How Ender’s Game, the movie, enhances Ender’s Game, the book

Yesterday, in a highly anticipated family event, we took our three children to see Ender’s Game. 25 years earlier Ender’s Game had been a revolutionary reading experience for me. I loved the book, the entire series and the author. (Of course, I realise that there is controversy in being a fan of Orson Scott Card but more on that below). It is hard actually to identify one particular thing that placed Ender’s Game so highly in my life. The plot and the twist at the end, the idea of super intelligent and capable children, or, the notion that understanding requires you to see the world from the perspective of others. That last one is at the core of my academic field, economics and strategy, so much so that I am not sure I’d be where I am today without Ender’s Game.

For this reason, Ender’s Game was dutifully read to my children. Each separately and each of whom had a similar experience to my own. The last one had her reading completed just hours before seeing the movie. This was not a movie you would be allowed to see without having experienced the book. So, for the children, the movie was an important event. My son refused to read any reviews or opinions about it. He wanted his experience to be unsullied. (He also loved Card’s books so much that he wanted to change his own name to ‘Orson’).

I wasn’t so worried about reading reviews. Most of them were written with some angst by the reviewers who appeared to me to not want to like the movie. They felt they could not review it independently of the controversy surrounding Card but, for me, that meant they weren’t really reviewing the movie. For example, Dana Stevens in Slate ended up concluding:

I can understand wanting to skip Ender’s Game as a matter of moral principle, but you can also feel free to blow it off just because it’s not that good.

Now that is putting a knife in and twisting it.

You would think, therefore, that my expectations were too high. That I was bound to be disappointed. But I saw the movie and was not at all disappointed. Now this might seem paradoxical given that I am now going to tell you that the movie failed to capture the book and probably failed to be a good movie. Fundamentally, it was paced too quickly. We couldn’t get a sense of the characters, their motivations and ultimately their depth. They either grew up too fast or didn’t grow up at all. I’m not quite sure which. They were too single dimensional. We had no real idea what they were thinking. And the moral issues were either absent or then forced on us. If you were just to see the movie you would probably appreciate the excellent performance and direction of the lead playing Ender and also the appropriate picture of the technology in the book. So it would not be a terrible experience. It just would not be the experience the author intended.

But none of that disappointed me. Frankly, I did not see how they could make Ender’s Game into a two hour movie. Card writes his books so much from the perspective of characters and what they are thinking that I don’t know how you put that in a movie. But upon exiting the movie, I knew why I wasn’t disappointed. I wanted to see them try.

The very notion of putting this book into a movie format was so challenging that those who love the book did not know how it could be done. But the act of trying was an intellectual exercise that made you think more deeply about the book and appreciate it more. And that was the discussion that ensued amongst our family yesterday evening. And it was a long discussion. We did not discuss morality except insofar as whether the issues in the movie were the same as the book. We discussed how it could have been fixed. What parts should have received more due. What parts could have been dropped. Which characters were neglected. In the end, a consensus arose that perhaps the movie should receive the Peter Jackson like treatment. Ender’s Game was a book that could have been made into a trilogy. Maybe that is what they would do next.

Herein lies the point of Ender’s Game, the movie. It is a reinterpretation for a different medium. It is a discussion of story-telling and character development. But above all it is an appreciation of the written word as a vehicle for expression and dialogue. For that reason, Ender’s Game, the movie, enhances the value of the book. I can imagine many classrooms who assign the book then turning to the movie to build on a discussion as to why books are important. And for the rest of us, I can’t wait until somebody else has a go at trying to make Ender’s Game, the movie. I’ll see it again and again even if they never get it right.

Upon concluding this review, I do want to say a few words about the controversy surrounding Card. This too was discussed with my children last evening. Card is apparently homophobic and writes some crazy political stuff. I have known this for years. I can’t for the life of me understand it and, personally, could not really get this from his writing. People like to attribute it to his Mormonism but that seems to me a prejudiced statement in of itself. Indeed, one of the books of Card’s I most enjoyed was Saints about the history of the Mormon church and I’m a card carrying atheist. Read that and the mystery of Card’s other beliefs will only be deepened.

But at the same time, there are times Card writes outside of fiction and is a model of common sense. Here, for instance, is a piece on parenting and what encouragement means and here is Card on why “wanting the best” for your children is a crazy goal.

Here is the thing: do we really want people like Card to be recluses? To only speak to the world through their published books and not by other means. For me that is a terrible outcome. It is an outcome that would keep Cory Doctorow and Charlie Strauss away from us for more than once a year. But the boycott against Card is sending that signal. It is saying, if you want commercial success (and I don’t buy Card’s line that he wasn’t being paid a cent for the movie as its success would drive studios to make movies out of his other books), you have to keep to yourself. Card’s views are whatever they are. It is more useful to know them or have the opportunity to know them than not. And you can disagree violently with them while still loving their other half. I can’t pretend to no longer like Orson Scott Card’s books because he appeared unnaturally devoted to George W. Bush. And what is more, I don’t want my children to think like that. I want them to tolerate and that means they have to experience.

My now 15 year old daughter summed up her opinion on this. To boycott the movie and his books and to deny him commercial success will only divert Card to spend more of his time writing the other stuff. But if his books are successful, he will devote more of his energies to them. In other words, she understood the signals being sent to Card and wanted them to go the other way. Apparently, you can expose children to things and they can make up their minds.