a) are continuous, or (b) permeate the entire depth of the cultural strata. It is natural that cultural 'flavour' and social attitude ebb and flow like a seiche wave - high points of optimism/ experimentalism/ novel conceptualising decomposing with time into troughs of reactionary bigotry and didactism/ ideological and artistic conservatism/ general dullness, with flat temporal planes of mediocrity and timidity in between. However, I'm convinced that the temporal locus of these nodal changes depends on the perspective of the observer. I was born towards the end of the 'Sixties, so my 'cultural compost' is really the 'Seventies (Argh!) and the 'Eighties (AAAArgh!); in terms of what one might expect my primary temporocultural inputs to be. Thus, whilst I can pick up the 'echoes' of the 'Sixties' cultural 'White Heat' in the media and in the people I communicate with, the 'experimental' period for me is characterised by the Industrial Music scene, the 'Second Summer of Love' Ecstacy-driven social crucible and the semi-hippy, semi-punk, semi-yuppie 'ethic' that I grew up into. That's to give the cultural 'substrate'. But in all periods, there are those that are reactive to the prevalent mood - nostalgia and 'backward glances' being a fundamental aspect of this very human tendency. New Romantics and the current second (or third?) wave of Goth/ Punk are off-the-cuff, possibly crass examples.

                The expansion of the accessibility, speed and universality of interactive media bestows on the individual a historical perspective and trans-cultural access that, more than ever, tends to homogenise the intellectual/ artistic peaks and troughs of 'the past' for that individual. This is not to say that a contemporary can fully appreciate the cultural mood of a previous era, but it does mean that there will be a tendency to the 'fusion' of previous cultural leitmotifs. Thus the moods, experimentalism, novelties and reactions of former decades will tend towards a convergence, this convergence becoming more pronounced with time, so long as the hinterland of past-cultural information/ impressions is maintained. Music and fictional writing are reflecting this state: generic SF and Fantasy, arising from highly original but now possibly overworn templates, and 'mainstream' music - reflecting a composite of Electronica/ Rap/ R&B/ Punk/ ad nauseam.

       each generation, there are genuine experimentalists working in the background, often in opposition to the prevailing trends, and hence frequently overlooked. They are there now, but may not have a loud voice. Yet. This current period of (to Mr M and myself, and others) relative sterility will phase into a new eruption of social and artistic productivity, just as the 'Sixties valved off the preceding two decades, and the Nineties (to me) reacted to the diluted culture of the 'Seventies and 'Eighties.

                So that's either quite encouraging, or really rather depressing. Like I said, the longer the perspective (temporally) the more I suspect (?!) the pattern emerges. I expect.

                I'll shut up now.


                • #9
                  Sorry, what were you talking about again? :roll: I think I got lost up my philosopho-butt.


                  • #10
                    Wow, breathtaking.

                    I think there's a kind of fractal quality to the past: the further we recede from it, the smoother it looks, and the more difficult it is to grok the cultural context of the music. Not that it's homogenized, more that everything tends towards the same "value".

                    I read - still read - sf and fantasy pretty indiscriminately (temporaliy speaking), and it's kind of a jolt sometimes to look at the first publication date and think about, say, what kind of music was popular at the time.

                    For example, Frank Herbert's Dune is strongly associated in my mind with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"... which was UK No. 1 (for the first time) when I finished the book, just before going to a party. Yet it was published ten years earlier...

                    Things get muddled up. Music, fiction, whatever, persists beyond its milieu, further smoothing things out... In the popular arts there's both a rapid cycle of what's "in", but the past stuff never goes away.

                    And just as a seiche wave (I had to Google this) "...can throw debris from the bottom of the lake up to the surface", that past stuff keeps resurfacing. Queen are still around, kind of (they're touring again, for heaven's sake!), and we also have The Darkness.

                    I think we're straying further from le Guin...

                    But maybe movie makers are like the manufactured pop producers, they skim things from the past, dipping into the wave, but are so culturally impoverished that they do not understand why there were peaks... what makes the good stuff worth revisiting. Much like the music journos who praised Atomic Kitten's cover of Blondie's "The Tide is High"... not realizing that Blondie's version was itself a cover! *

                    To get back to the thread... my feeling about Earthsea (from watching just the first episode), they were trying more to emulate HP (which maybe borrows from AWOE) than be faithful to le Guin's original vision. It's a cover of a cover of... Which might not have been so bad - at least, for those that hadn't read the book - but they did it with absolutely no panache...

                    (Just like Atomic Kitten, then.)


                    * Who's the original by? The Paragons... written by John Holt.


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Steeplechaser
                      I suppose I'm hoping for another Ballard. Anyone know of a more recent writer who seems to show the same sort of development curve ?
                      Well there is Mieville after all, and I know you at least sort of agree on that one. Personally, I also think William Gibson has a bit of it too, but he seems to be following Ballard right out of SF into the nether realms (which may well be a preferable landscape in any case.)
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                      • #12
                        Re Gibson - I thought Neuromancer waas great at the time, but everything went downhill after that until Idoru which I thought was brilliant.

                        Then there's Jeff Noon.... but I haven't read him anything from him in the last few years....
                        Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought. In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the boot-maker.


                        • #13
                          I like that 'fractal' analogy, Ant! 'Mandelbrot Nostalgia' - a novel term for 'Rose-tinted Spectacles'! Smooths out the rough parts!

                          I think a 'cover version' of anything is fine so long as it is genuinely reworked and given a new spin...The Kittens failed by producing a near-identical piece. I think Mike has discoursed on the same subject in literature elsewhere....

                          I was going to add that I think experimentalism currently suffers (in the UK anyway) from the proscription of genuine free speech - the taboos created on 'offensive' utterances by the Politically Correct fashion. This is incredibly dangerous to both creativity and liberated thinking, achieving in the long run precisely the opposite of its progenitors' intentions: underground reactionarism and suppressed aggression (which finds more physical outlets). Whitehouse et al thirty-forty years ago showed the trend here, but it is getting out of hand. The current wave of this oppressive 'thought policing' mentality is having a marked mediocritising and homogenising effect on both the media and society. For a society of ideas to function properly, we must rely on robust debate and develop the arguments to defend our beliefs and viewpoints rather than try to construct rules that simply outlaw certain pronouncements. After all, any belief, religion, custom or concept that is worth a damn can stand a bit of knocking, can't it?


                          • #14
                            First thought, Perdix -- I don't think we were looking back to much inthe sixties. Everything was driven by what the future could be made to do and be. This probably explains much of our disappointment at what the future actually did become and do (ThatcherReagan and the increased power of corpos, rather decreased, which was what we were aiming for).
                            We produced something to which people look back with a mixture of nostalgia, despair and contempt, but it was a watershed period precisely because we had abolished the past. I was all for abolishing the future, as well (cf some of those later New Worlds). Since then we have had neo-hippies, neo-punks and so on. I'm not saying we didn't look backwards for some of our aesthetics (romantic, primarily and PreRaphaelite generally) -- but it was actually with another period when the future was becoming interesting, the fin de siencle, from around 1895,
                            that we associated ourselves., if at all. That a movement quickly became a fashion wasn't much help, either. Same happened with punk, which, in my view, was actually part of the same thing -- punk was a back to basics attempt to restore our original direction. All failed, along with the miners, to save what we'd created. What I'm currently trying to write about is how sf and rock carry huge cargoes of nostalgia, often for that period, which we didn't have to carry. We were doing, or thought we were doing, new things. I suppose you could say our heroes were Ledbelly and Howlin' Wolf, but they were that precisely because they were at the time obscure and marginalised. For about ten years between 1965-1975 we stopped being marginalised. We WERE the culture. Then it all, in Mrs T's words, started to go wonky. I suppose I'm looking for signs of a movement which discards the past as thoroughly as we thought we had done. Of course, I hadn't entirely discarded the past and was sceptical of the apocalyptic hopes of some of the people I knew, which is how Jerry Cornelius came to be as much a critic of that movement as a supporter. I am very sympathetic to Ursula, of course, but I wasn't particularly nice about her at the time because she was inclined, like a lot of American writers, to look to the modernists as models -- V. Woolf, for instance. We were busy rejecting those modernists, along with almost everything else. But I've always said that you go backwards at the same time as you go forwards. It seems to be the natural state of the world. What alarms me, these days, is people wanting to revive New Worlds as it was or do things the way the Beatles were doing in 1967. We need an angrier movement which rejects all that as we rejected the fifties, which were quite as stultifying (if not more so). The only difference with the fifties was that they weren't ready for us when we turned up! They've learned the way the Bushoviks have learned who the enemy is and where to try to silence him. This is another reasons we should develop different strategies which aren't redolent of nostalgia! Gosh, is it my turn on the guillotine ? Now, come on lads, I didn't really mean it... :)

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                            • #15
                              Everyone knows my admiration for Bill Gibson and the cyperpunks, yet there's also remains a deeply nostalgic movement, maybe an example of going forward and backward at the same time (and maybe no bad thing).
                              I have always seen most cyperpunk as breathing new life into noir thrillers rather than being a development. Instead of creating new conventions, they found another set and married the two (cf my piece Into the Media Web in NW, which goes into this Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein syndrome).
                              I also, as everyone knows, admire Mieville, but even Mieville's work has a decidedly retrospective tone. It probably can't help it. As I say in the article I'm currently struggling with, Ballard and I went backwards somewhat in the late 70s/80s -- he with Hello, America and Unlimited Dream Company -- even Empire of the Sun -- and me with Warlord of the Air and Mother London (or indeed the Pyat books). We are helplessly in the grip of the zeitgeist. While I'd rather be helplessly in the grip of the erdegeist (well, if she looks like Brooks, anyway) I suppose we have no choice.

                              Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                              The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                              Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds

                              Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                              The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                              Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses