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Reading Odd Film: The Legend of Earthsea

Photo courtesy of Pexels/RDNE Stock Project

Hello, and welcome to the third column of Reading Odd Films where I look at odd film adaptations of books. Today we’re looking at “The Legend of Earthsea” (2004), adapted from the first two books of Ursula Le Guin’s beloved “Earthsea” series (“A Wizard of Earthsea” and “The Tombs of Atuan”) which was split into a two-night “mini-series” on the Sci-Fi channel, but is essentially three-hour long movie.  

The first red flag that told me this movie was not going to work was the odd decision to combine the first two books of the series, which are both open-and-shut stories  (although I have not read “The Tombs of Atuan”). 

This forces the film to divide itself into an “A-plot” and a “B-plot” which are tied together with a vague connection and, as with the last season of “Game of Thrones, these plots are jammed together like a square peg in a round hole. The only reason I could think of why the producers wanted to do this is so they could cast Isabella Rossellini, and couldn’t find a role for her from the first book.  

The second and biggest red flag is the whitewashing. In the original series, our main character, Ged (played by Shawn Ashmore) is repeatedly described to be brown-skinned and his form of magic is tied to Taoist philosophies. But Shawn Ashmore is a white man. In fact, almost everyone in this movie, adapted from a book where most important characters who are canonically not white are played by white people. The only two exceptions are Danny Glover, who plays the roles of Ged’s mentor Ogion, and Kristen Kreuk (whose mother is Chinese and father is Dutch) who plays the female lead of the second book, Tenar. 

Speaking of Taoist influence on the “Earthsea” series, there is an odd Christian undertone of having “faith” with Tenar’s plotline. This is quite contradictory to what I’ve heard of the original book considering that “The Tombs of Ataun” is against blind obedience, which is rewarded in this movie. 

Additionally, there is a CW-esque attempt to sexualize the characters. This is creepy for two reasons: this book series is meant for 12-year-olds and both of the protagonists start as minors in the original and are ambiguously aged up by 20-something actors. 

On the topic of weird sexualization, there’s a poorly developed romance between the two protagonists, an element of the original series. However, there’s a whole book to develop their chemistry. In the movie, there are ten minutes of screen time and “visions” they have of each other. Tenar’s character is one-dimensional and passive which is the opposite of her character in the original, who is praised for being a strong leader with an interesting character arc. 

The movie’s obsession with fate is a blatant misunderstanding of the series’ themes. At many points, the characters around Ged, especially his friend Vetch (played by Chris Gauthier) talk to him about how they were fated to meet and how nothing is ever a coincidence. Ascending Ged to “chosen one” status, which, in my opinion, makes Ged’s arc less interesting. 

Ged never has to face any real consequences for his actions, though, in the original book, Ged, trying to prove how much better he is than his rival Jasper, summons a spirit, which costs one of his professor’s lives. In the original, this is meant to make Ged realize that magic is not something to play with, but in the movie, the professor lives because now the spirit is possessing him and Ged must get rid of it, making Ged learn nothing. 

This film was likely made to cash in on the success of the “Harry Potter” franchise, which was ironically accused of ripping off Le Guin’s series. I think this is true because the movie essentially turns the wizard school of Roke into Hogwarts. Ged’s friend Vetch, who is the subject of many fatphobic jokes, is essentially Ron. There’s a shoe-horned-in female character, who does nothing, who is Hermione, and Jasper, whose rivalry with Ged is much more equal in the books, becomes Draco. He even betrays the wizard school for the invented-for-this-movie evil king. 

“Legend of Earthsea” is another in a long line of book-to-screen adaptations that take anything interesting or unique from the original and chuck it into the wind. This movie’s plot is not even worth recounting, it’s every “chosen one defeats the evil king” fantasy movie you’ve ever seen. This is a shame because the source material has incredible world-building and a wonderful take on the hero’s journey. I hope one day, there is a faithful adaptation of the original source because it would be great to see on the screen.

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