My (Unexpected) Ender’s Game Problem

Ender's Battle School teammates
Lionsgate Film

My relationship with Ender’s Game is, as it is for many science fiction fans, complicated. I first read the novel as a teenager in the mid-1980s, and I remember identifying with Ender Wiggin the way subsequent generations of adolescents identify with Harry Potter—classic misunderstood, unappreciated boys who turn out to be humanity’s saviors. Over the years, though, it’s become harder to recommend the novel, or even its better sequel, Speaker for the Dead, to readers because of what we’ve learned about Orson Scott Card in the last 25 years.

I don’t intend to rehash the whole “love the art if not the artist” debate here. I reread Ender’s Game about a year ago and, though it didn’t impress me as much as it had back then, I could certainly see why I’d had that reaction. As good as the novel may be, though, and I realize that’s up for argument, I’m just uncomfortable with contributing to the ongoing success of a public figure whose politics I find abhorrent—and that includes encouraging other people to buy and read his work.

So I didn’t have any plans to see the Ender’s Game movie. Then, thanks to Card’s publisher, I was given the opportunity to see an advance screening and curiosity got the best of me. And, it turned out, the film is morally troubling for entirely different reasons than many of us, including myself, might have been expecting.

Note: There will be spoilers.

I’ve actually never subscribed to the theory that the “Buggers,” the alien menace in Ender’s Game, got their name as a homophobic slur; that’s just a little too on the nose, even for Orson Scott Card. And though Card’s mined the “villainy through sexual predation” vein deeply in more recent fiction, as I remember it, Ender’s exposed to a lot more racism in Battle School than homophobia. If there was any homophobic subtext to the book, it’s definitely been airbrushed out of the movie; writer/director Gavin Hood has even managed to remove any sexual menace from a scene where some of Ender’s classmates gang up on him in the shower.

(Just to be on the safe side, though, the aliens are almost consistently referred to as “Formics” in the movie; there’s a few references to “the Bugs,” but I don’t think there was a single “Buggers” in the entire picture.)

The problem I have with the movie has to do with the entire concept of child soldiers. Though it makes some gestures towards the idea that Ender is going through a psychological wringer, primarily by portraying him as a target of bullying who knows that his only way out is an even more vicious show of retaliatory force, and to a lesser extent by Viola Davis’s Major Anderson character agonizing over what’s happening to Ender, his military education is still a fairly antiseptic, sanitized environment. The zero-gravity war games aren’t a source of tension; instead, they’re presented as exhilarating, practically fun. There’s even a bit where Asa Butterfield, as Ender, floats through his enemies in slow motion with a gun in each hand, firing away John Woo-style as the music swells. It’s a moment that feels completely at odds with the dark vision of the novel—basically, reducing Ender’s military training to Space Quidditch.

And this is where I started to feel truly uneasy about what I was watching, because everything we’ve learned about child soldiers since Ender’s Game was published has shown us that they’re thrown into the shit, subjected to a relentlessly brutal situation without respite. The conceit that Ender and his classmates are being groomed for their potential tactical genius is a fantasy that becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto after you’ve read, say, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Home or Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation.

The movie isn’t completely unaware of this problem. As I mentioned, Major Anderson alludes to the psychological and emotional traumas Ender might be facing, and of course there’s the climax where Ender learns that all those “training exercises” he and his fellow youthful officers were going through at Command School were in fact the final offensive against the Formics. The idea is that the revelation that Ender has been fighting a real war all this time is supposed to induce an immediate emotional trauma, but, as it plays out in the film, it’s not especially convincing.

Maybe some of that is a personal reaction, due to the fact that the Ender’s Game film can’t surprise me the way it can someone who’s never read the novel. I’m still not convinced, however, by Gavin Hood’s attempt to have it both ways — to spend about 90 to 95 percent of the picture rooting for Ender as he becomes the last, best starfighter, with a few moments of self-doubt along the way to foreshadow his emotional turnaround in the final act. The (very slight) current of military school hazing Ender faces in Battle School feels significantly less brutal than what Card puts him through in the novel; the terrifying specter of Ender’s older brother is similarly reduced to a few broad strokes. After all that, to pull back and say, “Oh, hey, you were in a real war the whole time” is almost a cop-out, rather than the ultimate betrayal piled upon all the other betrayals of Ender by the system that made him a killer, the way it is in the novel.

Again, this is something I think the film wants to get at—but I felt as if it were only feinting at a theme Card makes much more explicit. Ender’s military training should come across as brutal and dehumanizing as the boot camp half of Full Metal Jacket; instead, as I’ve suggested, it’s a techno-gloss on Hogwarts, right down to the adults who argue over whether Ender’s the chosen one but deliberately keep him from seeing the full picture.

Of course, it’s not as if you’d get a greenlight for a special effects-laden blockbuster by grounding it in a brutally realistic portrayal of child combat; in that respect, Ender’s Game is exactly as shiny as I’d thought it might be. Setting aside the Orson Scott Card problem, there’s a lot to recommend the film if you want to see it, from the way Harrison Ford and Viola Davis flesh out characters who were little more than disembodied voices in the novel to the Flaming Lips song that plays over the final credits. Still, the extent to which Ender’s story has been romanticized in the transformation from novel to film bothers me—I find myself in the totally unexpected position of feeling that, as much as the film got right, by falling back on Hollywood’s standard “war is entertaining as all get out, until it’s hell” arc, it gets a fundamental aspect of the novel wrong… and not even the inner 16-year-old who’s been dreaming of an Ender’s Game film for decades is fully satisfied with the way it’s finally turned out.

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31 October 2013 | uncategorized |