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While on holiday I picked up a copy of The Earthsea Quartet, a collected volume of the four books in Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy saga.
In part this was because a couple of weeks ago Studio Ghibli’s animated adaptation of the series (entitled Tales from Earthsea) was released into British cinemas but also I’ve been meaning to read anything of Le Guin’s work for ages and haven’t got around to it.
I’ve not quite finished the whole series yet but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to where I’m up to. Her prose is unfussy, precise and beautiful for it. Each sentence is tightly constructed and exact but she still plays with language and ideas in captivating ways.
Zooming out from these bright micro-constructions, the narrative is considered and compelling and while the journey that protagonist Ged is on is just as meandering as that of Frodo et al, I’m enjoying it a lot more than Tolkien’s work.
I’ve not seen Studio Ghibli’s version yet but, despite earning a staggering amount at the box office upon Japanese release this time last year, I know it’s had mixed critical reception over there. Indeed, Le Guin herself has been quite public in her lukewarm appraisal of the adaptation. You can read her reaction to first watching the film, which was directed by legendary Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, here.
It’s a rare and interesting thing to have such open access to a writer’s thoughts on a cinematic interpretation of their own work (Alan Moore notwithstanding). In particular this extract likely sums up what must be a common complaint for writers who have watched on helpless as movie scriptwriters condense and contract for a film audience not just their original story but also those original ideas underpinning the story:
The moral sense of the books becomes confused in the film. For example: Arren’s murder of his father in the film is unmotivated, arbitrary: the explanation of it as committed by a dark shadow or alter-ego comes late, and is not convincing. Why is the boy split in two? We have no clue. The idea is taken from A Wizard of Earthsea, but in that book we know how Ged came to have a shadow following him, and we know why, and in the end, we know who that shadow is. The darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword.
But in the film, evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems.
In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions.
I also read through the final installment in the Harry Potter series while I was away, an interesting magical counterpoint to the other-worldly and heavier wizardry of Le Guin’s work.
Judging from the angry reaction to the (very gentle) criticism of Rowling’s loose use of adverbs posted here a few weeks ago, Chewing Pixels should tread carefully in drawing comparisons between the two books.
Nevertheless, both works do beg comparison: each is written to appeal to both a teenage and adult audience, each is set deep within a rich and detailed mythology populated by dragons and spells and robes and staffs and seventeen-year-old protagonists.
I finished Harry Potter quickly – it’s a book that’s easy to wolf down but, like fast food it didn’t leave me feeling nourished in any way. It must be hard to write a conclusion to a series that is already so deep in filming. So much of the action in the second half of the book felt like it was written, even subconsciously, with the inevitable film sequences in mind and I found that off-putting.
One of the strengths of the Potter universe is the robust mythology. You get the feeling that Rowling knew almost every nook and cranny and plotted the skeleton of her narrative right from the start (as well she should). But zooming in from that macro view and I find the nuts and bolts of her writing formulaic and clichéd. In contrast, Le Guin’s work will frequently have me pausing after an elegant (but tightly functional) sentence, savouring its unexpected construction and interesting form. For me it’s the simplest test of good prose – I must pause, gasp or marvel at the way an author perfectly communicated a familiar idea or image in a new and different way.
It’s a trait common to all good creative output I think. Someone asked me the other week what it was that I thought was so musically interesting about Scandinavian pop girl Robyn (her album Robyn is a must listen) and I tried to express it as that which goes above and beyond being able to sing/ play in tune and rhythm.
It’s her understanding and sensitivity to expression and tone and feel and how to play and mess with these things to make a performance interesting that marks Robyn as
In the same way a good writer breaks or twists the rules of good writing in clever ways for effect. If attempted by someone who didn’t understand the rules of good writing in the first place it might seem sloppy but in in the right hands it elevates the work from being just good and solid to being exciting and individual. I find this throughout Le Guin’s writing and nowhere in Rowling’s.
As to which work will make the better film, we’ll have to wait a few more years to find out…