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Review: Legend of Earthsea

The rich, epic world of the wizard Sparrowhawk has been fascinating fantasy readers for decades; and now a lush four-hour production by SciFi channel brings the themes, characters and adventures of the original series to television. Though the miniseries aired Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 13 and 14, SciFi will repeat “Legend of Earthsea” in its entirety on Sunday, Dec. 19 starting at 7/6 p.m. CST. It’s worth watching, especially if you—like me—are tired of the lack of new scifi/fantasy on the airwaves these days.

It’s pretty clear from the outset that we owe the realization of “Earthsea” to the success of other fantasy realms in recent years; most notably the “Lord of the Rings” series by J.R.R. Tolkien (the extended DVD of “Return of the King” appeared in stores Dec. 14). The long shots of the world of Earthsea, with its teeming oceans and lush greenery, seems to evoke visions of Middle Earth. And there were points at which the wizard Ged (Shawn Ashmore), and his companionable sidekick Vetch (Chris Gauthier), traveling across the ocean in a small boat to find the evil gebbeth that Ged had released in his arrogance, reminded me of Frodo and Sam—although the gebbeth in appearance looked a bit more like the Uruk-hai than Gollum.

And then there’s “Harry Potter.” On the island of Roke, where Ged and Vetch are studying to be wizards, a gratuitous female character is even added to make classroom scenes look a little like you’d expect at Hogwarts. We even have a Draco Malfoy, in the character of Jasper (Mark Hildreth), who brings out the worst of arrogance and recklessness in Ged. Jasper is a character in the original book series, but his fate in the miniseries is slightly different.

Course, these influences aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Just a bit obvious. After all, both the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” series are excellent novels that have been turned into visual treats. So, there's nothing terribly new or innovative. But what about the plot? Does “Legend of Earthsea” hold up for the purists?

Well, yes and no. SciFi Channel has tried to stay true to the coming-of-age themes of the original, such as the Taoist ideal of the relativity of opposites, in which the interdependence of opposites results in equilibrium (good versus evil), and the importance of names. In Earthsea, the true name of a person or creature can be used to control it. Thus, in general, the miniseries does pay lip service to the basest of LeGuin's themes. Mainly, the story SciFi Channel tells comes from the first book, interwoven with elements from the second (The Tombs of Atuan) and with the out-of-the-blue addition of a bad guy king (Tygath, played by Sebastian Roche) and an evil priestess (Kossil, played by Jennifer Calvert) to add dramatic tension. Most characters, except for their race, are similar to their written counterparts, although Vetch is played with a little more levity than you might expect from reading the original A Wizard of Earthsea novel. Danny Glover’s Ogion, the wizard who first teaches Ged, is just how I imagined him.

Having said that, the creators did take liberties with the plot. Ged’s father is slightly more important than he was in the book, Vetch’s sister Yarrow is slightly less important, and Ged has had visions of the priestess Tenar (Kristen Kreuk), his romantic interest, all his life. The main conflict of the miniseries becomes not just Ged’s search for the gebbeth he released from the dark netherworlds (which was the main story of A Wizard of Earthsea), but King Tygath’s quest for immortality. Tygath hopes that by freeing the Nameless Ones in the Tombs of Atuan, guarded by the priestesses led by High Priestess Thar (Isabella Rossellini), he will gain in power. So Ged and Tenar meet when he enters the tombs to stop Tygath—unlike in the book The Tombs of Atuan, in which Ged meets Tenar when he comes to find the other half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe. In the television version, the ring becomes the more simple Amulet of Peace.

So yes, there are differences. Do they matter? Not really, if you're simply looking for a fun fantasy tale. The producers and writers of this visually striking Hallmark production have done a really nice job of putting together a coherent, exciting plot that incorporates scenes from the original story with new elements that don’t seem to jar us much. The tale takes a more personal quest of Ged’s and weaves it into a larger, more epic plot that's perfect for television. Given the fact that the “Lord of the Rings” series is over and done, we who want new fantasy TV can find that “Legend of Earthsea” will do just fine in its place.

Just a quick note: Ursula K. LeGuin has come out on Slate.com and other sources saying that "Legend of Earthsea" is a "whitewashed" version of her original. She says that it is only loosely based upon her books, and the plot makes no sense. Considering that LeGuin has always populated her books with multicultural characters (Ged himself is red-brown, not white), this is a serious failing indeed for the SciFi Channel version. I hate to say it's an understandable one, because it isn't--but SciFi hasn't exactly been a pioneer in the creative arena, and I personally never expected anything but a white protagonist and a few token people of other races, so I can't say I've been disappointed.

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