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I Wish I Had Watched Bell, Book, and Candle on Turner Classic Movies Instead

Yesterday, I was worried that the Sci-Fi Channel’s Earthsea movie would suck. Today, I know that it does.

Oh, it’s not the suckiest thing I’ve ever seen (that is—and, I hope, ever shall be—Airheads). It certainly looked lovely—cool costumes, gorgeous scenery, some nice effects—but, mostly, it fluctuated between boring and bad. The dialogue, in particular, was often cringe-inducing. It was full of jarring—well, “anachronisms” isn’t the right word, because the movie wasn’t set in the past but in a fantasy world—I don’t think there’s a word for what I’m trying to describe: All I’m saying is, hearing Isabella Rossellini, all dressed up in medieval-inspired priestess robes, tell a novitiate to come see her in her “office” was just odd. And the less said about the film’s attempts at humor, the better.

I know that movies are not the same thing as books, and I realize that language or imagery or action that works in one medium might not translate well to the other. I do feel, though, that if a filmmaker is going to work from a book, he should be faithful to that book, by which I mean not that he should reproduce it line-by-line, but that he should strive to reproduce whatever it is that makes that book great. Judging from comments they’ve made in interviews, the people who created this movie apparently did try to engage with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, but, while I am loath to suggest that someone else’s interpretation of a literary work is wrong, some of the things they said were just kind of nutty (the author herself reproduces some of her least favorite comments on her website). It’s also fairly easy for me to imagine that the whole project didn’t originate from love of the books so much as someone somewhere saying, “Hey! It’s Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter—with dragons! We can’t lose!”

The Earthsea books are good, though, not because they happen to have a school for wizards and an epic quest, but because Le Guin retained the familiar power and poetry of mythology and infused it with an intense interiority, because she was able to turn a tale about magic and heroism into a compellingly realistic story about growing up. And these books are great because they are not—despite what the filmmakers seem to believe—about anything so unsubtle as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They are, rather, about balance and responsibility. I think it would be almost—but not quite—impossible to translate all that to film, and I think it would be very easy to get all that up on the screen and produce a very boring movie. Nevertheless, I don’t think the answer to that challenge is to jazz up the story with a megalomaniacal king, a slutty priestess, and half-baked dualistic mysticism.

December 14, 2004 | Permalink


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