Friday, November 15, 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game

First off, a little background.  Orson Scott Card is my favorite author. All (most) of his books have read like cinematic masterpieces in my head, with scenes brilliantly made, better than George Lucas or Spielberg could ever have made them.  I would walk to the kitchen, take a break, and get something to eat or whatever, and walk back wondering what great TV show I had been watching, only to remember it was one of Card's books I had been reading feverishly all day long.  So let's make it clear that OSC's books don't need movies, they're that good by themselves.  But as Hollywood is consistently running out of original material, it's always going to find a cherished book to make a movie out of.  And this works, but only if the author has some sort of advisory role in the film.  Some examples from recent times: Where the Wild Things Are was filmed with the now late Sendak as an advisor... brilliant film (and you must go rent it and watch it, but get the soundtrack first so that you can howl and sing along with the movie). Life of Pi also had Yann Martel as a distant advisor, but the script was so faithful to the book, it hardly mattered.  While I was at the theatre, I saw the latest trailer for the next Hobbit movie, one which I will probably never see, even with Tolkien's works, and the Hobbit in particular, being of monumental importance to my life. It was done with a stretch of artistic license, and all the movies were not given approval by Tolkien's estate (although I imagine they don't mind the money coming from the book sales, etc...)

As far back as 99, Card had been writing on his blog about the status of the Ender's Game movie.  At the time, he was fighting with the film companies over the script.  Some wanted to give Ender a girl friend, to turn it into a "Kid's Movie," something that would have been totally against the book itself.  Card has never written books for children (and the one time he has, the Young Adult themed book Pathfinder, I found it unreadable.) They are about children surviving and thriving in an adult world, filled with the violence and moral decisions that exist all around us.  His books are ultimately about the transition from Blake's Lamb to the Tyger, from Innocence to Experience, from childhood happiness to ultimately, sorrowful knowledge of the essence of life and death.  Any attempt to change this theme would destroy the spirit of the book, and would ultimately fail in Card's eyes.

So it was back in 99, when a picture came out of Jake Lloyd reading Ender's Game as part of a literacy campaign that there was wide speculation that Jake would be Ender.  But the stubbornness of the film industry to make a movie that reflected the spirit of the book would make it impossible (well, that and the insane amount of jeering from fans at Lloyd's supposed lack of acting as the part of Anakin Skywalker which pushed him from acting all together).

I went, in 2007, to a book signing by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston at the Greenville Barnes & Noble in South Carolina.  I rented a Chevy Cobalt and drove up there.  I wound up sitting next to Card's wife during the amazing signing, and she received a phone call from the producers of the movie at the signing.  She had to step away to take it.  If you ever can go to one of his book signings, it's a wonderful experience.  I've got several of my hardbacks signed.

Now, to the movie.  Orson Scott Card helped produce the movie, so I went in with full confidence that Card approved the script and helped mold it into what he thought was a faithful representation of the entire book.  Sure, there are parts of the novel which aren't in the movie, such as Peter and Valentine's Internet personas and any happenings on Earth.  Ultimately, the movie is about Ender, about what it takes to be a leader and face overwhelming odds and know that the people around you will follow you to the end, even if it means their own deaths.

Now, the critical part.  The movie works as a condensed version of the book.  Faithful in every respect, and wonderful, but condensed.  All the violence, the mental anguish, the moral decisions made by an almost Evil Col. Graff, everything condensed into the lines that were in the script.  And it comes out with that vehemence. Harrison Ford as Col. Graff does an excellent job conveying the soulless military commander with a soul.  Even in the head motions when Ender hugged Valentine had volumes built into it.  But it's all condensed, and you have to understand that.  It plays out like a Cliff's Notes of the book.  Which will make for interesting teaching in the future, as this is a common Summer Reading selection for schools.  So some will say that they are disappointed in the lack of everything else that is in the book.  That each Battle School competition wasn't in there, that the twisted ways they alienated Ender wasn't spelled out in detail.  But all this just wasn't possible to make a 2 hour movie.  Perhaps in the DVD some of the deleted parts will flesh some of this out.

I agree with other online critics who say that, as promotion of the movie, the execs. should have made a trailer with emphasis on the children, to encourage a wider range of demographics to go to the movie. Instead, the trailers (below) show mostly Harrison Ford, who is great, but doesn't have the attention to the teens who are pining for the next Hunger Games movie (I know I said above that OSCs books are not for children, but when it comes to movies and the financial end of it, it must be the younger crowd that are enticed to see the movie.  Heck, they might even learn something, come out better for it. Grow up a little.)  I could also envision the movie being more of a "sports" movie, focusing on the Battle School competitions, but that, again, would take time away from the overall themes which are central to the story, the development of Ender as a leader and as the savior of the world.  You don't know Jesus' every day activities, only the special ones.  Who knows what other miracles he performed each day, but weren't written down.  We only see the "Battles" which are essential to the maturation of Ender.  Read the book for the rest.

There is one point in the movie where a twinge of outrage comes into play, and I put it in the review because it's not warranted as the movie plays out, and I want to put it here in case someone reads this prior to watching the move (and especially if you've read the book already).  Ender is told that he is going, after his "graduation" from Battle School, to a place near the Formic Invaders' homeworld.  This leads the informed viewer to think that the idea of a "game" as the invasion is going to be lost in the ending.  Don't worry, it hasn't been, and my concern about blowing the ending was unfounded.  The movie ends quickly, as the book does, and it opens it up for sequels, movies that are also totally unfilmable, as it was perceived that Ender's Game was.  Speaker for the Dead is a masterpiece of characterization, one that carries over to Xenocide (although not so much to Children of the Mind) and is absolutely brilliant.  Go buy Speaker but make sure you get one with the introduction by Card himself.  The analysis of personalities at the beginning has totally changed the way I look at the relationships between people, and I use the framework every day.  The Shadow series would be equally as impossible to film, with the children on the Battle School ship becoming the military leaders of the entire world.  No one would believe it, and the complexities of the plot could never be filmed (thank goodness).  It is much the same as Timothy Zahn's Star Wars sequels, which are quite unable to be filmed, and amazing reading.  My suggestion would be to try and film Ender in Exile, which I have not read yet, but will shortly.

So go watch the movie, and then, if you haven't, for heaven's sake, go read the books, in whatever order you like (I recommend doing them in the order published), and watch the movies in your head, as they will be infinitely greater than anything Hollywood could ever produce.

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