The late Ursula Le Guin was a master of well-crafted, thought-provoking fantasy and science fiction. Her novels and short stories are as vital now as they ever have been, as the last few weeks have seen idiots demanding the “de-politicisation” of one genre franchise, and cowards neutering the progressive potential of another.
While political heavy-hitters like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed may be Le Guin’s most 2018-relevant works, her most beloved is almost certainly A Wizard of Earthsea. The first of the Earthsea series, it is the coming-of-age story of Ged, a young man who will one day become the greatest sorcerer in the world. Le Guin tells the story seriously, as one might tell a myth, and her unparalleled world-building ability gives us an Earthsea filled with history, peril, and adventure.
One early fan was director Michael Powell – he who, along with partner Emeric Pressburger, made a string of inventive and beautiful films in the 1940s and ‘50s, including A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Tales of Hoffman. According to a 1981 interview, Powell read A Wizard of Earthsea shortly after its publication in 1968 and felt compelled to get in touch with Le Guin immediately: “So I wrote a letter saying, ‘It’s great!’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Who did the map?’ and ‘Why are you being published by Puffin?’”
Powell objected to the book being published by Penguin’s children’s imprint because he believed it had universal appeal. He also saw the potential in an Earthsea film. Powell and Le Guin corresponded throughout the 1970s and she eventually agreed to develop a script with him. The resulting screenplay adapts both A Wizard of Earthsea and its first sequel, The Tombs of Atuan. By 1980, Powell was shooting parts of the script with his students at Dartmouth College – but this exercise is as close as it ever came to production.
The screenplay is both a faithful adaptation and a lean one. Powell trims what little fat there is in Le Guin’s short novels, and the 120-page script zips from one key scene to the next. Many of those pages are given over to describing the world of Earthsea. Reading them, it’s easy to think of Black Narcissus or The Thief of Bagdad and pine for the stunning fantasy visuals Powell would have conjured. His Dartmouth students got a glimpse, and it sounds like classic Powell: “a world of colour, light, decor and Gothic romance, and all in a studio”.
Notably, and in keeping with Le Guin’s body of work, the screenplay explicitly calls for people of colour to play most of the roles, including Ged. It even includes a guide to the peoples of Earthsea, which explains that only the brutish “Kargad” people are white. Le Guin outlined her reasoning in a 2004 piece for Slate:
“My colour scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had ‘violet eyes’). […] My people could be any colour I liked, and I like red and brown and black.”
That Slate piece was written in response to another adaptation of Earthsea, a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries that whitewashed the cast and proved an overall disappointment. If TV producers were unwilling to consider diverse casting in 2004, it’s likely this was a significant obstacle to selling the movie screenplay 20 or 30 years prior.
However, the main reason Le Guin and Powell’s script was never filmed goes by the name Francis Ford Coppola. In 1981, Powell was working at Zoetrope Studios as a consultant to the Godfather and Apocalypse Now director, and Coppola was set to finance the Earthsea movie. In some ways, it was a dream setup: Coppola’s name would lend the project some artistic prestige, and Powell would encounter minimal studio meddling when he was the studio’s director-in-residence.
Unfortunately, 1982 was the year Coppola put out One from the Heart, the box-office disaster that bankrupted Zoetrope and ultimately gave us The Godfather Part III and Jack. According to Le Guin, other studios wouldn’t pick up Earthsea because they were scared of Powell and fantasy films were “out of fashion”. It bears comment that the big fantasy hit of 1981 was John Boorman’s clunky Excalibur, which bears no resemblance to the Earthsea screenplay save for an obligatory 1980s “erotica” scene.
And so the project was shelved. The script is out there, and would still make a fine base for an adaptation. We can all hope that, in a post-Black Panther world, studio executives will be more open to Le Guin’s brand of mandatory diversity. As a bonus, the wizard-school plot would be catnip for Harry Potter fans who have abandoned the tiresome Fantastic Beasts add-on. That said, Earthsea adaptations have never gone well without Le Guin’s creative control. Perhaps, now that both author and director have passed, we are better off leaving their Earthsea to the imagination. The original novel can, after all, be enjoyed unadulterated in 2018, its 50th anniversary year.