Deadline has reported that Ursula K Le Guin's fantasy masterpiece Earthsea will be adapted for the third time. A24, the studio famous for The Witch, The Babadook, and Hereditary, will be collaborating with Jennifer Fox, the Oscar-nominated producer behind Michael Clayton and Nightcrawler, to adapt the novels for television. Many regard the Earthsea saga, which started with 1968's A Wizard of Earthsea, as one of the greatest pieces of writing in the fantasy genre.
If you aren't a fantasy fan, this news might not resonate much with you. Earthsea has been adapted twice before, once in 2004 as a SyFy miniseries titled Earthsea, and later by Studio Ghibli as Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro's directorial debut: Tales from Earthsea.
Both iterations have been poorly received. Fans didn't like the changes. And casual audiences couldn't engage themselves with the material. So to be deemed a success, A24's Earthsea needs to do a few fundamental things differently than every other adaptation.
What is Earthsea?
Before we explain what the new Earthsea series needs to do, we need to ask what is Earthsea? What are the fundamental aspects that set apart Earthsea from any other fantasy series?
Earthsea is the story of an archipelago. It's a story in which magic has influenced every aspect of human life, with ships being guided by wizards who control the weather and witches offering remedial cures. However, magic is guided by an understanding of an ancient language. To cast a spell, you need to know the true name of the thing you wish to harness and command it with direction. Still, it is very hard to truly change something. Most spells are illusions, but only a few spells can truly alter material on a fundamental level. If a spell is miscast, the entire order of society can be thrown into chaos.
More importantly, the series of books featured a diverse cast of characters. The diverse islands of Earthsea contain people with mostly dark and red skin, with a savage tribe of white people off in the north worshiping ancient evil entities. There are also dragons which are these intelligent yet dangerous creatures who speak the ancient tongues of magic.
The series primarily focuses on the adventures of one wizard. While his true name is Ged, the world knows him as Sparrowhawk. Interestingly, the prior adaptations have only remembered to adapt Sparrowhawk.
When writing Earthsea, Le Guin deliberately wanted to depict a diverse world to subvert how most fantasy titles of her era featured white characters. Later on, she also tried to incorporate more feminist ideology into the text. Le Guin is quoted as saying, in regards to the lack of female roles in her earlier novels, “A Wizard of Earthsea was perfectly conventional. The hero does what a man is supposed to do….[It’s] a world where women are secondary, a man’s world.”
However, in both prior adaptations, diversity is not embraced. To Goro Miyazaki's credit, to a Japanese audience, the mild pigmentation changes might be enough to indicate the characters are ethnically diverse.
On the other hand, the SyFy miniseries did a horrendous job at this. Except for Ged's mentor, Ogion (played by Lethal Weapon alum Danny Glover), every character is white. The female characters' roles are reduced to make time for Ged to do cool stuff. Le Guin didn't like this.
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?
Furthermore, the characters are also diverse in other respects. The cast features numerous heroes of different ages, different genders, different body types, different religious beliefs. The world of Earthsea is a world and it needs to feel like one.
Adapt One Story at a Time
Imagine if, when making Harry Potter, the filmmakers merged books one and two. Or, worse, the first four books into one film. Seems kind of ridiculous? Well, that is exactly what happened in the previous Earthsea adaptations.
The 2004 miniseries adapted the first two books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. They accomplished this by making several changes to the plot, many of which defeated the entire message of the original.
This is especially true of how the miniseries adapted the second book, which features a dark, cult-like society worshiping an eldritch abomination with positions of power determined by reincarnation. In the miniseries, this cult is a bright and cheery place full of goody-goodness and joy. Characters who are diabolical and scheming are softened. Especially the main character, Tenar.
However, Tales of Earthsea goes even further. It adapts the first four books! Yet, bizarrely enough, spends most of the time on a farm rather than addressing any of the real themes of the original stories. This results in references to things that happened in prior books without audiences ever realizing what these allusions mean. They mention the Tombs of Atuan. Show them! They mention Ged's Shadow. Show them!
Arguably the worst is with Tehanu. The twist that she's actually a dragon in the original story is built up. It makes sense. Here? She just appears for the whole story, says and does little, then transforms into a dragon at the end.
Just adapt one story at a time. Please?
Remember the Message of Earthsea
What any adaptation of Earthsea needs to remember, however, is that Earthsea is a very internal story. Each novel has action and adventure, sure, but the core momentum of the narrative is about characters finding their place in society. Each story is, in essence, a coming of age story, even for the aging Sparrowhawk.
Tales of Earthsea, to its credit, understood this concept. The problem is it forgot how external conflict informs internal conflict, which led to the film remaining oddly stagnant in the middle forty minutes. But the miniseries completely threw that out the window.
Le Guin, again, puts it very well in her previously linked critique of the SyFy series.
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.
A24 has a history of producing terrific stories with a great internalized sense of dread. Films like The Witch indicate the studio understands how a story can be entirely driven by internal action, yet internal action can be spurred on by what goes on outside the body.
With any luck, they will remember these core elements of adapting what is arguably the greatest fantasy saga of all time.