Adapting books into films comes pre-packaged with certain problems. The audience is less easy to satisfy, because some of them approach their viewing experience with preconceived ideas and expectations. If you try to adapt a fantasy book series with a cult following the problems are magnified. The benefit is that you have some degree of interest guaranteed before you even start, but that comes at a price. Studio Ghibli has adapted plenty of novels and manga over the years, and it is normally something that the studio handles expertly, but Tales from Earthsea is the one example of them getting it just a little bit wrong.
We need to look at the history of the film, in order to understand what happened here. Ursula K. Le Guin was approached by Hayao Miyazaki to adapt her popular series of fantasy novels into an animated film. She said no. Her reaction was one that I have encountered myself quite often when I have mentioned the Studio Ghibli films to people, which basically amounts to this: they’re just cartoons. Anyone who has watched some of the studio’s best output will understand how laughable that opinion is, and frankly an ignorant example of pre-judging something based on a lack of knowledge, but sadly that is what a lot of people think about anime if they haven’t watched much of it. Eventually a friend of Le Guin persuaded her to watch My Neighbour Totoro, which is of course a masterpiece, and she became an instant fan of Miyazaki, and changed her mind about allowing him to adapt her books. She approached the studio to let them know, by which point Miyazaki was going through one of his “I’m retired” phases. He has had a few of those, but in the end creative people need to be creative, and he keeps coming back.
So in the end the film got made, but the job of directing it was passed to Miyazaki’s son Goro. It would be unfair to call him a rookie, and he has clearly inherited much of his father’s genius (as we will discover even more when we get to From Up on Poppy Hill), but at this point he was relatively young and inexperienced.
He did a great job.
… but what he failed to do was satisfy either Le Guin, or her fans. That has given Tales from Earthsea the unfair reputation of being the one Studio Ghibli turkey, when it is in fact far superior to quite a few of their other films. Admittedly, we are not reaching the kind of standards here of the most recent efforts prior to this one, films such as Spirited Away, The Cat Returns and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s a solidly watchable film, stunningly animated.
The only problem is that it does end up as something of a halfway house between an adaptation and a film that is merely inspired by the books. It is trying to be the latter, but can’t quite tear itself away from plot elements from the book series, and that leads to some confusion and lack of clear motivations for the characters. That’s something the books do better. Here is a little snippet of Le Guin’s own opinion of the film, from her website:
The moral sense of the books becomes confused in the film. For example: Arren’s murder of his father in the film is unmotivated, arbitrary: the explanation of it as committed by a dark shadow or alter-ego comes late, and is not convincing.
She’s quite right, and as she points out the idea is from A Wizard of Earthsea, but is utilised without the backstory to explain it. That results in a film that revolves around a heroic central character who is established as a cold-blooded murderer in the opening scene, so rooting for him becomes an uneasy viewing experience, and when that is resolved it seems far too external, a circumstance he has fallen into rather than something that flows naturally from the character. Then we have the antagonist, Cob.
He’s a fabulous character, but very un-Ghibli. I have mentioned a few times that Studio Ghibli gave us a grand total of one moustache-twirling, irredeemable villain, and that was in Laputa. Cob comes very close to being another one, but the difference is that he has a clear and powerful motivation that we can understand: he is terrified of dying. Despite that, he is much more of a one-dimensional villain that we are used to in Ghibli films. We are not used to black and white morality, and I much prefer the intelligence of the shades of grey we are normally offered. That said, the climactic battle to the film between Cob and the good guys is absolutely stunning, one of the most exciting animated film sequences you will ever watch, and his motivation allows for a strong central message to the film: death gives life meaning, and should not be feared. Immortality is an unattainable curse, and the quest to avert death turns Cob into a monster.
The excitement was maintained by violence, to a degree that I find deeply untrue to the spirit of the books.
That’s another quote from Le Guin, and she has a point. Perhaps more importantly it is deeply untrue to the spirit of Studio Ghibli films as well. But it is a little unfair, because there is far more going on here than the violence, and the relationship between Arren and Therru is a powerful thread running through the film. There is a strong tradition in anime for female characters who fit the tsundere trope, which I explained when I looked at it in relation to some of the Doctor Who companions, here, and Therru is a great example of that kind of character. She is also the key to how the film could have perhaps been a greater success, by ditching those few dangling plot threads from the books and making her the central character throughout.
Ghibli’s greatest strength is the portrayal of strong female leads, and Therru should have been another one of those. She is the one who gets to resolve the plot in the end, and it virtually comes out of nowhere. I say virtually, because there are a couple of tiny hints if you look out for them. But Tales from Earthsea could have been so much better as her journey, fully exploring her feelings and motivations, and what makes her who, and what, she is. Instead it is the journey of a super-capable fighter with a murderous past. When he appears to have betrayed his friends, the film briefly flips round so the story is told through Therru’s eyes, and it’s a stunningly good part of the film. The whole thing should have been her story, not his.
Sometimes it’s best to stick with what you know.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 9 in particular are all completely magnificent:
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Tales from Earthsea
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
I’ll leave you with the trailer for Tales from Earthsea. Note how it ends on a shot of Therru. Somebody understood what this film should have been. Next time we will be looking at Studio Ghibli’s triumphant return to a younger demographic, with Ponyo. RP