“Some people are quick to see injustice and cruelty,” Ursula K. Le Guin said before her passing earlier this year, “but I was slow to see it.” This frank insight is one of the many spoken by the clear-headed octogenarian author in the course of Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a 65-minute film (and installment of PBS’ American Masters) that has been a decade in the making.
Director Arwen Curry’s vision is for the most part worth the wait, as Le Guin emerges as a historic literary voice as imaginative as J.K. Rowling, as political as Margaret Atwood, and as foundational to the genre of science fiction as Stephen King has been for horror.
Le Guinn is deserving of a documentary that digs below the surface of her most famous works, which span decades and include the novels A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed and short story “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin gives this responsibility to Le Guin herself, who takes up the majority of the film in captivating un-dated interviews, as well as to commentators such as authors Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon, who form an impressive slate of talking-head fans who were inspired by her work.
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t offer much in the way of revelations that a standard interview wouldn’t, but what emerges is a portrait of an artist growing, and of a feminist coming into social consciousness. The above quote refers in part to Le Guin’s early books, which include hints of the strong gender commentary which would later anchor her work but which she says are examples of her trying to write like the men she’d grown up reading.
Eventually, Le Guin began exploring hard, possibly unanswerable questions of utopia, particularly around inequality, in award-winning texts which increasingly challenged their audiences. Her interrogation of the status quo culminated in 2014 when at the age of 85, she gave an award acceptance speech slamming Amazon and asserting that capitalism isn’t inescapable.
Occasional fiery speech aside, Le Guin’s life story as presented in the documentary isn’t particularly dramatic, but it is inspiring thanks to the author’s incomparable imagination and her assertion — decades before this was a theme of every young adult fantasy book — that words are magic.
The movie’s standout feature is the art that frequently accompanies Le Guin’s mesmerizing readings of her own work. Spirals of moving paint form light, the sea, shadows, and creatures in clips which chart the evolution of her fictional worlds, all while accompanied by a thrilling score.
These animations bring her words to life, granting them a visual representation of the boldness and beauty which has influenced readers and writers for over half a century. This ever-morphing painting is a pure dreamscape that mimics Le Guin’s own limitless imagination, and they more than anything else elevate the film above standard biographical fare.
Le Guin’s legacy is as large and fantastical as the epic paint-stroke scenes, and through them we’re lucky, for a few moments, to see inside her mind.