Sunday, February 03, 2008

Earthsea, again

Well, my opinion of Studio Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea has improved. On the second viewing, I liked it much better, perhaps because I was no longer comparing it to its source material but rather viewing it for its own sake.

Why the change of heart? I just finished watching Earthsea, the 2004 live-action movie. I think it's strongly indicative of quality that I can enjoy watching Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea twice and still be willing to watch it a third and possibly fourth time in order to share it with more friends, but I had to break my viewing of the 2004 Earthsea into six separate sessions because I couldn't take the whole thing in one sitting. And it's not just because it was nearly three hours long; I watched the extended versions of all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back in the same day once (treating them as a single twelve-hour film), so I know I can handle long movies.

Whereas Tales from Earthsea drew the majority of its source material from the third and fourth novels of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, the 2004 Earthsea movie covered the first and second books--A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan--overlapping them to form a single blended story, rather than two separate stories set several years apart.

Earthsea used more names, places, and events from Le Guin's books than Tales from Earthsea did, so it bore more superficial resemblance to the books. However, it played so fast and loose with the themes and details that I would not consider it at all faithful to the original. In fact, it's approach to the source material is roughly on par with the Xena: Warrior Princess approach to Greek history.

My first couple sittings with Earthsea, I just cringed. The acting was bad. In fact, the only actor with any talent seemed to be Danny Glover as Ogion. I'm guessing he just needed a paycheck. Desperately. Everyone else laid on the ham and cheese pretty thick. Names were pronounced inconsistently, depending on who was speaking. The special effects were substandard. The dragon looked ungainly, and his voice was almost painful to hear. I'm sure their intent was to make it seem like he was hissing as he spoke, but his lisp was more evocative of a duck with a sore throat.

They also did the same thing Tales from Earthsea did with regards to race. That is, pretty much everyone was white except for Ogion. The actress who played Tenar was kind of sort of Asian looking, yet somehow still kind of sort of white looking. Why the heck can't anyone make a version of Earthsea where Ged and his countrymen are all dark skinned like they're supposed to be?

On later viewing sessions, I started enjoying it more. At first, I thought that perhaps it was getting better in the second half. Then I realized that I had simply lowered my expectations to the point that I was no longer feeling disappointed. Once I decided to watch it with the B-movie mentality, I was fine. The problem is, the packaging bills it, "In the tradition of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter . . ." That just sets the viewer up for an epic letdown. In no way is it even close to the same caliber as either of those movie series. It can not be judged on the same scale. Perhaps it should have said, "In the tradition of Clash of the Titans and Xena: Warrior Princess . . ." Then I would have had the proper mindset from the get-go. I mean, even the soundtrack was highly evocative of Xena, which made me think they might have had the same composer. But no, Earthsea's score was composed by people I've never heard of.

(For the record, I like Xena and Clash of the Titans. But I won't pretend they're "good" in the same sense as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

Anyway, watch the 2004 Earthsea with B-movie expectations, and you might enjoy it. Watch the Studio Ghibli Tales from Earthsea with higher expectations, but with the knowledge and acceptance that it is not faithful to the source material. The Ghibli version is a far better film in my estimation, worthy of being judged by normal standards.

Then read the books and understand why Le Guin was unhappy with both adaptations.

This made me think about how I would feel if one of my books (pretending I might someday get published) suffered a bad movie adaptation. I'd probably be upset, too. However, I came to the conclusion that even a bad movie would generate increased book sales. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. I know I rushed to read The Golden Compass after seeing the exciting preview for the movie. The movie turned out to suck irredeemably, but Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy was well written, interesting, and engaging (although I found some of the themes to be quite disturbing). And at the library, every time a movie adaptation of any book comes out, that book, no matter how many years its been collecting dust in the stacks, circulates nonstop for a while. So hopefully Earthsea and Tales from Earthsea will lead people to Le Guin's books.

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