I was lucky enough to be invited to the preview screening of Tales from Earthsea (preview of its US release – it officially opened on Tuesday, while it came out in Europe a couple years ago at least) at the Harvard Exit Theatre. I knew there was controversy surrounding it, and I wanted to like it, but I was tired and had a headache the whole time, and also have never read the books, so I couldn’t trust my judgement completely. I though maybe I’ll make up my mind after I see it again later. The only thing I was SURE of, was that someone should have redesigned that sword. Anyone who’s seen it knows what I mean.
In lieu of an intelligent review from myself, I thought I would reprint Ursula K LeGuin’s response to it, found on her website, and pointed out to me by Stefan Gruber, fellow Seattle animator and attendee at the Tales from Earthsea screening. The comments she makes about the non-sensical plotline and the colour issue are interesting. Also, it is darkly ironic that now Hayao is making films again. Makes me want to read the books. Here it is, unedited:
A First Response to “Gedo Senki,” the Earthsea film made by Goro Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli.
Written for my fans in Japan who are writing me about the movie, and for fans elsewhere who may be curious about it.
Very few authors have any control over the use made of their books by a film studio. The general rule is that once the contract is signed, the author of the books is nonexistent. Such labels as “creative consultant” are meaningless. Please do not hold any writer except the script-writer responsible for anything in a film. Don’t ask the book’s author “Why did they . . . ?” She is wondering too.
Twenty or so years ago, Mr Hayao Miyazaki wrote me expressing interest in making an animated film based on the (then only three) books of Earthsea. I did not know his work. I knew only Disney-type animation, and disliked it. I said no.
Six or seven years ago, my friend Vonda N. McIntyre told me about My Neighbor Totoro and we watched it together. I became a Miyazaki fan at once and forever. I consider him a genius of the same caliber as Kurosawa or Fellini.
Some years later, when I found that the delightful Japanese translator of the later Earthsea books, Ms Masako Shimizu, knew Mr Hayao Miyazaki, I asked her to tell him that, if he was still interested in Earthsea, I would welcome talking with him about a film.
I had a pleasant correspondence with Mr Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli. In our correspondence, I urged the unwisdom of radical changes to the story or the characters, since the books are so well known to so many readers, in Japan as elsewhere. In order to have the freedom of imagination he ought to have in making his film, I suggested that Mr Miyazaki might use the period of ten or fifteen years between the first two books: we don’t know what Ged was doing in those years, aside from becoming Archmage, and Mr Miyazaki could have him doing anything he liked. (There is no other film maker to whom I would make such a proposition.)
In August 2005, Mr Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli came with Mr Hayao Miyazaki to talk with me and my son (who controls the trust which owns the Earthsea copyrights). We had a pleasant visit in my house.
It was explained to us that Mr Hayao wished to retire from film making, and that the family and the studio wanted Mr Hayao’s son Goro, who had never made a film at all, to make this one. We were very disappointed, and also anxious, but we were given the impression, indeed assured, that the project would be always subject to Mr Hayao’s approval. With this understanding, we made the agreement.
At that time, work had already started on the film: a copy of the poster of the child and the dragon was given us as a gift, and also a sketch of Hort Town by Mr Hayao and the finished version of it from the studio artists.
Work on the film went on extremely rapidly after that. We realised soon that Mr Hayao was taking no part in making the film at all.
I had a very moving letter from him, and later one from Mr Goro. I answered them as well as I could.
I am sorry that anger and disappointment attended the making of this film on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
I am told that Mr Hayao has not retired after all, but is now making another movie. This has increased my disappointment. I hope to put it behind me.
As my son and I could not go to Tokyo for the premiere of the film, Studio Ghibli very kindly brought us a copy, and gave us a private screening at a downtown theater on Sunday August 6, 2006. It was a joyful occasion. Many friends with children came. It was entertaining to get the kids’ response. Some younger ones were rather frightened or confused, but the older kids were cool with it.
After the screening we went to have dinner at my son’s house. Elinor the corgi behaved with great propriety, while Mr Toshio Suzuki did headstands on the lawn.
Mr Goro Miyazaki asked me just as I was leaving, “Did you like the movie?” It was not an easy question to answer, under the circumstances. I said: “Yes. It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.”
I did not realise that I was speaking to anyone but him and the few people around us. I would have preferred that a private reply to a private question not be made public. I mention it here only because Mr Goro has mentioned it in his blog.
So, in the spirit of everything being public all the time for fifteen minutes, I will give a fuller report of my first response to the film:
Much of it was beautiful. Many corners were cut, however, in the animation of this quickly made film. It does not have the delicate accuracy of “Totoro” or the powerful and splendid richness of detail of “Spirited Away.” The imagery is effective but often conventional.
Much of it was exciting. The excitement was maintained by violence, to a degree that I find deeply untrue to the spirit of the books.
Much of it was, I thought, incoherent. This may be because I kept trying to find and follow the story of my books while watching an entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story, but with entirely different temperaments, histories, and destinies.
Of course a movie shouldn’t try to follow a novel exactly — they’re different arts, very different forms of narrative. There may have to be massive changes. But it is reasonable to expect some fidelity to the characters and general story in a film named for and said to be based on books that have been in print for 40 years.
Both the American and the Japanese film-makers treated these books as mines for names and a few concepts, taking bits and pieces out of context, and replacing the story/ies with an entirely different plot, lacking in coherence and consistency. I wonder at the disrespect shown not only to the books but to their readers.
I think the film’s “messages” seem a bit heavyhanded because, although often quoted quite closely from the books, the statements about life and death, the balance, etc., don’t follow from character and action as they do in the books. However well meant, they aren’t implicit in the story and the characters. They have not been “earned.” So they come out as preachy. There are some sententious bits in the first three Earthsea books, but I don’t think they stand out quite this baldly.
The moral sense of the books becomes confused in the film. For example: Arren’s murder of his father in the film is unmotivated, arbitrary: the explanation of it as committed by a dark shadow or alter-ego comes late, and is not convincing. Why is the boy split in two? We have no clue. The idea is taken from A Wizard of Earthsea, but in that book we know how Ged came to have a shadow following him, and we know why, and in the end, we know who that shadow is. The darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword.
But in the film, evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems.
In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions.
Though I think the dragons of my Earthsea are more beautiful, I admire the noble way Goro’s dragons fold their wings. The animals of his imagination are seen with much tenderness — I liked the horse-llama’s expressive ears. I very much liked the scenes of plowing, drawing water, stabling the animals, and so on, which give the film an earthy and practical calmness — a wise change of pace from constant conflict and “action”. In them, at least, I recognised my Earthsea.
The issue of color:
My purpose in making most of the people of Earthsea colored, and the whites a marginal and rather backward people, was of course a moral one, aimed at young American and European readers. Fantasy heroes of the European tradition were conventionally white — just about universally so in 1968 — and darkness of skin was often associated with evil. By simply subverting an expectation, a novelist can undermine a prejudice.
The makers of the American TV version, while boasting that they were “color blind,” reduced the colored population of Earthsea to one and a half. I have blasted them for whitewashing Earthsea, and do not forgive them for it.
The issue is different in Japan. I cannot address the issue of race in Japan because I know too little about it. But I know that an anime film runs smack into the almost immutable conventions of its genre. Most of the people in anime films look — to the American/European eye — white. I am told that the Japanese audience perceives them differently. I am told that they may perceive this Ged as darker than my eye does. I hope so. Most of the characters look white to me, but there is at least a nice variation of tans and beiges. And Tenar’s fair hair and blue eyes are right, since she’s a minority type from the Kargish islands.
When can we see “Gedo Senki” or “Tales of Earthsea” in America?
Note: The version shown us was subtitled, not dubbed. Studio Ghibli does excellent dubbing, but I was delighted to hear the Japanese voices for once. Ged’s warm, dark tone was particularly fine. And I hope the lovely song Therru sings is kept in its original form when the film is dubbed.