In my last post I’d mentioned the story collection, Tales From Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. So when I tried looking up this book online, imagine my surprise when the first item I came across was not Tales From Earthsea the book, but rather Tales From Earthsea the movie! A while back I’d heard some rumblings about an Earthsea movie that would be released as anime, but I had no idea until now the movie was already out. So of course I had to order it and watch it.
The first thing you should know about this movie is that while it’s called Tales From Earthsea, it’s not based on any of the five stories collected in Le Guin’s book of the same name. Instead, the movie is based most heavily on The Farthest Shore, the third book of the Earthsea series, first published in 1972. For many years this was considered the last book in the series, containing a satisfying ending to a classic trilogy of fantasy novels. That ending stopped being the ending come 1990, with the publication of Tehanu, the fourth book in the Earthsea series. Since then there have been two additional Earthsea books, one being the aforementioned Tales From Earthsea, the other being The Other Wind, which brings the Earthsea series to its second (and most likely final) conclusion.
Second, I’ll mention that this movie was directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki. To fans of anime, Hayao Miyazaki should be a familiar name. He is responsible for such anime classics as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke (a personal favorite of mine). From what I gathered through Google and some Wikipedia research, Hayao had wanted to adapt this series since the 1980s, but Le Guin had refused him because she was only familiar with Disney style animation and didn’t want the Earthsea books adapted to something of that sort. When she later saw Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and discovered that anime was quite a different form of animation, Le Guin softened her stance, saying if Earthsea were ever made into an anime movie she would want Hayao to handle it. After Hayao received an Oscar in 2003 for Spirited Away, Le Guin granted him permission to create an anime version of her books, but at this time he was working on Howl’s Moving Castle (which happens to be an adaptation of the novel of fellow fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones). In the end, Goro ended up handling the film instead.
The third thing I’ll mention before I start blogging about the movie itself is that I’m sure for some people the mention of an Earthsea movie will bring back memories of the live action Earthsea miniseries released by the Scifi Channel back in 2004. For most Earthsea fans (myself being no exception), this miniseries was poorly conceived, as it “Hollywooded up” Le Guin’s universe and ultimately made a mockery of her blood, sweat, and tears.
That is not the case here. Tales From Earthsea makes an honest attempt at capturing the universe Le Guin has created. Unfortunately, it isn’t wholly successful. Clocking in at almost two hours, it certainly provided some elements I enjoyed. The score is elegant and beautiful, and captures the mood of Earthsea quite wonderfully. The English translation is strong and the voice actors do a fine job with the script. When dealing with anime, neither of these things are assured. I would’ve preferred crisper, more detailed animation (ala Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), but I admit to being picky when it comes to animation, and being as it wasn’t awful, I don’t hold this against the movie.
So my true issue with this movie boils down to the adaptation. While the movie draws most of its inspiration from The Farthest Shore, it also draws upon the other novels in the series, introducing concepts and/or characters from A Wizard of Earthsea (1st book in the series), The Tombs of Atuan (2nd), Tehanu (4th), and The Other Wind (6th). There are some elements that aren’t from any of the books. The end result is that I was sometimes left feeling as though a square peg had been fitted into a round hole. In fairness, I’ve learned that at least part of the reason for the mishmash of plot threads and characters has to do with rights ownership, since the SciFi Channel had certain rights pertaining to any Earthsea movie. Otherwise the entire movie might’ve been based on the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea. That’s unfortunate, as I’m starting to think that if the anime version of Earthsea came out first and wasn’t subject to a number of legal restrictions, Tales From Earthsea the movie could’ve been taken to a much higher, more memorable level.
While Tales From Earthsea conveys many of the themes from the books—life vs. death, acceptance of self, acceptance of other, to name a few—the movie proves unable to successfully balance the dense thematic content that results from exploring too many divergent plot threads. Some of the elements he was was forced to reinvent due to legal restrictions fall particularly flat, most notably some of the violence, which isn’t in keeping with the original books.
I should also bring up one other point about Earthsea that is rather important. To those that are unaware, in this universe the majority of Earthsea’s inhabitants are dark-skinned. The Earthsea miniseries from the SciFi Channel failed to address this, essentially whitewashing their version. When I sat down to watch the anime version, it was with fingers metaphorically crossed that this movie would do a better job conveying the racial realities of Le Guin’s world. At first I was left disappointed, as nearly everyone in the movie looked white. But apparently this may not be the case. (BTW, this link will also explain why the anime version isn’t being widely distributed on American shores yet.) So I suppose I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this matter, even if it doesn’t necessarily look this way to my eye.
A review like this makes it sound like I’m warning you away from this movie, but I’m not. For the most part I enjoyed it. I just didn’t love it. And this is fair, I think. The Earthsea books are widely considered one of the cornerstones of modern high fantasy. It’s only right that any adaptation of the source material—whether it’s restricted by legal matters or not—be held to a high standard. Those of you unfamiliar with the books will be able to follow the story just fine. Without the books to compare it against, you’ll probably have fewer issues with the movie than I did, and it might just seduce you into reading the books (definitely a good thing). And to those of you like me, folks who have read and admire these books, well, watching this movie wouldn’t be a waste of two hours you wish you could have back. You won’t feel the outrage you experienced come the end of the Earthsea miniseries on the SciFi Channel (assuming you made it that far). If you go in with reasonable expectations you’ll probably like what you see. You just won’t love it.