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The Word for World is Forest

Thoughts on the book by Ursula K. Le Guin
With additional notes on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

"If the yumens are men, they are unfit or untaught to dream or act as men. Therefore, they go about in torment killing and destroying, driven by the Gods within, whom they will not set free, but try to uproot and deny. If they are men, they are evil men, having denied their own Gods, afraid to see their own faces in the dark..."

- The Word for World is Forest (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin

I've read three books already this year and I'm currently mid-way through a fourth. To say that "The Word for World is Forest" by Ursula K. Le Guin is the very best of them would be an understatement. It's one of the very best books I've ever read! What I loved about the book, first and foremost, was its humanism. This might sound incongruous given how the focus of the story is partially centred on a race of forest-dwelling alien creatures, but the subtext, and the way the aliens become a kind of stand-in for any indigenous race that has faced prejudice, hostility and extermination, allows Le Guin to explore ever-pertinent themes of racism, war, slavery, deforestation, the destruction of the eco-system, capitalism and friendship.

Apparently written in response to America's involvement in the Vietnam war, "The Word for World is Forest" focuses on the efforts made by Earth colonists to run a logging company on the distant planet of Athshe. The Athsheans are a peaceful race and take a passive view of the humans (or "yumens", as they're known in the book), despite the loggers causing irreparable damage to their environment. It's only after a military presence brought in to safeguard the company's interests begins enslaving, imprisoning and eventually abusing the planet's indigenous population, that tensions boil over into an all-out war.

The book is written from several different perspectives and does well to capture the individual voices of those on either side of the discussion. Le Guin balances the perspectives, moving between characters that are enlightened and sympathetic, to characters that are consumed by prejudice and hate. It's complex and never one-sided, but always clear in its sympathy and support for the Athsheans, and in its lamentation for the violence and destruction caused by humanity in the pursuit of profit and power. A short book, "The Word for World is Forest" could probably be described as a novella, however, it nonetheless succeeds in communicating its themes, politics and positions in a clear and concise approach that would make it suitable for young adults, who might still be susceptible to its lack of cynicism, and its image of a world both defined by and in tune with the hymns of nature.

The Word for World is Forest [Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974]:

Many have seen the book as an early forerunner to director James Cameron's blockbuster adventure film, Avatar (2009). Some online commentators have even accused Cameron of actual plagiarism. While there are obvious similarities between the two works, including both narrative and thematical preoccupations, including a concern with anti-war and pro-environmentalist messages, as well as an obvious attempt to connect the presentation of the alien creatures to the supposedly primitive and mystical tribalism of actual Native cultures, I'd still argue that Cameron's film is leaning more towards the story of Pocahontas than it is to the more recent influences of Le Guin and her work.

That said, there is at least one cinematic descendent of Le Guin's book that immediately stands out. In "The Word for World is Forest", the Athsheans (known as "Creechies" by the human characters) are depicted as pacifist, forest-dwelling creatures, forced into a war with an invading military presence that has turned their home planet into an occupied territory. They're described as being like tiny bear or monkey-like beings covered in a thick green and black fur, wearing only hoods and belts.

The image of these characters and the way Le Guin describes their later war with the "yumens" put me in mind of an earlier but no less lucrative science-fiction fantasy, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), and more specifically the presentation of the Ewoks. There's even a city in Le Guin's book called "Endtor", which is remarkably similar to "Endor", the Ewok home world. So far, I haven't been able to find any genuine confirmation that the filmmakers involved in "Return of the Jedi" had read Le Guin's book or taken influence from it, so I suppose we chalk this one up to coincidence or "inspiration"?

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand & George Lucas, 1983]:

Co-written, produced and by all accounts co-directed by George Lucas (albeit, uncredited for the latter), "Return of the Jedi" remains one of the weakest of the Star Wars sequels. Re-watching the film for the first time since childhood, there were several obvious sequences and images that I remembered, most of them relating to the scenes with slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt. However, it was surprising how inconsequential and unfocused the rest of the film felt, especially considering that its predecessor, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is such a masterpiece, and arguably the film that broadened and strengthened the saga to such an extent that filmmakers are still able to build on its influence even today.

While "Return of the Jedi" succeeds in bringing to a close the themes of fathers and family that run throughout the saga (prequel trilogy included), it's still a film that feels as if the screenplay was being written around specific set-pieces and character designs created for no other reason than to sell toys.

However, there's one aspect of the film, apocryphal as it may be, that makes the experience of it, at least from my own perspective, all the more necessary. Attempting to find a link between "Return of the Jedi" and the book in question, I came across a piece of trivia that suggested scenes depicting the battles between the Ewoks and Storm Troopers were modelled on unused ideas and visual set-pieces that Lucas had devised for his version of Apocalypse Now (1979) when he'd been attached to direct the film prior to the success of Star Wars (1977). Hypothetical or not, it was an earth-shattering bit of trivia, and something that made me want to go back and look at the film again.

Apocalypse Now [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979]:

Apocalypse Now has been one of my favourite films since as far back as I can remember. It was a key text in broadening my understanding of what cinema could achieve as an audio-visual medium, and how a talented and ambitious filmmaker could take a text that was almost a century old – Joseph Conrad's colonialist novella Heart of Darkness (1899) – and transpose it onto recent history, elevating it at the same time through a restless experimentation with the cinematic form.

Today it's impossible to think of the film without recalling the surreal, drugged-out, psychedelic insanity of director Francis Ford Coppola's incredible stylizations, from the vivid opening montage of images –  which connect the forest as an almost supernatural entity to the central character, drifting in clouds of war and insanity; transposing the outer-landscapes of south-east Asia to the inner-landscapes of American rock music, drugs and turmoil – to the final sequence, with its scenes of ritual sacrifice, thunder and lightening, and half-glimpsed explosions of primal violence against expressions of genuine poetry. However, there's another version of Apocalypse Now that we never got to see. The one that George Lucas had been attached to direct since the early 1970s.

Working from a screenplay by the American writer and conservative John Milius, Lucas's vision for Apocalypse Now was to shoot the film in a rough, docudrama approach, in black and white 16mm and with non-professional actors. It would've been a marked contrast to the baroque, hallucinogenic approach eventually favoured by Coppola, and would've drawn on the influence of other political films, like The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo and Culloden (1964) by Peter Watkins.

Culloden [Peter Watkins, 1964]:

The Battle of Algiers [Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966]:

Obviously, the style of these more radical films from the 1960s doesn't necessarily mesh with the images from "Return of the Jedi" as it exists in its current form, but that's not to say we can't still infer some of Lucas's intent for how the battles of his Apocalypse Now might've played out.

Like "The Word for World is Forest", the scenes set on the planet Endor are quite clearly meant to recall something of the realities of the war in Vietnam. What these scenes depict is a rural, apparently primitive or, at the very least, unprepared society, forced into combat with an occupying power that is attacking them with military hardware and weaponry far more advanced and destructive than their own. By using their knowledge of the forest to their advantage, the indigenous, supposedly primitive society, is able to repel the advanced military forces, scoring a victory that is seen as unprecedented.

The fact that Lucas recasts these scenes of battle and bloodshed, earmarked for a more serious or realistic project, with little teddy bear creatures and cloned super-soldiers, shouldn't detract from the political subtext of these sequences, any more than the fantasy elements of Le Guin's book should detract from hers. At the very least, the Ewok sequences from the film of Lucas and Marquand suggest something of what a film adaptation of "The Word for World is Forest" might look like, depicting the same proto-terrorist guerilla warfare that Le Guin describes in her book, but in a vivid, full-colour style.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand & George Lucas, 1983]:

Seeing "Return of the Jedi" again in the context of Le Guin's book helped to enrich the experience of both. However, it was seeing the film in relation to Lucas's potential vision for Apocalypse Now that was the real revelation. While I may have misgivings about the film, I nonetheless remain a staunched defender of Lucas's filmmaking and rank at least three of the six films he's directed as genuinely brilliant: THX 1138 (1971), American Graffiti (1974) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). Larger essay-length considerations of each of these three films should be posted on Lights in the Dusk later in the year.

Despite having purchased a collection of the first four "Earthsea" books a couple of years ago, "The Word for World is Forest" marks my first proper experience reading Le Guin's work. Given how moved and transported I was by the storytelling, its themes and its incredibly visual way of describing scenes and events, I think I owe it to myself to finally delve into these "Earthsea" stories, which include "A Wizard of Earthsea" (1968), "The Tombs of Atuan" (1971), "The Farthest Shore" (1972) and "Tehanu" (1990).


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