Earthsea is a TV mini-series that cashes in on the current interest in fantasy, such as Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter. Made by the Sci-Fi Channel, it amalgamates the plots of two novels by acclaimed author Ursula LeGuin (A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan), but fans of the novels beware – there are many liberties taken here and LeGuin herself has come out fairly virulently against this adaptation. You can view her argument here and I think it’s probably worth a read at some point.
That being said, I admit that when I sat down to watch Earthsea I hadn’t actually read the books. Despite being a massive fan of the fantasy genre, I’d somehow skipped LeGuin’s classics, which is one of the reasons I was particularly interested in seeing the Sci-Fi treatment of the subject matter. And I have to admit that I came away a little disappointed, even though I can see this mini-series appealing to a fair number of people. I have since read the books to compare the show with and I have mixed feelings about that too.
So, back to the mini-series, anyway. Earthsea is a fantastical tale set in a world of wizards, priestesses, dragons and ‘evil’ kings. The show follows Ged (played by Shawn Ashmore from X-Men), a blacksmith’s son who discovers he’s a wizard destined for better things. After his magic manifests briefly to save his village from the forces of King Tygath (played by Sebastian Roché, who also appeared in Odyssey 5 and whom I absolutely admit to having a crush on), Ged is taken under the wing of travelling wizard Ogion (Danny Glover) and eventually finds himself at a wizard school where his magic comes on in leaps and bounds. However, despite his growing abilities, Ged is goaded on by a classmate to overstep his mark and he is forced to leave the school when a spell he weaves for the sole purpose of showing off goes horribly wrong.
Meanwhile, King Tygath is hell-bent on controlling all the islands that make up Earthsea, and this is shown as being an evil thing to do! In a search for immortality, Tygath must find the wizard who has the ability to open the gates and release the ‘Nameless Ones’… and I think we can all guess just which wizard fulfils this particular prophecy.
A side story deals with Tenar (Kristin Kreuk from Smallville), a young priestess serving under the High Priestess (Isabella Rossellini). Things turn grim for Tenar when the High Priestess takes ill and names Tenar her successor. Why is this so bad? Well, Kossil (Jennifer Calvert from Spatz), another priestess who happens to be sleeping with the King, has spent many years trying to ensure her succession as High Priestess for nefarious reasons all tuned into the King’s evil plot! Ged and Tenar have been having dreams of one another since childhood, so it’s inevitable that their stories combine by the end of the show.
In fact, using the word ‘inevitable’ sums up many of the problems with this fantasy show. There’s never any doubt that good will win over, or that Ged will succeed – in a genre that often seems same-y to its critics, Earthsea has managed to look a bit like a pastiche. Another disappointment was the special effects; I wanted them to be good and strong – always a bonus for a fantasy show where effects are particularly important. On the whole they didn’t live up to my expectations, especially the dragon.
The cast is a solid one, however even they seem to be a little on auto-pilot here. Kreuk doesn’t really escape her Lana Lang alter-ego, with a fairly similar performance of wide-eyed wholesomeness. Ashmore seemed a little wooden in the role of Ged, without any real passion for the character or his personal dilemmas. Glover and Rossellini turn in decent yet short performances and Roché hams up the villain admirably, but is obviously over-the-top compared with the relatively understated performances of the rest of the cast. The best performances for me were the lesser roles: Calvert as Kossil, Christopher Gauthier as Ged’s friend Vetch, and Mark Hildreth as his school nemesis Jasper – though perhaps this was because of lesser screen time rather than anything else.
Having said all of this against the show though, the fact remains that it is fairly entertaining. The draw of a fight between good and evil, with added magic and mysticism, is what makes the fantasy genre so enduring. LeGuin’s novels were ground-breaking at the time, bringing multi-ethnic characters to the fore – this mini-series adaptation plays on the fame of the title, but doesn’t deliver in the same way. Instead of ground-breaking genre, we have a few hours of pretty entertainment, drawing on themes that are well-recognised. Despite the criticism, I did enjoy it – it just wasn’t quite what I expected.
The picture is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, and was digitally mastered for the DVD. So it looks good overall, with some light grain and the occasional compression artifact. The skin tones and rich colours stand up well and generally, the picture looks good.
English audio on this R2 release is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The sound effects and background music are especially well-served by this mix, with rich tones that add just the right touch of fantasy to the show. Dialogue is generally clear and audible, though sometimes it seems flat compared to the treatment given to the music. As with many TV shows, actual left/right stereo directionality is limited even in the action scenes, but it’s an adequate audio transfer. There are no subtitles.
Lacking the commentary that is apparently available on the R1 release, instead here all the extras are located on the second disc of the set. The first is a series of featurettes about the production (called here production features). They cover the topics: 'What is Earthsea?', 'The Making of Earthsea', 'Earthsea and CGI', 'Production Design' and 'Costume Design'. In each, various cast and crew talk about aspects of the production and it’s a fairly interesting overview, though there isn’t really anyone that stands out as being particularly entertaining. You certainly learn a lot more about the world of Earthsea through watching these featurettes than is possible within the mini-series, and in that way it’s a good series of supplemental features to increase understanding and enjoyment of the show. Whereas often featurettes are a bit of fluff that don’t add all that much to the viewing experience, because of the nature of adapting books to the small screen and then having to edit them even further, these production features really help flesh out the story, the characters and the world on display. If only they could have somehow got some of this enthusiasm and information into the main feature.
The next category of extras is cast interviews, broken down by character, not actor. We have interviews with Ged, Tenar, Thar (the High Priestess), Ogion, Tygath and Jasper. It’s interesting to see how each actor views their character, and again offers some insight into how they took on the roles and then how they helped to bring them to life. You also get to see other actors talk about the characters: Shawn Ashmore adds his opinion to the ‘Ogion’ feature, for example. The actors are quite insightful and amusing to listen to, again watching this series of extras made me rethink how I felt about watching the show and included a lot of additional information that would have been great to see in the main show. But it unusually made me want to go back and watch it again, which seems quite a success!
The other extras fall into the ‘fluff’ category. There’s the trailer materials or a brief clip shown at the start of the show, as I prefer to call it… and then there’s galleries. The galleries are split into a stills gallery and a production gallery. The stills are eye-shaped and foggy round the edges as part of their style, and there are 22 of them. The production gallery shows sets and drawings and at least here the pictures sometimes occupy the full screen, they add up to 18 in total and they show some really nice touches but in the end nothing very essential.
My problems with Earthsea don’t really stem from the fact it’s not a particularly faithful adaptation of the books. I hadn’t read the books beforehand, and even now that I have I don’t mind the changes or the edits so much as I mind the fact this isn’t a better all-round show. It’s entertaining enough, sure, and the cast go through all the right motions, but there doesn’t appear to be any real passion about it – the story has been edited to the point where the plot is just too obvious. Or maybe it’s more of a children’s show here, and I’m viewing it harshly on that basis, that I expected it to appeal more to adults as well. There are stronger fantasy shows out there that show the genre in a better light than this one. As a DVD release, the extras supplement rather than complement the show, which is both an interesting distinction and a disappointing one, as I’d like to have seen more of the enthusiasm for the material included in the show rather than demonstrated away from it.