Gavin Scott is is a British Hollywood screenwriter who spent twenty years as a radio and television reporter for BBC and ITN, and has worked in film and television with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. His new novel, The Age of Treachery, is out now from Titan Books.
by Gavin Scott
The story of my television adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s two fantasy novels, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan is in many ways a painful one because Ursula made it clear she did not like the result, and I can quite understand her feelings. But I think the story of how this came about is worth telling because it helps explain how things can go wrong in the process of converting the written word to the filmed image even when all concerned are trying to do their best.
I think the seeds of trouble were first sown by something that did not happen: that is a meeting between myself and Ursula. I only learned much later that she was keen to be involved in the process, but sometimes producers, leery of over-controlling authors, don’t want them to have too much influence. In this case, I think it was a bad mistake because if I had been able to sit down with a writer I hugely admire and discuss the changes that had to be made in order to combine the plots of the two books, we could have agreed on those changes, and perhaps developed them in tandem, instead of them coming to Ursula as an unpleasant surprise when the series was broadcast.
The second problem stemmed from the fact that there were two books. On the face of it The Tombs of Atuan is a sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea but in fact they are two fairly self-contained novels. The first is principally about the young wizard Ged and his unleashing of a terrible shadow creature through overweening pride, and the second tells the story of a young priestess named Tenar who is the servant of a religious order which ultimately proves corrupt. Ged and Tenar are at first enemies and then allies in The Tombs of Atuan, but the first book is entirely about Ged and the second mainly about Tenar.
It’s not practical in a miniseries for the heroine not to appear till night two, so it was necessary to create at least a psychic link between Tenar and Ged from the beginning, and to start telling Tenar’s story much earlier. That was challenge number one.
Challenge number two was the fact that Ged defeats his main enemy, the shadow, at the end of A Wizard, leaving him little to do in the second book except be imprisoned by Tenar and search for the other half of a broken amulet. As Ged was our hero this obliged me to keep the threat of the shadow going until its defeat could be part of Ged and Tenar’s triumph on Atuan.
And, as you can imagine, this needed some re-rigging of the plot and reimagining of the action sequences as well.
Oh yes, and there was another thing to worry about: the Kargish invaders. They are the barbaric warriors whose attack on Ged’s village starts the whole saga. Both the shadow and the Nameless Ones are slightly amorphous opponents and a major fantasy television series needs a strong physical enemy, which meant I had to build up the Kargish invaders and give them a memorable, suitably overpowering leader who does not exist in the books. As a result I found myself making up entirely new material: not because I thought I could do better than Ursula le Guin, naturally, but simply to make this increasingly complex beast work.
I hope you can now see how, without any iconoclastic intentions, a screenwriter can find himself altering one thing after another, and almost getting lost in the process. It’s particularly difficult in the area of fantasy because the changes have got to be justified by the mythology – and, without meaning to, you start altering, indeed making up the mythology too.
All these changes were made over a number of years and two different editorial regimes at the channel, and there were times when I felt as if I was tangled up in the bedsheets on waking from a particularly vivid and alarming dream.
Finally, a production company with its own standards and aesthetic came on board to actually make the series, and hired a director, with his own vision. Inevitably the written word – my written word in this case – went through yet another set of incarnations, at the end of which, when after much expense and with much fanfare the show finally went on the air, Ursula Le Guin pronounced herself thoroughly dissatisfied.
As she has admitted herself, even then she might not have said anything if the director had not announced in the publicity build-up to the broadcast, that the changes had been made in order to express what Ursula le Guin really intended to say in her books.
I remember, when I read those words in the trades, putting my hands over my head. That was not why the changes were made at all!
And Ursula responded with entirely understandable fury – and though her anger was not directed at me personally, I felt terrible about the unhappiness I had helped cause her.
Which is part of the reason for writing this article, partly as an apology to a great writer, and also because I hope it demonstrates just how changes made with the best of intentions in adaptations for film and television can lead, creatively, to that overheated region where good intentions all too often lead.