Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Imagined Conversations (Le Guin and Cooper)

So, I admit that during the Puyallup book fair event, I found myself wondering if at any point Susan Cooper and Ursula K. Le Guin got together over a cup of strong tea between their two presentations and commiserated with each other over their rotten luck with film adaptations of their books.

On the one hand, Cooper's fantasy THE DARK IS RISING (or THE SEEKER, as it was ineptly renamed by Hollywood) has only been adapted once, not twice. So there Le Guin' gotten twice the pain off the same series. On the other hand, one of the two Le Guin adaptations (TALES OF EARTHSEA) isn't that bad, judged purely as an anime film. It was terrible as an adaptation of Le Guin, but at least it more of less held together as a movie (having been made by Studio Ghibli, the world's greatest animation studio, probably helped). By contrast, the Sy-fi channel EARTHSEA miniseries was (a) terrible, in the sense that it was badly scripted, badly acted, and badly directed: a mess from beginning to end. But on top of this, and even worse, it was also (b) a complete reversal of Le Guin's original, so that the people who serve the forces of Darkness were, bizarrely, recast as the heroic defenders keeping the darkness at bay. Kind of like making Sauron and his Nazgul the good guys, it just didn't make any kind of sense; a real betrayal of the original.

Against this, Cooper had a good book turned into a bad movie, the fate of many writers. More galling, the story was ineptly updated, and Hollywoodized, and (worse) Americanized, so that instead of events playing themselves out in rural England over Christmastide a major scene played out in, of all places, a shopping mall. Even casting the great Christopher Eccleston (best known for having saved DOCTOR WHO) couldn't save this turkey; he's reduced to bombast and cliche villain rants. But what got released bore so little resemblance to her original (they even renamed it) that the resultant film's not likely to cast any shadow over the original book; I suspect people are already forgetting there ever was an adaptation. And in this case, ignorance is bliss.

Then too, Le Guin did mention that she'd seen one good film adaption of her works: the original LATHE OF HEAVEN (which I've never seen myself, but have heard good things about), and also praised some stage adaptations of one or two of her works (LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, I think, and one other). So at least her experience hasn't been all bad -- though it's certainly been bad enough; far more than a writer of her stature shd have had to put up with.

I did imagine the two ladies being joined at some point by the ghost of  Lloyd Alexander, whose CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN were adapted into what was, for a long time, considered the worst animated movie Disney ever made: THE BLACK CAULDRON* (whether it's since been superseded by something even worse, I don't know. I hope not).  A mish-mash of elements from the first two Prydain books (THE BOOK OF THREE and THE BLACK CAULDRON) thrown together with some random fantasy cliches, it's a real mess. There are a few moments where the animation's not bad (e.g. the collapsing castle),** but the character designs are frightful (e.g. the Horned King's minions, who remind me of 101 DALMATIONS' Horace and Jasper gone to seed, or, worse, Gurgi as a shaggy dog rather than a hairy Gollum), the dialogue is banal in the extreme, the plot slipshod, and all the characters either nonentities (Fflewddur) or actively annoying (Taran, the witches, the Horned King's sidekick). Annoyingly enough, the film's provided with not one but two comic sidekicks: the Dark Lord's little goblin herald/lackey and the companions' Gurgi. The only bright spot is Eilonwy: it'd have been a far better movie if they'd ditched Taran and made her the main character (but then, the same's true of the original books as well).

Dire as these examples are, I'm encouraged by the thought that others -- at least some -- have had better luck.   We have seen some good film adaptations of fantasy works -- Diana Wynne Jones' HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (significantly changed from the book, but successful in its own right), more recent works like Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES and, less successfully, the first Percy Jackson book (THE LIGHTNING THIEF (not bad, but not as good as the book, and they changed so much it's sure to badly distort the sequels). I'd include Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS in this category, though sadly it looks like we won't be getting the rest of that series.  And, of course, Peter Jackson's Tolkien.

But I suspect that's been little consolation to Cooper, Le Guin, and Alexander, who deserve better than they've gotten to date.

--John R.

current reading: TARAN WANDERER

*which I'd seen once, years after it came out, and just rewatched for the second and probably last time ever last night.

**Oddly enough, visually it rather resembles the Rankin-Bass RETURN OF THE KING in places and the Bakshi horror in others, probably because of heavy use of rotoscoping, particularly for the Horned King, who jars against the flat backgrounds. Aside from a few set pieces, the animation isn't up to what we'd expect from, say, the original Scooby Doo.


Bruce Charlton said...

I agree that the Black Cauldron cartoon is rubbish, and probably would always have been bad since it was made with the wrong attitude - but it was *in addition* a catastrophically 'troubled' production:

Ed Pierce said...

I love Lloyd Alexander, especially his Westmark books. I wonder if a good film adaptation could be made of t? Probably won't happen though, since the books have never been particular popular (as far as I know); it's unfortunate that they almost never show up in bookstores these days, because I think a lot of kids who are into young adult fantasy would like them.

N.E. Brigand said...

The British director Michael Powell, best known for his 1940s and 1950s collaborations with writer Emeric Pressburger (e.g. The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus) supervised a student film adaptation of The Wizard of Earthsea (I think this was in the 1980s). Did Le Guin ever see it?