Tuesday, November 5, 2013


I can recall reading Ender's Game during three different seminal stages of my life: once, at age 10, as a kid's book; once at fifteen, as a revenge fantasy; and once, again, at age 22, because some acquaintances had discovered it and I wanted to engage them philosophically. The fact that it could factor into three so different periods of my life speaks to what makes it such a terrific book: good books mean one thing to many people; great books mean many things to a single person. Ender's Game was about the id and its hero complex, but it was also about high school, it was also about the Cold War, it was also about religion, it was also about the responsibility bestowed by authority, it was also about children, and it was also about empathy and compassion.

After decades of rumours and failures, the movie version has arrived. To its credit, it tries to hit every note. Every character is there, even the ones I'd forgotten. Everything proceeds at the breakneck pace mandated by the structure of the novel, an unimpeded march towards Ender's inevitable anointment as savior. Watching this anointment exposed so blatantly reminded me of my one critique on my third read: the book is too committed to its own mythmaking. For every artificial obstacle thrown Ender's way by his superiors, there's never any real sign that he isn't the chosen one. In the movie, we're told that he's been tormented by his peers in school, but when we see him he is in the process of ruthlessly eliminating the bullies. Harry Potter, for all of his messiah-like qualities (though it's been argued he's a derivative of Ender - this is a thirty-five-year-old source character), at least had to struggle with girls and crushes and a regular antagonist or two. There's no Snape or Draco Malfoy regularly pulling him through the mud because Ender, we're told from the outset, can handle anything. 

(Of course, Orson Scott Card is a Bible-belt Mormon, so it's probably not a coincidence that Card's Jesus is a little too perfect. Which isn't to say I give a damn about Card's moral failings. Regardless of what he may believe in his personal life and whatever views he may expound to the world at large, the book/movie stand on their own merits. He doesn't like gay marriage? So what? I'm a moral relativist at the worst of times. To juxtapose: I'm reading a novel right now about a filmmaker who's so committed to realism that he makes a snuff film, and it's possible that in real life you could convince me why such a thing should be boycotted, but boycotting a movie about war and reconciliation because its original author holds a single outdated political view? While we're at it, let's burn every movie from the forties because their producers were probably sexist. This isn't even a borderline case: if the informed viewer must to go in with the understanding that the story contains certain religious underpinnings, he can quickly move on to the story's many strengths.)

We receive generic exposition in Ender's voice-over, which serves little purpose other than to tell us this is Ender's story. But this is Ender's story; moreover, his coming-of-age story. We could have learned the world as he came to understand it, but the movie allows for no such subtleties. The voiceover comes back at the very end, as it always does, but this artificial attempt at world-building could have been scaled back to allow us closer to Ender. (Technically, there are point-of-view issues. The audience observes the adults conferring about Ender behind his back, which significantly reduces the dramatic irony of Ender's penultimate stand. The tension in the book comes because he's not sure why he's being toyed with, whether the adults are trying to break him or push him. Here, it's a foregone conclusion.)

In some ways - and you don't hear this one often - the movie struggled too hard to stay faithful to the book. The Battle Room (a training room, similar to a zero-gravity game of Quidditch mixed with laser tag) is a place for the kids to work out strategies and for Ender to quickly elevate from undersized nobody to commander. But at its heart it's a game, and it could have been filmed more like one. Picture a non-basketball-fan watching a 30-for-30 special on LeBron James where the only basketball shot was a slo-mo buzzer-beater, and you'll understand how unimportant the battle room sequences feel in the movie. Yes, that shot might have been the most important one but it only matters if you understand the ebb-and-flow of a regular basketball game for forty-seven minutes, and have some sense of how that particular game came to be deadlocked at the critical moment. We see Ender win at his games before we really understand the rules. If that's a minor flaw in the book as well, it's at least excused by the difficulties of rendering the mechanics of a game with words; here, there could have been ample opportunities to let the game speak for itself. 

In the movie, this gives off the impression of a guy who's really good at a video game. Meet the bullies, beat them up, level up to battle school. Be a petulant launchie, get promoted to a real team. Fight with your commander, become a commander. Etc, etc. But I never played video games in the way most did, so I always equated Ender's ascendancy with the work of a great Magic: The Gathering player (due to the timing of when I read the book in my life). Technically, Magic is a card game with a rulebook, but the cards themselves are constantly at war with the book. Almost any text on any card is a specification for how this card is allowed to break this or that rule. Creatures can't attack and block at the same time; vigilance give them the ability to do so. Non-flying creatures cant block flying creatures; reach gives them the ability to do so. Its very malleability is a main reason I've always struggled with Magic strategy. Spending hours figuring that perfect three-card combo feels like a waste of time as soon as you encounter a cheap deck that's properly equipped to break it up. Magic takes someone who can transition on the fly, figure out razor-quick combos without spending hours on the necessary computations. Card understands the human condition enough to understand that linear thinking is eternally limiting and so he makes the source of Ender's genius his ability to think outside the box, to understand asymmetrical clusters in Formic battle formations as something completely alien to human understanding, yet ultimately understandable and containable. His learning doesn't come only in the Battle Room but also in a quest video mind game that explores his psychological nuances.These aspects are present in the movie but they aren't explored in a meaningful way. Instead of breaking down the binaries for ourselves, we sit back and marvel at the boy genius. 

This was Ender's story all the way, but it could have belonged to him even more if the cameras had trusted him. Asa Butterfield does a good job of holding a stuff upper lip and maintaining composure, but the character is about more than staying composed; Ender is supposed to be the kid who was so good he broke the game, and Butterfield never exactly radiates genius (admittedly how exactly one would radiate genius is hard to say). After he's proved himself  and begun to lead, Ender is confronted with a handicap; he goes into a 2-on-1 situation. The point is that in a militant environment, you not only need someone who can master basic strategy, but you need some who can break the rulebook and go off the grid. If you throw him into battle against superior forces, he will find a way to come out on top, whether it's through cheating or ducking or using the enemies against each other. The is the essence of why the movie was always deemed "unfilmable"; not because the mechanics of the story taking place in zero-gravity were a problem, but because a pre-teen (Butterfield is about ten years too old for the role) had to carry the burden of being such a prodigy with the necessary weight and the skill.

None of which is to say I hated the movie. It does a great job of rendering Card's book for the already converted, and it's a fantastic visual spectacle. But at the end of the day, it's a companion piece.

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