Book Article

Sunken Treasure

Fantasy author unhappy with TV version of her work -- Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the television adaptation of her beloved ''Earthsea'' novels

If you, like me, are a nerdy Gen-Xer who grew up eagerly consuming fantasy and sci-fi novels only to reach college and find your fiction faves utterly disregarded, Ursula K. Le Guin understands your pain. ''The trouble is that academia went [through] decades of absolutely snubbing all kinds of genre fiction,'' laments the 75-year-old author of such groundbreaking fiction as Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness. ''Fantasy, science fiction, Westerns, romance, mystery. None of that was 'literature,'so you weren't allowed to read it and write term papers on it and so on. That prejudice is dying. Still, it affects a lot of people your age that were told that wasn't reading.''

Fortunately for us grown geeks, the multimilliondollar, multiplatform success of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise has made mystical realms safe for adults again. And Le Guin is next in the revival spotlight. The first two installments of her acclaimed Earthsea series — set in an agrarian waterworld presided over by sorcerers — bow as Legend of Earthsea, a miniseries on the Sci Fi Channel Dec. 13 with Danny Glover and Isabella Rossellini. Executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. (Gulliver's Travels, Dinotopia) has long been a fan, but had to wait until CGI was both convincing and affordable before he could bring the tale of Ged, a wind-working, dragon-whooping sorcerer, to life on the small screen. ''I read the book when it came out in the '60s,'' says Halmi, who believes Le Guin's moral messages set her apart. ''I can see her living on the coast of Oregon, looking out her window and seeing Earthsea, closing her eyes and dreaming up a society that is better than what we have here.''

Still, Legend of Earthsea isn't exactly a shared vision. Le Guin, who was not consulted at all in the making of the film, was appalled at the first draft of the screenplay. ''They cut the whole point of the book,'' she says. ''They decided that they wanted to write something about belief systems. I don't know where all that comes from except, maybe, the current troubles our country is in.'' Recently, in direct response to statements made in Sci Fi Magazine by Earthsea director Rob Lieberman, Le Guin posted a scathing missive on her website accusing Lieberman of replacing the novels' themes and putting ''words in her mouth.'' ''It's a touchy situation,'' admits Halmi, who chose the director and worked on later versions of the script. Still, he remains optimistic. ''I'm extremely happy with the end result, and I'm sure Ursula will be happy.''

Le Guin, a professed movie buff, says she would have been thrilled to see a great film made from her most recognizable work, but ultimately, ''It's not a big deal.'' Her latest novel, Gifts, a tale of young adults coming of age in a society where almost everyone possesses dark supernatural talents, has sold at least 6,600 copies since its debut in September, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales in 7,000-plus bookstores nationwide. Already, Le Guin is busy polishing up a sequel. Though she dismisses young-adult fiction as a fake category born out of the needs of publishers, booksellers, and librarians, Le Guin doesn't shun the demographic. ''I love knowing a book's going to be marketed to teenagers, because they're such terrific readers,'' she says. ''They take what they read very seriously. They're looking for guidance or to figure out how to live. So writing for kids is a responsibility.''

1 2