Peter Hentges (jbru) wrote,
Peter Hentges


So I watched the first episode of the SciFi channel's Earthsea miniseries after dinner this evening. I knew from the very start that it was going to be bad, the question was, how bad would it get. Well, here are some spoilers along with my criticism:

The show starts off with Ged, the main character, wrestling with a girl in a field. Never mind that Ged is your classic geek and that his peculiarities mean he has no friends in his childhood. Also never mind that we're calling him Ged right off the bat. This, in the novel, is his True Name, the one that gives anyone who knows it power over him, the one that only a few very trusted and wise people know. Further never mind that a black actor was not cast in the part, at least they got Danny Glover into the role of the wizard of Re Albi.

I'm willing to forgive all that because, hey, perhaps they are picking up the story at the point where the young Ged becomes infatuated with the daughter of a sorcereress during his early training. Sadly, though, I am mistaken.

Nope, they are working from where I'd start if I were writing the screenplay: the attack on Ged's village by raiders from the Kargad lands. In this version, however, they are part of the army of a Kargad lord who is bent on conquering all of Earthsea.

After Ged saves his village, he is brought back from the brink of death (which he reached not by overstretching his power as in the novel, but by a clumsy bit of being tossed over a cliff) by Ogion, the wizard of Re Albi who becomes his master. Ogion gives him is True Name, what in the books is his say-name, Sparrowhawk. We quickly learn of Ged's impatience to become powerful and he is sent off to the Isle of the Wise, Roke, to study at the school of wizardry there.

Arrgh, the school at Roke. It comes off as a cheap Harry Potter knock-off in this version; something that couldn't be further from the case. One of the profound themes in the novel is that the use of power has consequences and that wizards of Earthsea do not use it lightly. However, we are treated to a constant background of little explosions and constant illusions around the dinner table. Worst of all, however, there are girls.

You have to understand: in Earthsea, a fantasy land created by a very feminist woman, wizards are all men. Women can have magical power, and, in fact, Ged learns his first spells from an aunt. They are, however, not trusted with the big secrets of magic known to the wizards. They remain sorceresses at best but most are just herb witches, making minor potions and doing the little bits of healing that a village might need.

And in this version of the story there are girls at the school on Roke.

But wait, it gets worse.

The miniseries is tying together the first two books of Earthsea. Never mind that the events within happen over a period of time separated by years. It's an interesting take and we're going to let them go with it. So we're treated to constant switching between the settings of the two plot lines which are tied together by mysterious visions that the main characters have of each other. OK, we'll give them that.

In The Tombs of Atuan, however, the main character is born on the night that the old high priestess of the tombs dies. Like a dark Dalai Lama, she is assumed to be the reincarnation of that spirit and so, when she is old enough, she is taken to the tombs to be trained in her role. The book is full of great language of her teachers helping her to "remember" her duties. There is a brilliant conflict that brews between the young girl growing into her power and the old woman who is regent over it until she comes of age.

In this version, the old woman (played remarkably well by Isabella Rosalini) chooses the young woman to be her successor because she scored well on some priestess test. They apparently have SATs for serving the dark, undying powers of the earth. Toss in a plot wherein one of the sisters of the order of the tomb is the lover of the conquerer who never existed in any of the novels and they are plotting together to "release" these nameless powers in order to gain immortality and you have the brewing of a plot line that has little to nothing to do with the novels.

But wait, there's more.

At on point late in the first episode, the big bad guy mounts an assault on Roke.

The island of wizards that is protected by constant spells that prevent anything that means them harm from approaching. These guys are going to attack it. They are warned off by the Arch-Mage but (having seen the start of the second episode) this doesn't dissuade them.

It gets worse.

The worst thing about the production is one that dramatically differentiates it from the production of the Lord of the Rings movies.

I'll give them slack on locations and sets. I'll give them slack on costumes and special effects. Those things cost money that they probably don't have for this production. I'll even give them slack on the plot. Like I said, tying the first two books into a series of concurrent events is interesting and might work.

What I can not abide, however, is the language.

There are three languages that are spoken in the novels: the common language of most of Earthsea, the language of the Kargad lands and the Old Tongue, which is the language of magic and dragons. The first two of these, you can get away with using English for and the third is only used in a few short scenes and for brief bits of magic. So it's not like they have to teach anyone elvish. They don't have to worry about translating material. What they fail to do, however, is make these people sound like they come from another world.

The first, most glaring example of this is Ged's father yelling after him as he runs off from his duties and blacksmith's apprentice, "Ged, where the hell are you going?" You see, Earthsea doesn't have a hell. The land of the dead in that setting is a shadow-land where all the dead go, more akin to the classical Greek Hades.

So, much as Le Guin herself criticized in her classic essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," the writers have failed to make these characters different from the modern people that are portraying them. They might as well be businessmen and storekeepers, for all their language tells you. The one part of the production that costs them no extra money they failed at. When the screenwriter quotes from the novels, the character's words fall leadenly in the context of little modern quips and seem distinctly out of place when they should be the most shining examples of the language.

Suffice to say that I was vastly disappointed.

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