Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning science fiction novel, set on an ice-covered planet among an androgynous race whose members become either male or female whenever they go into “kemmer” or heat, is a fascinating meditation on the influence of sexuality (and weather) on the evolution of society. But the very qualities that make Le Guin’s novel so strong–her anthropologist’s desire to sketch in all the details of Gethenian culture (including selections from their folktales); her philosopher’s willingness to suspend the story to discuss, say, the roots of war or gender politics–don’t translate well to the stage.
Le Guin, after all, has 300-plus pages to detail life among the two competing Gethenian nation-states–Karhide and Orgoreyn–as well as tell the story, in a loose travel-narrative style, of Genly Ai, an envoy who has traveled across the galaxy to invite the Gethenians to join an interplanetary federation. Meryl Friedman has only a little more than two hours. Her adaptation is intelligent and well crafted but ultimately unsatisfying. Although her cast and crew have come up with dozens of clever props and stage tricks to give us an idea of what life is like on Gethen–including two contrasting styles of clothing representing the national dress of the competing Gethenian nations–she never manages to pull us into the world that Le Guin has created. Nor does Friedman have time to do anything more than touch on the various culture-and gender-related questions Le Guin raises throughout her thoughtful book.