The Trashing of a Classic

I know I'm about a year late on this, but it was only recently that I finally watched the notorious Sci-Fi Channel version of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea cycle. LeGuin has complained at length about how the adaptation destroyed her novels. I heartily agree. The Sci-Fi version simply invents, out of whole cloth, weird subplots and characters that don't exist at all in the books, for no apparent reason. Kargad warriors sacking the wizard stronghold of Roke? Come on.

The Sci-Fi adaptation also blends two different Earthsea books together so that their events happen simultaneously, instead of years apart. It creates romances and political intrigues that don't exist, presumably for the sole purpose of generating Hollywood endings. And on top of these big changes, the adaptation does any number of crass and offensive little things, like switching characters' names around. In the book, for instance, Sparrowhawk is the main character's spoken name, and Ged is his secret true name. In the Sci-Fi version, it's vice versa. Given that "true names" represent the essence of a thing in LeGuin's book, it's pretty unforgivable to go around swapping them, especially when it's completely unnecessary to do so.

More generally, it is difficult to imagine Peter Jackson treating The Lord of the Rings with such disrespect. The fans would have had his liver. The first Narnia film also struck me as very faithful, and of course, the Harry Potter flicks follow the books with extreme fidelity. Why LeGuin alone, among all of these famous fantasy writers, got screwed over so royally by the movie business is unclear to me. But the result is simply appalling and offensive.


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Blame it on the Sci-Fi channel, which has a reputation for producing lowest-common denominator garbage. It's clear those guys see science fiction as a niche market that appeals to pimply-faced teenage boys, not as a literary genre.

Aside from the new Battlestar Galactica, the Sci-Fi channel is the most inappropriately named channel since MTV.

By Wedgebert (not verified) on 16 Jan 2006 #permalink

Not to mention their legendary skill at producing knockoff replicas of virtually every science fiction movie that hits the big screen. My partner and I now play the game of "Guess What's Being Ripped Off" based on the ads alone. One can only hope that such low-quality products will come back to bite them hard enough that they'll rethink their strategy. It's sad to see them do this because some of their other shows have been quite good.

Well, first, Ursula is 75 and she probably wanted to make a litte cash for her work. The Sci Fi channel also did a lousy job with her Lathe of Heaven. There was an original pbs telecast that was made in the 70s that was much better.

Two, I think the worst thing they did was change the race of the lead character. I've never read the Earthsea trilogy because I'm just not into trad fantasy, but the books featured people of color as the lead characters and white american imperialists as the bad guys. That whole bit of politics was kind of lost. In other words, the lead character was supposed to look Cuban or Nicaraguan or Iraqi, not Biff from the suburbs....

Philip Shropshire

It's worth reading Le Guin's thought about the mini-series: here and here

By Kristjan Wager (not verified) on 16 Jan 2006 #permalink

I thought the Dune series on SF was okay, certainly better than the Lynch movie.

FWIW, LeGuin presumably could have retained artistic control when she signed over rights but apparently didn't (in return for a larger check).

Sometimes when I cannot sleep late at night I watch, with thorough enjoyment, the monster-shlock on sci-fi channel. I just saw the incredibly bad "Sabretooth" the other night. They could not even do the CGI right - the cat was laughable. My son can make a better one on Flash. But I just LOVE them!

Of course, something as good as "Earthsea" deserves a proper translation to the screen. I hope somebody makes it for the big screen and does a good job at it.

Innapropriate reinterpretations is what Hollywood prefers to do. Frankly, I'm amazed when they DO stick to the source material.

I'm a big fan of the Earthsea books and in spite the presence of Ms Kreuk, I refuse to watch this take on it. The books themselves have such great characters and ideas (um... white imperialists as bad guys isn't really one of them, IIRC). I have no idea why someone would want to take all the good things out of a story. Why do people do that?

Jackson, respect LOTR?

While I'm the first to say there's not much there to respect, how about that battle at Minas Tirith? The Rohanners waded in and trampled a whole swath of Uruk-hai under their hooves; but the Uruk-hai had pikes. Those horses wouldn't have got more than twenty yards without becoming shish-kebab.

In the book the ghosts wiped the field in a different battle, a couple of days' march away. Here, all the Rohanners who died died for nothing; they could have just waited for the cursed ghosts to arrive and wipe up the whole field. Then there was Gandalf bouncing from the battlements up to the palace at the mountaintop and back in seconds, just for the sake of having regent wossname catch fire and run off the cliff.

And the ents' knees bent the wrong way. Why should an ent have a body plan like a monkey that later adapted to a life on the savannah? Why should they even have jointed limbs?


By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 16 Jan 2006 #permalink

Speaking as someone who wasted a year of his life working as a columnist for the Channel magazine, I can attest that the only concern anyone at the Skiffy Channel has about their programming concerns how cheaply they can get it. Almost all of their movies are knockoffs intended for foreign release because Skiffy President Bonnie Hammer won't spend a penny more than absolutely necessary, and the Channel has had the nickname "Where Bad TV and Movies Go To Die" for years. After all, why should they pay real money for real programming when their diehard core audience (the people known in the literary and media science fiction community as "Cat Piss Men") are perfectly happy with weekend-long marathons of Lexx?

I watched the first half, taped the second. I still have it on tape, somewhere, still unwatched. I just can't bring myself to view it.

The SciFi channel *can* produce some quality TV (Battlestar Galactica is the most notable example) but outside of Friday nights, it is a veritable wasteland of crass scifi cliches. I could only stomach the first five minutes of their take on "The War of the Worlds" last weekend.

What's puzzling to me is how they can keep on making this crap and still make a profit. And just who are these people who churn out such masterpieces as "Mansquito" - surely the award winner for the worst named TV movie of all time.

But all is not lost... for me anyway. I've just completed the first draft of a novel that, in part, pokes fun at the fantasy genre. It's no coincidence that the author in the story has recently signed a TV movie deal with an American scifi/fantasy TV network (names changed to protect the not-so-innocent) and is beginning to be more than a little concerned about the results of his collaboration.

So thanks, SciFi. I owe you one (if I ever succeed in getting it published, that is!)

Thanks for the comments, folks. The Sci Fi Channel definitely leaves much to be desired. I have upbraided them in the past for promoting the paranormal uncritically (presumably another ploy for ratings):

I agree that people should go and read LeGuin's own criticisms, especially about the depiction of race. I didn't do justice to all of the complaints, and I didn't intend to--just wanted to nod my assent that this was really an abuse of a classic.

Re Tolkien: Believe me, Jackson was massively more faithful and respectful to LOTR than Sci-Fi was to Earthsea. I've seen both movies, read both texts, and I can vouch for it.

Finally, glad to have some people familiar with the Sci-Fi Channel weighing in, even if their accounts don't exactly make one feel optimistic about future products from this station.....

I wish I had better news for you, Chris, but it still comes down to economics. Skiffy only ran Crossing Over...With John Edward to test its potential popularity for. regular syndication. Skiffy's only running Battlestar Galactica because it's paid-for, lock and barrel, by the channel's former parent Universal. Farscape ran only because Skiffy didn't have to pay a penny for it (and Bonnie Hammer dumped it the moment the Jim Henson Company came to her and asked her to chip in when its former owner EA went dotcom in 2002. Mansquito and all of the other garbage movies Skiffy runs are only there because quite honestly no network wants the damn things. Oh, and the reason why all of the Star Trek franchises currently run on Spike TV was because Bonnie assumed that Paramount would just give the broadcast rights to Skiffy, and Paramount decided "Naw, we'd like some actual money." You won't see any programs that aren't wholly subsidized by either a parent company or the Canadian government (Stargate, Lexx, and the last season of The Outer Limits were nothing more than workfare programs for Canada's film and television industry, as are Mutant X and Andromeda), and you sure as hell won't see any of the "SCI FI Premieres" that require Skiffy to plunk down a penny: Bonnie is so notorious for her cheapness that people honestly ask if she uses both sides of the toilet paper.

Whew. Yep, I think I was there for a bit too long: there's nothing quite like the joy of being given a five-day deadline by the editor to write 3000 words about a public event involving a Skiffy program (in my case, the long-dead short film series Exposure) and having to beat on the publicists to get a 250-word press release, 200 words of which consist of the definition "What Is SCI FI?" Then, when calling said publicists back to get something with a bit more data, getting a new release that's 150 words long. I don't think that Skiffy is a real network at all: it's a punishment for USA Networks employees who screwed up too much elsewhere and have to reform before they're allowed back in. And they're bitter as hell over their purgatory.

Yes, Earthsea mini-series was a travesty. But that's usually what happens when sci-fi or fantasy works are adapted to the big screen. You've heard what New Line is doing with Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy in their planned film adaptation? They're removing the religious themes, particularly the part about God and the church being the villians. It is like taking the ring out of Lord of the Rings -- religion is the whole basis for the series!

Fans of Earthsea will be happy to know that a Japanese anime version is in the works. It comes from Hayao Miyazaki's studio, the same one that has produced Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. While Miyazaki isn't directing it himself, he reportedly convinced Le Guin to let his team make the movie. It is reportedly based on the third Earthsea novel, The Farthest Shore. You can find out more about it here:

"...the books featured people of color as the lead characters and white american imperialists as the bad guys."
The only "whites" of earthsea that I can remember are the kargads, which are portrayed as something of a mix between vikings and egyptians. They're hardly imperialists, they are poor savages.
What I found interesting with earthsea is that traditional color roles are slightly reversed, whithout it being a major point. As I recall she doesn't mention the skin color of the protagonist until after quite a while, probably to prod at those readers (me included!) who assumed that Sparrowhawk the fantasy wizard was white.