A Film from Earthsea

2020-07-06 · ← 🏠 · english, · art

This is an essay for english class… so it comes off a bit pretentious. But I think I did kinda well! So here it issss >w>"

The “Earthsea Cycle” is a fantasy series by Ursula K. LeGuin, consisting of five novels published between 1968 and 2001, and a few short stories published up to 2018. The majority of the books, (“A Wizard of Earthsea” (1968), “The Tombs of Atuan” (1971), “The Farthest Shore” (1972), and “The Other Wind” (2001)) are bildungsromans of some sort, each one focusing on a different character’s development.

Studio Ghibli’s movie “Tales from Earthsea” (2006) is named after LeGuin’s 2001 anthology, but is actually a adaptation of the first, third, and fourth books of the series. As the first, third, and fourth books all focus on separate characters, and take place over the span of decades, the combination is a very lose one― the main character of the fourth book, Arren, becomes the main character of the movie, and the conflict of the first and third are projected onto him. This makes the “coming of age” aspect of the movie somewhat confusing and unfocused, as the first and third books have very different main characters, whose flaws and very unrelated.

In the first book, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” a young and confident wizard named Ged overestimates his own skills and, overly focused on proving his perceived superiority, attempts to summon a dead spirit to impress a fellow student. He succeeds, but the spirit nearly kills him, marking him with a scar across his face. This spirit haunts and pursues him, until finally he confronts it. The spirit, as he realizes, has the same form and name as Ged, and the two combine into one. Here the shadow is a representation of both his worst inclinations and tendencies displayed throughout the novel, which he overcomes, but also as the product of his pride. By combining into one, he accepts these attributes, and overpowers them to become a “whole,” or better, person.

The third book, “The Farthest Shore,” stars a young prince named Arren, who travels to the island to Roke to seek guidance of sorcerers after magic ceases to work and pestilence spreads across the planet. He meets an older Ged, now the highest-ranked wizard (“Archmage”), who insists they sail to the corners of the earth to resolve this vague problem. The primary character flaws that afflict Arren are his paralyzing fear of death, his inferiority complex, and his lack of purpose. His fear of death causes him to “fail” Ged several times, nearly leading to his death, or causing significant trouble for him. This book is the heaviest on expressing LeGuin’s interpretation of Taoist philosophy, a staple of the series― the delicate balance between all extremes, and especially that of death/life are mentioned constantly. The culprit of the pestilence is discovered at the end of the book to be Cob, a necromancer that opens the door between life and death so as to achieve immortality. Cob is completely alone, distrusting of others, selfishly caring only for his own life. He rejects death out of fear, but Arren learns to accept death as a part of life― and directly faces it by entering the “land of the dead” and closing the door with Ged.

The fourth book, “Tehanu,” follows the adoptive child of the second book’s main character, Tenar. It isn’t thematically represented in the film as the first and second are, but Tehanu and Tenar do play major roles in the story.

The movie’s combination of Arren’s character arc with Ged’s character arc in the first book is interesting. Rather than Arren going to Ged for consultation at the behest of his father, he stabs his father (who is presumed to be dead for much of the film) and runs away, only running into Ged by happenstance. This mirrors Ged’s “mark of death”― a deep, morbid regret that follows him during the story. For much of the film he is portrayed as generally apathetic, particularly in regard to his own life. “Go on with it, life means nothing to me” he says when a slave-trader holds a sword to his throat. “So this is how he dies,” he says when surrounded by a a pack of wolves, standing utterly still, without even an ounce of resistance. This apathy resembles Ged’s in the first half of “A Wizard of Earthsea.” Arren is even haunted by a “shadow” version of himself, though it is only visually shown twice― for the majority of the film it’s only implied he feels a presence by sudden bouts of terror.

The third book’s flaws are also present in the movie’s Arren― his feeling of inadequacy (“I stabbed my father, I hated him… I thought I could never live up to his name,” he admits to Tehanu), and his fear of death (contradictorily). For the first half of the film, he is borderline suicidal in his disconcern over his own death, but suddenly, in the final act, he is so terrified of death that he is easily controlled by the antagonist necromancer Cob’s promise of eternal life. This happens before his general apathy wanes and he accepts responsibility and caring for others― it doesn’t make sense, and isn’t built up to. In the third book, his fear is clearly demonstrated by his cowardice and refraining from action, but in the film he consistently shows either disregard for his life or courage, and acts.

There is no payoff for the sudden appearance of this fear, either, making it somewhat pointless, and he doesn’t learn from it as in the book. As soon as he breaks from Cob’s control, it isn’t mentioned nor hinted at again. There is, ultimately, only payoff for his refusal to take responsibility for his fathers' implied death― neither his fear nor inferiority complex are overcome. In the final act, his shadow claims it is “the light of [Arren], the part he lost.” Rather than representing pride or hubris as in “A Wizard of Earthsea,” it is his regret of impulsive action (“mark of death”), an innocence or purity of spirit he left behind by stabbing his father.

As far as recurring themes of the series go― Taoist philosophy (balance, unity, etc), “doing as opposed to being,” the power of words (sorcery in the books is knowing the “True Names” of things and invoking them), pacifism, power (and the refusal to exploit it), and responsibility― the film does adapt some of them. The “balance” of Earthsea is given two lines by Ged in the middle of the film, the power of words is invoked, and responsibility is the main focus of Arren’s arc. As far as non-violence and power go, Ged and company in the movie resemble uninformed expectations of wizards in the novels: “Arren looked at [Ged], expecting to see him stand up in the sudden radiance of the mage-light and strike them dumb with his revealed power. But he did not. He sat there and looked from one to another and listened to their menaces (“The Farthest Shore,” 71).”

Notably, the distinction between “doing and being,” with latter being more noble than the former, is completely absent in the movie, despite its homage to the concept of Taoist “balance.” Ged’s character arc for the third book― him finally ceasing to “do,” putting away his staff, and choosing to just “be,” as he refused to do as a child. In the film, there is no nobility with inaction, it is only a source of weakness (as shown by Arren’s apathy being shown in a negative light).

Ultimately, “Tales from Earthsea” tries to balance several themes and stories from the first four books, but doesn’t depict any of them particularly well nor satisfyingly. The combination of themes ends up being confusing and convoluted, though the combination of stories (first and third) is fairly interesting. As an adaptation, it’s adequate but lacking. As a movie, it’s fine, standard Ghibli fare.