Friday, July 3, 2015

Radio Drama Review: Earthsea

It's con season so I'm spending an embarrassingly large amount of my time working on sewing and have accomplished the nigh-miraculous task of catching up with my podcasts in the process so I had to look elsewhere for listening material. Lucky for me BBC is doing a special on Ursula Le Guin, celebrating her 85th birthday this year (and she's still writing which is absolutely bonkers) and turned both The Left Hand of Darkness and Earthsea into two, multi-part radio dramas which typically are free online to listen to for a month after broadcast (I don't know what the region restrictions are but I had no problem hearing them in the US). I actually tried LHoD first but realized partway through that I just wasn't connecting with it. The story was fine but somehow I just wasn't getting into it as much as I wanted to (and I've had it on my to-read list for years since it's such a celebrated work) so I switched to Earthsea and decided to simply read it later. I actually did read A Wizard of Earthsea, and maybe a part of the second one, as a young teen since my parents were forever recommending it to me but I didn't connect with that work either, it's an older style of writing that felt stuffy and impersonal at 14. But I was hoping that with a full cast of characters it would flow better for me and at three hours it was going to be faster than even I could read the books.


In the world of Earthsea there is magic and farming, kings, wizards, and dragons, and magic affects every life differently. Some people will rarely come into contact with it and others deal with it constantly, like the wizard Ged as he speaks with dragons, steals from ancient tombs, and follows the last bits of magic to the ends of the world. 

While I was listening to the BBC production of Good Omens I found myself wondering if I would notice what was "missing" from the story if I wasn't already familiar with the work. Knowing what was missing kept me from enjoying GO as much as I wanted to, since I had read the book first, and despite having only read the first book in this series I could still feel that some things were missing later on. I actually hadn't realized how many books the series is but for reference, this adaptation covers A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore (three for Wizard and Tombs combined, one to finish Tombs, and two for Shore, one of which might actually be from the short story of the same name "Dragonfly"). Like LHoD, I distinctly felt like there was something I was missing, that I should be connecting with the story as well but that there just wasn't time to do so. I still feel like the BBC production of Neverwhere was their best so far (about four hours for a single book, LHoD was two) and that while I'll continue to try out their adaptions of series I'll keep my expectations higher for single book adaptations.

In any case, style-wise this book doesn't feel nearly as old as it is in this adaptation, a lot of the tone and feel of it comes off as rather post-2000s instead of the 1960s-70s feel of the original, except where the magic is concerned. I find this whole thing rather cool, I like seeing how styles of fiction have changed over the past few decades and fantasy in particular has changed a ton, the whole idea of how magic works here (it's origins, uses etc) are very different from 90% of the stories published in this year and it couples into my belief that if you want to write well you need to know what else is out there, like this hugely influential series from several decades back. Changing the structure of the story around and hearing different characters narrate also certainly helped my interest with the story, there were a few clunky moments when a character was starting in on a monologue far longer than someone would ever give outside of a formal speech but overall the structure and the format worked very well. And while I don't feel as if I connected with the story as much as I wanted to, it did make me want to go back and give the books another try and to read the whole series this time and whenever a piece of media encourages me to engage with it (both with the work itself and other, outside works) I consider it successful. As far as I know BBC hasn't released the series on CD or download to own formats yet (the original episodes are no longer online) but once they do I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a short fantasy piece to listen to on their next long car trip or whenever you normally listen to music and podcasts. 

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