Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why I Think Ender's Game Did a Good Job

Ender’s Game. Dir. Gavin Hood. Screenplay by Gavin Hood. Perfs. Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield. 2013. DVD. Summit Entertainment, 2014. Rated PG-13.

Ender’s Game, the classic sci-fi novel of 1985, is a dark, personal story that follows a young boy searching desperately for understanding and safety in a world that refuses to let him have any. The boy is being groomed to become the savior of the human race, so he is guided, coerced, and forced into dangerous, violent, and depressing situations to see if his natural aggression and ingenuity will be strong enough to overcome mankind’s greatest enemies.

For many readers, the success of this story lies heavily in watching the character Ender grow from a frightened, instinct-driven prodigy into a calculating genius through his experiences in the space station/private academy Battle School. The trials he faces and victories he earns are usually very dark, but they are relatable enough that Ender’s victories become cathartic to our own struggles. The fact that his genius is eventually recognized and respected by friends and enemies alike is a dream that many misunderstood teenagers wish for with all their hearts.

More mature readers were also surprised and impressed with the other relationships in the book, like Ender’s private struggles embracing his internal aggression, his desire for “peace,” or the oddly parental relationships that his teachers and handlers assume. Front and center on this list is the penultimate relationship Ender has throughout the book with the very enemies he is being trained to destroy. In many instances, these relationships are only referenced in the book as chapter headings or through intense symbolism that is only explained in retrospect. Mature readers understand that these relationships--the character traits they reveal--are what make Ender such a unique character, and that they are what ultimately redeem him.

For years the novelist, Orson Scott Card, had refused to allow Ender’s Game to become a movie adaptation because he feared the loss of creative control over his work. A natural fear for such a subtle book, and one that many of his fans agreed with. Filmmakers may have felt a similar aversion to adapting it, since the images of children fighting would be so horrific that it would smother anything else the story had to say. However, in 1996 Card decided to write his own screenplay adaptation of the book when he co-founded the Fresco Pictures movie studio the same year. Several years and drafted adaptations later, Card simply assumed the role of co-producer, letting Gavin Hood’s screenplay and Summit Entertainment do the rest.

The struggles of making a film adaptation of a book are often discussed and mostly understandable. Books can fit more action than movies can. This means the filmmaker has to choose what the most important scenes to include are. Books can express internal character struggles and dialogues much easier than movies can. This means the filmmaker has to invent visual or vocal opportunities to convey the information, which means adding or changing existing scenes from the book.

All of these, however, are cardinal sins for people who want to see the book or other source material preserved in its entirety. If you are a movie goer with this mindset then you have already determined to dislike the movie. Unless you enjoy being disappointed, you really should just turn around and go home instead of watching any film adaptation. Usually, this hypothetical person is me. It’s for this reason that I waited until the movie was on Redbox to watch it.

When the first scenes flashed--no, before that. When the movie opened on a quote, white text on a black screen that should have said, “spoiler alert,” my knee jerk reaction was so strong I almost broke my teeth. Then came the rest of the complaints. The kids were way too old. The first scene of violence wasn’t strong enough. Ender wasn’t innocent enough. The script made Ender explain too much. It was all getting a little painful. Yet, between all of these thoughts, the movie also explained to me why most of these decisions were made.

When a flashback to the first alien war was the first thing on the screen after the floating text, I immediately got upset that this was going to be a war movie instead of a personal drama. But as the narration continued and the scene eventually transformed into one of the school’s wargames Ender was engaged in, I realized how well the director had just conveyed the information that the war wasn’t over and that it was being force fed to all of these kids.

The upset I felt over the ages of the children in that first interaction was replaced by surprise when the next scene was Ender’s vulnerability as he tried to deal with being kicked out of the program, as he thought he was. The frustration I felt regarding the relative tameness of how Ender physically dealt with his bully, mixed with the confusion I felt over Colonel Graff’s (Harrison Ford) too-approving face, was forgotten when the interaction with Valentine and Peter conveyed more emotional information than I thought possible for the brevity of the scene.

This give and take continued throughout the movie, but it taught me early to give it a chance before I judged too harshly. When Bean was introduced before Alai (and when Bean was almost “cool”) I almost popped out the DVD, but then Alai appeared and I calmed down a little. I turned to my wife and started explaining to her why I was so angry that the movie didn’t show the other launchies getting mad at Ender after Graff singled him out as the smartest cadet, when the movie included a conversation between Ender, Graff, and Major Anderson that helped explain not only the previous scene, but helped foreshadow other relationships. The filmmakers clear had a grasp on the material and I tried to bite my tongue from then on out, and I'm glad I did.

In general, I think the movie was a little too straightforward with many of the themes. The conversation I mentioned above left no room for the audience to personally interpret Ender and Graff’s relationship, because Major Anderson immediately explains it to us in no uncertain terms. The opening quote of the movie is still my pet example. The quote says, “When I understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, then in that moment, I also love him. --A.E. Wiggin.” For those in the audience who don’t know who “Wiggin” is, this may just be an excellent thesis for what to look for in the rest of the movie. Or they may well forget that it said anything at all after they see Ender mangle and threaten his school bullies within the next ten minutes. For me, it told me that this movie was not going to make us bear the burden of using our own minds to decipher the proceeding events. I think I was right, and I also think they made the right decision. 

Ender’s Game is a very nuanced book. Card did an excellent job weaving so many plot lines and internal conflicts together in a relatively short book and it worked so well. But I don’t believe this movie could do that. Movies, almost by definition, have to be more pointed. Scenes have to be directed by cause and effect and can’t be allowed to ramble like books can. Sure, some movies are so stylized that they can allow multiple story lines and less linear structures, but could they risk that with this movie? Between the stress of pleasing fans, dealing with Card’s unfortunate political influence among fans and general audiences, and trying to make a movie with a major theme of child violence while starring children (which almost always draws a younger audience, its own undesired controversy), could the filmmakers really afford to take major chances by deviating from the most easily profitable format? Maybe. It did have a $110 million budget, but where much is spent, much is required back.

Regardless of the reasons why, this movie demanded that filmmakers pick and choose their points of focus. The book spends a lot of time the movie doesn’t have proving to us that Ender is as capable, as compassionate, and as much of a genius as we hope he is by giving us a lot of details and adventures in Battle School. The victories and lessons he has there, along with the relationships he forms seem to be what most readers, at least the ones I talk to, remember best. The movie rushes past almost all of them with reckless abandon. The film makes us take it’s word for it that Ender is smart, because we don’t get to see it often, and we don’t get to see it grow at all. So, if it has to pick and choose what to include, and it chose to remove the most memorable part of the narrative, what did it choose to focus on?

They chose to focus on the climax and the deeper themes. One of the basics premises of story writing from the climax backwards. Is the climax of the book that fact the Ender finally has friends? Is the climax of the book that Ender and his sister are separated? No, the climax is that Ender has killed a proverbial mockingbird and his soul is damned, in large part because he was lied to and kept from exploring options beyond violence by the powers that be. 

So they rushed through the human friendships, often stating them blatantly through direct dialogue, leaving just enough to let us know that relationships were important to these other themes. They rushed through the psychoanalyzing game to make sure we saw the more important parts of it: the egg and colony planet. They let Ender get to know Mazer Rackham so that we could understand the nature of the Formics. They focused on leaving Ender overworked in that classical Kafkaesque confusion so that he wouldn’t know what he was doing and put the pieces together. At least not until it was too late. These decisions worked in the movie because none of the fun of the Battle School game, none of his tactical expertise mattered when it came to his decision to leave humanity and meet the Formic at the end.

All of us can admit that the book had more oomph. It's hard to say that any part of this incredible story is "more important" than another, but when structure has to define necessity, you have to make decisions. The book is plainly the better version of the story, and we can all wish that the movie did things differently; but when it comes to the heart of story of the book, and the final point the author wanted to make, the movie conveyed it as well as it could. This is proven well enough by people who hadn’t read the book and really enjoyed the movie. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a positive score, if that means anything to anyone here. If you wanted the movie be an adrenaline rush that got your illiterate friends pumped from watching people outsmart each other in Battle School, then you’re out of luck. Red Cliffs is a great replacement for that sort of movie. If you wanted a surprising consideration of the nature of violence, and what it means to know your enemy, then this was probably as good a shot of it as we could’ve hoped from Ender’s Game.