I was disappointed I missed the Earthsea movie, but not so much, anymore:



Earthsea in Clorox
by Ursula K. Le Guin

1. Background: my (non)involvement with this production.
For people who wonder why I "sold out to Halmi," or "let them change
the story" -- you may find some answers here.

  The producers (not yet including Robert Halmi Sr.) approached us
with a reasonable offer. My dramatic agency at that time was William
Morris. The contract of course gave me only the standard status of
"consultant" -- which means exactly what the producers want it to
mean, almost always little or nothing. The agency could not improve
this clause. But the purchasers talked as if they genuinely meant to
respect the books and to ask for my input when planning the film.

As I had scripted the first two books myself, with Michael Powell,
years ago, and also worked with another scriptwriter to plan his
script of the first book, I was in a position to be useful to them. I
knew some of the difficulties in carrying this story over to film. And
some of the possibilities that could be fulfilled, too, the things a
movie can do that a novel can't. It was an exciting prospect.

They were talking at that time of a large-scale theater movie,
although the possibility of a TV miniseries was mentioned. They said
that they had already secured Philippa Boyen (who scripted The Lord of
the Rings) as principal scriptwriter, and reported that she was eager
to work on an Earthsea film. As the script was, to me, all-important,
her presence was the key factor in my decision to sell them the option
to the film rights.

Time went by. By the time they got backing from the Sci Fi Channel for
a miniseries -- and Robert Halmi Sr. had come aboard -- they had lost

That was a blow. But I had just seen Mr Halmi's miniseries Dreamkeeper
with its stunning Native American cast, so I said to them in a phone
conversation, hey, maybe Mr Halmi will cast some of those great actors
in Earthsea! -- Oh, no, I was told -- Mr Halmi had found those people
impossible to work with.

"Well," I said, "you do realise that almost everybody in Earthsea is
'those people,' or anyhow not white?"

I don't remember what their answer to that was -- it may have used
that wonderful weasel word "colorblind" -- but it wasn't reassuring,
because I do remember saying to my husband, oh, gee, I bet they're
going to have a honky Ged. . .

This was in the spring of 2004. They moved very fast then, because if
they didn't get into production, they would lose their rights to the
property. Early in this period they contacted me in a friendly
fashion, and I responded in kind; I asked if they'd like to have a
list of name pronunciations; and I said that although I knew well that
a film must differ greatly from a book, I hoped they were making no
unnecessary changes in the plot or to the characters -- a dangerous
thing to do, since the books have been known to millions of people for
over 30 years. To this they replied that the TV audience is much
larger, and entirely different, and changes to a book's story and
characters were of no importance to them.

They then sent me several versions of the script -- and told me that
shooting had already begun. In other words, I had been absolutely cut
out of the process.

I withdrew my offered pronunciation guide (so Ogion, which rhymes with
bogy-on, is "Oh-jee-on" in the film.) Having looked over the script, I
realised they had no understanding of what the two 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 MacMagic
movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence. (And "faith"
-- according to Mr Halmi. Faith in what? Who knows? Who cares?)

Larry Landsman, who looks after the book end of things at Sci Fi and
has been very kind, sent me an early CD of the film, so I saw it some
weeks before it was aired.

There was nothing I could do about it at that point, and I said
nothing negative in public. It seemed mean-spirited to bash the thing
it before other people had a chance to see it. Anyhow, what's the use
whining? Take the money and run, as whoever it is said. Someday,
somebody would make a real Earthsea movie. . .

But then Mr. Lieberman published a statement telling people what
"Ursula" (whom he has never met) "intended" by the books. That changed
the situation. They were taking advantage of my silence by sticking
words in my mouth. I put a reply on my web site, and since then have
spoken freely to interviewers who have asked my opinion of the

My principal feeling about it is one of sadness, loss. An opportunity
thrown away, at great expense. I'm sorry for the actors. They all
tried hard. I'm sorry for the people who think they've seen Earthsea,
but saw a stale, senseless rehash of bits of other fantasy films
instead. I'm very sorry for my readers who tuned in thinking they were
going to see a film version of my books. To you readers, I apologise.
I love movies, and I did want to see an Earthsea movie, so I fell for
it. I'm sorry! We'll do better next time.

2. Concerning race, color, and whitewash 

Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future sf books are not
white. They're mixed, they're rainbow. In my first big sf novel, The
Left Hand of Darkness, the only person from Earth is a black man and
everybody else in the book is Inuit (or Tibetan) brown. In my first
fantasy novels (the ones the miniseries is "based on"), A Wizard of
Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, everybody's brown or copper-red or
black, except the Kargish people in the East and their descendants in
the Archipelago, who are white, with fair or dark hair. Tenar is a
Karg, a brunette white person. Ged is an Archipelagan, a redbrown man.
Vetch, from the East Reach, is black.

This color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I
didn't see why everybody in sf 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 all the leading women had "violet eyes"). I didn't even believe
it. 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?

The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from North Europe, which
is why it was about white people. I'm white, but not European. My
people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black.
I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids
(the books were published for "young adults") might not identify
easily straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the
information about skin color in by degrees -- hoping that the reader
would get "into Ged's skin," and only then discover it wasn't a white

I was never questioned about this by any editor. No objection was ever
raised. I think this is greatly to the credit of my first editors at
Parnassus and Atheneum, who bought the books before they had a
reputation to carry them. These editors took a risk without complaint.

But I had endless trouble with cover art. Not on the great cover of
the first edition -- a strong, red-brown profile of Ged -- or with
Margaret Chodos Irvine's four fine paintings -- but all too often. The
first British "Wizard" was this pallid, droopy, lily-like guy -- I
screamed at sight of him.

Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about
covers. And very, very, very gradually the cover departments of major
publishers may be beginning to lose their blind, panic terror of
putting a colored face on a book. "Hurts sales, hurts sales" is the
mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a
betrayal -- a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader. A
brown face might hurt sales in the short run, but my books are
long-distance runners, and for the long haul, only the truth will

I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color
the people in the story are. Don't notice, don't care. Whites of
course have the privilege of not caring, of being "colorblind." Nobody
else does.

I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from colored readers who
told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that
they felt included in -- and how much this meant to them, particularly
as adolescents, who'd found nothing to read in fantasy and sf except
the adventures of white people in a white world. Those letters have
been a tremendous reward and true joy to me.

I have not had protests from white readers who resented reading about
colored people, but racial bigots often hide their bigotry behind
accusations of "witchcraft" and such. The Earthsea books have been
forced many times to run the school banning gamut operated by
fundamentalist Christians. These censorship operations against schools
and libraries are stronger than ever in the present religio-political
climate. They often focus on fantasy and sf books, which foster that
deadly enemy to bigotry and blind faith, the imagination.
So far no reader of color has told me I ought to butt out, or that I
got the ethnicity wrong. When they do, I'll listen. As an
anthropologist's daughter I am intensely conscious of the risk of
cultural or ethnic imperialism -- white writer speaking for nonwhite
people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance. In a
totally invented fantasy world, or in a far-future sf setting, in the
rainbow world we can imagine, this risk is mitigated. That's the
beauty of sf and fantasy -- freedom of invention.

But with all freedom comes responsibility. . .

. . .which is something these film-makers seem not to understand. 

The books are about two young people finding what their power, their
freedom, and their responsibility is. I don't know what the film is
about. It's full of scenes from the story, but in this different plot,
they make no sense. Its hero goes through lots of Ged's experiences,
but learns nothing from them. How could he? He isn't Ged. Ged isn't a
petulant white kid.

It's like casting Eminem as Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

And how did Danny Glover, the Token Mage, get into this Clorox
archipelago? What island is he from? Poor guy! No wonder he gets the
true name and the nickname mixed up, and solemnly baptizes Ged with
his nickname!

I really am sorry for the actors. They all tried awfully hard. It's
not their fault.

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