Michael Powell’s Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books have been adapted for the screen twice, once as a TV mini-series in 2004 (which Le Guin didn’t like), and once as an animated film from Studio Ghibli in 2006 (which fared a smidgen better with Le Guin, though she originally sold the rights on the understanding it would be Hayao Miyakazi making the film; in the end it was his son), but there was another, earlier, attempt at adapting the first two Earthsea books, a live action feature film written and directed by Michael Powell, he of Powell & Pressburger (The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann), and, on his own, the notorious Peeping Tom (1960). Apparently, Powell wrote to Le Guin to tell her how much he’d enjoyed the books, a correspondence ensued, and that led to their collaborating on the script by mail. (There’s a good account of how the two got started in a comment over at Tor.com.)

Powell had grand plans for the film, including bringing in David Hockney as designer (because of some illustrations he’d done for an edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales — you can see some of them here, and, if you’re like me, wonder what he saw in them); Francis Ford Coppola was to have provided financial backing. The whole project never got further than the script, though — one account says it was due to Coppola going bankrupt, another that it was down to the ageing Powell not being able to get insurance — but the script is available to read over at Scribd.com. As the first two Earthsea books are perhaps the earliest-read books I still own, and occasionally re-read, I was curious to see what such a reputable filmmaker, with a definite artistic talent of his own, would have made of them.

Although it’s titled A Wizard of Earthsea, the script actually adapts the first two Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea (which makes up the bulk of the film) and The Tombs of Atuan (which is mostly a subplot till the two come together at the end). And, apart from some jiggery-pokery needed to squeeze that pair into a two-hour film and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion, it generally remains very faithful to the books. The ending of Wizard (where Ged sails beyond the Archipelago in order to face the shadow he’s brought into the world alone) is lost, that final confrontation being merged with his and Tenar’s escape from the subterranean labyrinth of Atuan. For a long time, I preferred The Tombs of Atuan to its predecessor, and I couldn’t help being disappointed at how abbreviated Tenar’s story ends up in the script — her rejection of the gods she was brought up to serve is pretty much over in a line (“Oh Nameless Ones! My name is Tenar — Tenar — TENAR! I am not your servant any more!”), whereas, of course, she had a whole book to build up to that point in Atuan. But, allowing for the necessary abridgement, the feel of the stories is still very much intact in the script.

One question, though, is would it have remained that way? It’s notable that one of the scenes from A Wizard of Earthsea that didn’t make it into Powell and Le Guin’s script is probably the very one that would have sold it to a modern-day producer: the bit where Ged goes head-to-head with a dragon. Dragons appear in the script’s prologue, which ranges over the lands of Earthsea, introducing the Archipelago to the viewer, but aren’t seen again. Perhaps that was due to FX concerns, but it seems more to be because they were deemed extraneous to the story Powell and Le Guin were telling. Still, a dragon at the beginning (rather like a gun on the wall in the first act of a play) implies a promise of further dragonry to come, and in this case, the audience would have been disappointed.

There are some FX sequences left in. There’s a lot of illusion-weaving in the School for Wizards, for instance, and one intriguing scene where we first see the Archmage:

173. THE TALL WHITE FIGURE OF ARCHMAGE NEMMERLE materialises out of the shape and the spray of the falling water. A great black BIRD, a RAVEN of OSKILL, walks across the COURT to the Archmage and pecks at his STAFF.

Most of Le Guin’s magic, though, is understated and probably not as cinematic as a modern audience would expect — no flinging of fireballs or bolts of magical energy, for instance. If the film were to be made today, in this post-Peter Jackson age, that would almost surely be changed, or certainly cause the filmmakers to come under pressure from their more commercially-minded backers.

Another interesting point was that Powell obviously wasn’t thinking of this as a children’s film. His reaction to the books was, apparently, surprise that they were being published by Puffin, a children’s publisher, because he thought they were for everyone, adults included. I agree, but they certainly start off as being accessible by children. Powell, though, seems to have put his foot firmly down on the “for adults” camp, with a section of the script that details Ged’s stay with the people of the Terranon. Having just made it into their stronghold after being chased by the shadow-creature he loosed upon the world as a student mage, Ged collapses; there follows a slightly feverish sequence as he recovers, which starts with this scene:


…and that mood continues with the appearance of Serret, a woman who “is elaborately dressed, she gleams with jewels, rings, earrings, toerings: her body, which can be glimpsed through the diaphanous gown she wears, shines with jewels. The nipples of her breasts are ornamented with rubies, her navel is set with diamonds. She is definitely a Princess.”

Definitely a Princess; definitely not for children, either.

Having read the script, I’d love to have seen the resulting film. If it had managed to stay true to what they’d put down on the page, and not be changed by producers wanting something more commercial, I think it would have been one of the better fantasy films of the eighties — or even the current decade.

Pity it wasn’t to be.

Comments (2)

  1. I’m not sure if you’ll be interested in this but I thought I’d mention it just in case. In 1980, the iconic Michael Powell came to Dartmouth College to teach a filmmaking class. I, a shy ballet student at the time, was cast in the role of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Arha’. This 16 minute documentary, “Picture Business”, which is what remains of the project. Such a lovely gentleman he was! He called me ‘little Moira’. It is too bad he couldn’t realize his dream of making Earthsea a full film: https://collections.dartmouth.edu/archive/object/DA223/da223-mp692

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s amazing! Thanks so much for sharing that. What an experience to have had.

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