Ender’s Game and Unpleasant Realities

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the release of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, I read the book for the first time. I really enjoyed the book, but I had a mixed reaction to the movie. But this wasn’t just a clear cut case of “the-book-is-always-better-than-the-movie”-itus. This movie had a real chance of being great. Set design, costumes, cinematography, effects, and acting were all top-notch. So why did I leave the theater feeling so underwhelmed?

I thought perhaps it was the rushed abbreviation of the events in the book. As with most middling movies, Ender’s Game suffered from a flavorless and sometimes awkward script. At times it was halting and other times hurried, and the audience had little time to fully comprehend the development of the principal characters, especially Ender. But plot pacing problems are common with cinematic adaptations of books (e.g., Hunger Games). That alone would not have been enough to ruin the movie, at least for me.

My biggest issue with the movie is that it softens the harsh reality of the book’s world in order to appease the supposed squeamishness of its audience. There are a few central themes in the book: the danger of tyranny, the reality of choice and free will, the reality and rationality of bullies, and the survival of grace and understanding in an unforgiving environment.

The movie isn’t adequately able to deal with these themes because, whenever it came up against the accurate and ugly picture painted in the book, it softened that reality to cater to the apparently over-sensitive audience. I think this was an unforgivable mistake. Without a proper framing of the problem, the movie’s resolution is at the very best unsatisfying or, at worst, nonsensical.

In the book, Ender must become a bully to protect himself from bullies. For most of the book, he acts and thinks in a ruthlessly calculated way, barely holding on to enough self-criticism to keep humane possibilities within his line of sight. He crushes his enemies, nearly killing one bully early in the book and actually killing one later. These actions were not accidents or excesses of nervous energy. They were coldly methodical tactical maneuvers, and Ender nearly loses his soul executing them.

The movie glosses over these actions, framing them as accidents or lessening their severity, and as a consequence, the movie loses the heart of Ender and the point of Ender’s Game. Part of this was due to pressure from the studio. The director for Ender’s Game, Gavin Hood, talked about this pressure, though he apparently thought he had still retained the spirit of the book:

“When you’re just looking at it on the page and you read ‘he kicks the crap out of Stilson,’ they say ‘Gavin what are you doing? This has got to get a PG-13 rating, and you’re putting violence, don’t you know what the issue of bullying is?’ And I say ‘Yeah I do, I’m going to speak to that issue.’ He knows that he goes too far and we couldn’t shy away from that.”

Despite his claims to the contrary, in every case where the movie deviated from the book, it was to soften the hard edges of the book’s universe. Ender’s frustration with authority, his ignorant fear and hatred of the unknown, and his vicious actions against his very young peers is largely lost. Rather than a complicated and ambivalent character that develops sensitivity through extraordinary suffering, you are left with a generally likable maverick who has a sudden realization at the end of an uncomplicated, though somewhat difficult, ordeal.

Much ado has been made about Ender’s Game and bullying. While supporters of the movie and book point out that it promotes tolerance and opposes bullying in principle, opponents of Card’s personal beliefs have boycotted the movie and the author, becoming nothing short of ideological bullies themselves. They suppose that a book written by such a “bigot” must itself be full of bigotry.

In an article for Slate, David Haglund supposes that the book reflects much of Card’s extremist political leanings, but that the movie removed these references for marketing reasons—to distance the movie from the reputation of its author. As an example, Haglund points out that the term “bugger,” used in the first book as a label for the bug-like alien invaders, was replaced with the less offensive “Formics” in the movie:

Consider the book’s aliens. Throughout the book, they’re called “buggers,” a nickname that derives from their insectoid quality. But the word bugger is principally a derogatory slang term for gay men and gay sex, meaning “to sodomize” as a verb and one who engages in “sodomy” as a noun. . . . In the movie, the buggers are referred to throughout by another name also used by Card in the Ender series, but not in the first book: “the Formics” (formic  means “of or relating to ants”).

The movie should have left it “buggers,” honestly. Because that derogatory slur reflects Ender’s, and our, ignorance and hatred of the unknown. The term Formics is used in the later books because Ender has learned to defend and protect his former enemy, no longer using question-begging epithets to justify his ignorant hatred. Ironically, one of the very instances Haglund tries to use to point out Card’s bigotry is in fact a proof of Card’s open-mindedness. As should be obvious to any but the most immature reader, Card’s inclusion of slurs and bullying in his novel is not an endorsement of those things. It is necessary to characterize evil accurately in order to combat it.

One of the problems with our cowardly culture is that we think we can solve issues by not bringing them up. Everyone is offended at the slightest mention of an unpleasant reality. Card spoke bluntly about religious persecution, governmental tyranny, fear of the unknown, and the psychology of bullying. Ender’s Game the movie removes the stark unflinching accuracy of these observations in an attempt to appease a largely insipid audience that apparently can’t tell the difference between stating a problem and endorsing evil. This was the major shortcoming of the movie.

As Chesterton surmised, “The trouble with our sages is not that they cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle.” Well, they refuse to see the riddle. Because what it says about their current state is too unbearable—too painfully real. The movie version of Ender’s Game missed out on a golden opportunity to address some issues that obviously need addressing. One honest look around you will show that the intolerant ignorance of the masses and the fear-mongering tyranny of the civil government is not going to vanish just because we cover our eyes like a grown-up infant in a high-stakes game of peekaboo.