Why Ender’s Film Could Never Work

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game didn’t need to be made into a movie, one could argue.  It was one of those books with a jillion sequels, but you only really remember the first one (unless you’re me).  I read this book as a child and marveled at how such a book could be published in 1985.

In this book, there are laptops in every school.  Children posing as adults on the Internet.  At the center of it all was a six-year-old boy who had to be dangerous enough to be powerful, but gentle enough to not want power.  I read this book as the oldest of four siblings, and the first scene with Peter was one of the scariest things I could imagine.

From Chapter 2:

“Lie flat, bugger. We’re gonna vivisect you, bugger. At long last we’ve got one of you alive, and we’re going to see how you work.”

“Peter, stop it,” Ender said.

“Peter, stop it. Very good. So you buggers can guess our names. You can make yourselves sound like pathetic, cute little children so we’ll love you and be nice to you. But it doesn’t work. I can see you for what you really are. They meant you to be human, little Third, but you’re really a bugger, and now it shows.”

He lifted his foot, took a step, and then knelt on Ender, his knee pressing into Ender’s belly just below the breastbone. He put more and more of his weight on Ender. It became hard to breathe.

“I could kill you like this,” Peter whispered. “Just press and press until you’re dead. And I could say that I didn’t know it would hurt you, that we were just playing, and they’d believe me, and everything would be fine. And you’d be dead. Everything would be fine.”

Ender could not speak; the breath was being forced from his lungs. Peter might mean it. Probably didn’t mean it, but then he might.

“I do mean it,” Peter said. “Whatever you think. I mean it. They only authorized you because I was so promising. But I didn’t pan out. You did better. They think you’re better. But I don’t want a better little brother, Ender. I don’t want a Third.”

“I’ll tell,” Valentine said.

“No one would believe you.”

“They’d believe me.”

“Then you’re dead, too, sweet little sister.”

This scene made me feel for Ender, quickly and uncontrollably.  It was the first time I was subjected to the abrupt method of OSC’s characterization; when you meet an OSC character, you form an opinion right away.  There is no “getting-to-know-you” period.  Or rather, there is, but it doesn’t matter because you’ve already decided what you think about him.  From that moment on, Peter was my enemy, and Ender Wiggin was my friend, Val his savior.  This is the moment that made the rest of the story have meaning – not the Battle Room, not the inventions of a fascinating future, but really the only thing that has a chance of pulling anyone into science fiction that doesn’t want to have to be subjected to whole universes of learning curves to read a simple book – a human story.  Ender was a six-year-old, his sister was 8, and his brother was 10.  Then the brother had an arc; he apologized to Ender, which scared Ender even more – because either his brother secretly loved him and had no self-control, or he was still at it – still manipulating him.

This essay isn’t about whether Ender’s Game was a good movie – at least compared to the book.  There are countless sources out there that will tell you it failed in that respect.  I argue that this cannot be made into a movie, no more than you can make a movie out of a book like The Things They Carried.

No Control of Time

A book gets into the mind in a way a movie never can – and this pains me, because I love movies so much.  Ender’s Game is no longer even close to the best thing I’ve read anymore.  But it’s proof that a book can have something that a movie can’t.  In the movie, the scene with Peter lasts seconds.  There is no time for anything but fear.  There is no moment to consider Peter’s character.  Peter’s apology is also gone, but I don’t blame them.  If it had been there it would have confused viewers to death!  Movies are supposed to be clear about their characters, or at least let you have something concrete to hate; to have a moment of cruelty then sympathy in the span of a few minutes in a movie isn’t something a movie viewer will trust.

No Trust

This is something that is hard even for books to do.  Ender’s Game is trying very hard to tell a story without being interrupted.  My wife hates this book, and frankly I can see why.  While I may see here an allegory for the human race’s need to communicate with itself and how mankind’s hope resides in the adaptability and kindness of its children for the future, she sees something that her heart and mind will not let her get past: images of children hurting and even killing each other, being mentally manipulated to do so by adults who supposedly are saving the world.  When I read this book as a child, I gave it my trust, letting my walls drop to take in the story.  An older reader with developed morals – like my wife – sees the cruelty and slaps it from her presence.

Compare it to a conversation.  “This government is like Hitler’s” someone might say to begin. (Granted, if he was slightly socially unaware…)

There are two responses that I believe are the most likely.  There’s the very understandable “You’re crazy, get out of my face.” that we learn to protect ourselves.  It ends the conversation.  Then there’s the “Really?  I think you’re wrong, but tell me why.”  My wife’s conversation with this book ends the first way – because some people don’t want to be convinced that this cruelty can be part of entertainment – and why should she?  “I’m going to enjoy this book about a six-year-old being abused into saving the world?”  It’s a small wonder that many adults hearing of this story for the first time balk at its premise.

If a book couldn’t gain trust, how could a movie possibly do so when it assumes the trust is already there?  It has no chance.  In possible anticipation of this, the movie changed the ages to be about 6 years older.

Nice, now you have Space Harry Potter.

Behind the Events

When OSC speaks of the creation in the definitive edition of Ender’s Game, he mentions it as something he wrote simply to set things up for Speaker for the Dead.  I often wonder if that would have made the movie more palatable as well; what if they had made a movie called Speaker for the Dead and then after the movie marketed a prequel about the main character’s childhood?  It worked for Star Wars.  I feel like the movie lacked any kind of answer to the question of “Why?”  Why are we seeing Ender’s story?  Why do we see so little of the Earth we wanted to save?

Perhaps even a fusion of Ender’s Shadow with Ender’s Game might have made TV as a science fiction drama.  At least then it would have more control of time, more chances to earn trust, and more opportunities to explain origins behind characters and events.  Without these luxuries, a complex series like this is better left on the page.

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