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Ursula K. Le Guin's Classic Earthsea Universe Debuts on Sci Fi in an Original Four-Hour
- Tara Dilullo
He's just a kid, but he's going to be a wizard one day. He's still in training, his powers untested,
but by the time he's grown, he may turn out to be the greatest wizard of them all. Think you know who we
Surprise -- his name ain't Harry.
His name is Ged. He's the young hero of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, which has stood
as a landmark fantasy literary series for 36 years. Le Guin's tales of a foreign, vaguely Earth-like
world covered in oceans with only island kingdoms and steeped in magic captivated readers for decades on
the page, but it was long considered impossible to translate to film because of the sheer scope of the
otherworldly environment Le Guin has constructed. Mages and priestesses, temples and talking dragons,
labyrinths and wizarding schools: all of it a visual dream just waiting to be created, but more
importantly a budgetary and logistical nightmare to construct.
Fast-forward to the present day, in this post-Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings age, where
Tolkien's own impossible trilogy proved to be quite possible, books are now getting a second look --
including Earthsea, which debuts in miniseries form Dec. 12 and 13 on SCI FI. Of course, not
every project gets a Rings-scale budget, but with the incredible advances in CGI and the right
person behind the scenes, creating a world from scratch isn't the impossible task it once was.
In the case of Earthsea, the person best suited to guide the transition was the legendary
Robert Halmi Sr. The Peabody and Emmy award-winning producer of almost 100 television films has seen
the tremendous ebb and flow of the medium, even the near-death of his particular forte, the epic-scale
television miniseries. "This genre needs to be done," Halmi says resolutely. "It's a wonderful thing that
cable came to the rescue of movies and miniseries, while broadcast networks abandoned it and stuck to
With cable now welcoming his particular brand of event television, Halmi was able to revisit works he
would never have considered in the past. "I read Earthsea when it was just published. I read it and
I just loved it, but I said, 'I cannot do this! How can anybody do this?' I couldn't do it in the '70s,
in the '80s or in the '90s. I couldn't have done it maybe six years ago. When SCI FI called me and said,
"We have this project," I said, 'Geez, I wanted to do it all this time!" But this is the year we can do
it, because the CGI is now so good that I can create really believable CGI characters that can physically
interact with humans. I tried to do it in Dinotopia, but it wasn't quite perfect yet. Now we can
do it, and we can shock the people!"
Successfully transitioning broad literary works into films (Hallmark's Don Quixote, Animal
Farm, and The Odyssey) that still honor the fan base, yet are adapted to fit the new medium
by the best means possible, is something that Halmi has perfected over the years. Selecting like-minded
collaborators, such as director Robert Lieberman (Fire in the Sky) and trusted actors like
Isabella Rossellini (Thar), Halmi is able to bring the artist's vision faithfully to screen, even when
the author is not directly involved. "We are using the first two books [A Wizard of Earthsea and
The Tombs of Atuan] in this film, and this is the only American sci-fi book that deals in this
world. Because it comes from America, it comes with all the American traditions. That's why it's
multicultural and multiracial. The script is incredibly rich. Something that Earthsea has that
lots of fantasy projects don't have is a morality and a spiritual side. This has a maturation aspect to
it. It has people who believe and people who do not believe. It could very easily be translated to
today's society and problems we have now.
"Miss Le Guin was not involved in the development of the material or the making of the film, but we've
been very, very honest to the books," explains director Rob Lieberman. "We've tried to capture all the
levels of spiritualism, emotional content and metaphorical messages. Throughout the whole piece, I saw it
as having a great duality of spirituality versus paganism and wizardry, male and female duality. The
final moments of the film culminate in the union of all that and represent two different belief systems
in this world, and that's what Ursula intended to make a statement about. The only thing that really
saves this Earthsea universe is the union of those two beliefs. So I've tried to ground it in a
great deal of reality. We have things that we find read and familiar, as well as the unfamiliar and the
The core focus of Le Guin's books, that of the individual journeys of mage-in-training Ged (Shawn
Ashmore) and priestess Tenar (Kristin Kreuk), is also the focus of the miniseries. The hero, Ged, is a
remarkably fallible young man, who upon releasing his magic potential is impatient to grow into his
incredible powers. His journey of self-discovery are a coming-of-age story, which charts his evolution
from an inexperienced son of a blacksmith to the protégé of the master wizard, Ogion
(Danny Glover). In the miniseries, Ged travels Earthsea, going to school to educate himself in his magic
and all the while fighting the temptation to use his powers for evil. Ogion mentors the young man to
harness the depth and breadth of his powers, which will ultimately help reunite the factions of their
mystical land. At the same time, the orphan Tenar begins her own parallel journey when a sect of powerful
women led by High Priestess Thar take her in. Tenar is then groomed in the ways of their religion so she
can one day lead them all in the fight against the evil King Tygath (Sebastian Roche). Separately, this
young man and woman will grow into their potential, and through a series of visions of one another will
find that their destinies are inextricably intertwined.
Thus the emotional resonance of the entire story is grounded in the connection of these two characters,
which made casting so integral to the success of the adaptation. "I tend to try to cast things organically
and that feel, initially, when you look at it right," says Lieberman. "when you put Kristin Kreuk next to
Shawn Ashmore, they look like the bride and groom on top of the wedding cake. They look somehow like they
belong together. They are the lovers of this movie and doesn't meet until the last 30 minutes of four
hours, so it's an interesting journey that brings them together."
"Kristin is a really good, sound, complicated actress," he continues. "I think she has a kind of
tenacity. She's small; she looks petite and beautiful, like an icon, but she has tenacity, and I like
that about her. And Shawn is the same way." Halmi concurs adding, "Rob and I looked at a few guys, and
Shawn had that "thing." He's a rebel; he's a nonconformist guy. That's what he is in real life, and he
gave a new dimension to Ged. He's a wonderful actor, and he took to the role, took to the rebel part of
it, and took to the other part of it, the spiritual part of it, and it turned out to be fantastic."
As a lifelong fan of fantasy and sci-fi, actor Shawn Ashmore was humbled and excited to be cast as the
lead in such a respected work in the genre. "It's basically an epic journey for Ged, and it's an
opportunity for a young actor to play a character that has a huge character arc," says Ashmore. "He goes
from a headstrong kid from the middle of nowhere to this prophesized wizard. It's about Ged, as a wizard,
taking control of himself, whereas the priestesses believe in destiny, a higher power, so it's the
combination of the two. There is this theme of fate and destiny coming together; Tenar and Ged's
characters become one. Their love brings unity and peace together, which in turn brings Earthsea back
together. It's this unique journey and struggle by two individuals coming together, and it brings the
"It's such a great genre to work in," says Kreuk, a veteran of several sci-fi and fantasy roles. "This
has been wonderful for me. It's really easy to fall into this place, and it's so easy to imagine."
Detailing her character's background, she offers, "Tenar is an orphan when she comes to the temples, which
is where all of the priestesses live. They all work on their faith and protect the world from evil. She
ends up becoming named the next high priestess and is quite shocked by this news, because there's
somebody else in the order who she thinks probably should have gotten that position. But Mother Thar
believes in her, and so she sticks by them and she's willing to fight for them, but she's a little
different from a lot of the other priestesses in the sense that she's a little more laid-back. She's still
very self-contained, but incredibly strong."
Halmi and Lieberman knew it was just as important to find the right mentors for these characters,
bringing on actors who could easily inspire the characters to become more. The added element of a color-
and culture-blind reality in the Earthsea universe allowed them to make more interesting casting
options. "You never see a wizard film done in England that has any kind of color in it, because that's a
different world," says Halmi. "We have no mythology here, so we create out own. I picked the best actors
for the role, and Danny Glover is the best actor for [Ogion]. The character is not about color. Danny's
such a great actor, he can do anything, and so much of him -- his voice and his stature and his appearance
-- he's almost a natural. And Isabella (Thar), she's unique and wonderful. She oozes all the great
feelings we ask her to, whether being spiritual or a goddess!"
With the right actors in place, the other part of the puzzle was transferring Le Guin's Earthsea
environment from page to screen, making this world fully live for the participants and then the audience.
"The books really don't indicate a specific period, so it was quite a blank sheet of paper that I was
given to create this world," says Lieberman. "We decided we would create a world where each island would
have its own culture and specificity to its period. It's all in the past, and ranges from about the 12th
century , with a bit of the Renaissance in it, and there's even a bit of Dickensian things to it. Most of
the lighting is done with candlelight; some of the scenes we've got like 400 candles burning. So there's
an amalgam of different values, but from the beginning I went into it saying, 'I want to create something
Lieberman's mandate for reality carried all the way through to the costumes as well. "In preparation,
I put together what I call the CDC, the character development committee. Right from the beginning, we had
meetings once a week. I brought in the makeup artist, the wardrobe and the extras casting person, and they
sat with the production designer and myself. We put up a picture of an actor that we're thinking of using
for a part. What does makeup and hair think about that? What does wardrobe think? Should he wear that?
Should he wear a wig? Should he have a beard? Should he not have a beard? None of my wizards are wearing
the pointy hat. Nobody wears that. Like with Danny, we didn't want do do the Dumbledore [Harry
Potter] thing, with the big long white wig and wand. We created Danny's wardrobe to be very
distinctive. It's very period, but I wove, ever so slight, some African-American values into the hat, and
some things that were indigenous to his character."
All the attention paid to environment-building wasn't lost on the actors. "There's just such really
great detail in the sets, from the castles to the markets," says Ashmore. "It's a pretty amazing,
rich-looking world. I mean, it's unbelievable. Just being able to slip on a cloak with these knee-high
handmade boots. Everything we're wearing is so authentic, and I think it helps get into it. When you
look in the mirror, you don't necessarily recognize yourself." Kreuk agrees: "The sets are really
beautiful. The priestesses live in a very Moroccan desert-type land, whereas Ged comes from this really
lush, rich background, so you get the look of pouring rain, and then you get stark desert beauty. There's
just a lot of variety to it, which I think will be great. Plus, British Columbia [where it was shot] is
stunning, so to get those vast landscapes isn't very difficult."
For all the carefully planned grandeur and effect, Lieberman says the overriding goal of the project
is to really capture the essence of Le Guin's Earthsea books. "My sense is that the movie will work
if the audience hooks into the lead character and the lead character's journey. If it's believable and
you keep it credible, then everything else is just an accoutrement. It's just an embellishment. Its fun
to watch that, but at the end of the day, it is Shawn Ashmore's performance and Ged's journey that will
keep the audience riveted. It's a good journey," he enthuses. "It's a really good journey."
Shawn Ashmore - Ged
Shawn Ashmore's most recognizable characters share a common theme, that of a young man recognizing
literal powers from within, then coming to terms with the great gifts and sacrifices bound to those
abilities. In his role as Bobby Drake in the X-Men films, the possession of mutant abilities
ultimately cuts him off from the normal world. Now, in Earthsea, Ashmore's character, Ged, follows
a similar path as in impetuous young mage learning to control his inherent magic potential while
fighting to stay on the part of good, rather than evil.
"They're both young men dealing with their responsibility of having a power," Ashmore says. "I think
the difference between the two is that Ged, at the beginning, is slightly less responsible and prepared
to deal with it. He's this strong-headed youth that grows up in a small place with no sort of mentor to
teach him how to deal with these powers. He's left on his own to start this journey to find the man he's
suppose to be and the man he wants to be.
"Ged's an interesting character for me," he continues. "Essentially he starts out as a young strong-
headed kid that grows up on a small island in the middle of nowhere. He's a blacksmith's son, sort of
working-class guy, but he has these visions and these ideas that he's meant for something more. I think
he feels like he's being held back. I know he knows that he's suppose to be powerful and he uses it as
a way of showing off. Ged's biggest obstacle is himself. A lot of the negative things that happen to him
in the story he brings upon himself. The interesting part is that if he didn't bring these things upon
himself, he would never become the person he's meant to be. So as he becomes more mature and deals with a
lot of things, he becomes more humble and realizes that inside each one of us, there is an evil and there
is a positive side."
Ged's journey from unsure youth to mature man is the core of the Earthsea miniseries, giving
Ashmore the burden of carrying much of the film on his shoulders. "This is definitely the most intense
project I've ever work on for sheer amounts of scenes and days that I'm actually working. It's an adventure
Ashmore says a big part of that enjoyment came from working with Danny Glover, who plays Ogion, the
master wizard who helps set Ged on his true path. "I think he was a really, really great choice for Ogion.
He's very calm. I mean, he's very intense, but he just sits back and holds everything in until he needs to.
He commands a real power; it's in his eyes and the way he speaks. I think he's very, very grounded as a
performer, and it just makes Ogion a really interesting character."
While Earthsea takes place entirely in a world of fantasy, Ashmore says the themes of the piece
have a resounding anchor in reality that will appeal to all. "Earthsea is basically this sort of mystical
fantasy world that allows all these different types of people to congregate and travel. It's a pretty
diverse, interesting world. But honestly I think it revolves around the characters. It's based in a fantasy
world, with elements of magic and mystical creatures, which is sort of a constant in fantasy or sci-fi
films. But I think the characters and the themes, in the sense of Earthsea and Ged' journeys, is about
becoming whole. All the negative things that happen to him he brings upon himself but if he didn't
overcome these obstacles he never would realize who he really is, and that's a classic learning process.
I think that, character-wise, everyone can sort of relate to the struggles that the characters are
going through in this film."
© Sci Fi / Transcript by Pam