This is a piece by Elizabeth Flux, on how sometimes a book works it out much faster than the author does.


Three years ago I found myself sitting alone in a large cinema as the credits rolled on a film that, two hours earlier, I’d never heard of. My mind was buzzing. In an era where book trilogies became film quadrilogies and The Hobbit could somehow be stretched out to almost eight hours, Ender’s Game was in a field of its own. Unfortunately, however, I mean this both figuratively and literally.

The film was, for the most part, excellent despite the occasional incidence of Ben-Kingsley-playing-a-Maori-man-complete-with-facial-tattoos. Not a minute was wasted, it explored dark themes thoroughly yet succinctly, and the performances were strong. But my empty cinema was not the only one; the film bombed, thoroughly, and no one noticed—because no one knew it was out in the first place.

Ender’s Game is based on a 1985 novel of the same name, written by Orson Scott Card. It’s kind of a big deal in the science fiction world actually; both it and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead won both Hugo and Nebula awards—so it’s essentially Jennifer Lawrence, if Jennifer Lawrence were a complex political novel about the ethical limits we would be willing to push in order to save the human race from an alien invasion. Since its release, Ender’s Game has enjoyed cult status; its popularity means that it’s almost impossible to buy second-hand (despite shelves being filled with Card’s other, less-celebrated work) and it has found its way onto the suggested reading lists of various military organisations.

The novel is set in the near future, and follows Ender Wiggin, a six year old prodigy, who alongside other gifted children is being trained to lead battles in the war against an alien race who, a few generations earlier, had made an invasion attempt on Earth. Robbed of their youth, the children are constantly monitored and pushed to their psychological limits. The military is looking for a single leader who will command Earth’s armies to once and for all defeat this nebulous invading force—and the powers that be are convinced this future commander is Ender.

The film adaptation made such a non-impression on the world, that if the internet did not exist, I could have easily been convinced that I’d imagined the whole thing. But the internet does exist, and it was whispering reasons why this film, based off a beloved novel, had been quietly swept under the rug. It had clearly cost a lot of money to make; you don’t just happen upon a set that allows for gravity-free battle scenes, and spaceships aren’t found in fields—or if they are, they are immediately shipped off to Area 51 and all witnesses are systematically discredited (FBI don’t @ me).

Also, Harrison Ford was in it. A lot. And with his profile it is unlikely that he is easily afFordable. 

The problem, it seemed, was the author himself. To say that Card has strong views on homosexuality is generous. He’s previously stated the view that homosexual behaviour should remain illegal and has proffered many unfounded and ugly theories as to what “causes” same-sex attraction. He was on the board of directors of anti-same-sex marriage group ‘National Organisation for Marriage’ for four years.  In 2013, the year Ender’s Game was due for cinematic release, his résumé of vocal anti-gay behaviour was brought back out into the light, with LGBT group Geeks Out! encouraging audiences to boycott the film—outlining their reasoning on a website called Skip Ender’s Game.

In the wake of bad publicity, and Card’s reputation tainting the film, distributors Lionsgate publically announced they did not agree with his opinions. Them distancing themselves was too late however; Card was listed as a producer of the film, and it seems that to minimise further bad publicity, the film was not promoted as aggressively as it otherwise might have been. 

With me seemingly the only person in the country who’d watched it, there was no one to talk theories with, so I was determined to read the book. So determined, in fact, that I forgot about it for three years. Then Ender’s Game popped up on Netflix.

Comparatively, the film is quite faithful to the book. They make Ender a little bit older, and soften out the darkest scenes. The film also calls the ant-like enemy the “Formics” while Card’s novel refers to them as “Buggers”. Coincidence? Or Freudian field day?  Anyway.

The novel provides something that the film cannot, however—more context to Card’s world. We learn more about Ender’s older siblings who were rejected from the program—one for being too sadistic, the other for being too empathetic. We are also given more insight into Ender’s own psychological torment. Trained his whole life to destroy an enemy he doesn’t understand, his greatest fear is that he will turn out to be a monster.

It’s a complex story about what amount of humanity we should—or should not—be willing to sacrifice in order to preserve the way of life we know. It’s also interesting that a major thread running through the story is shunning “the other” because that’s just how it has been for generations.

In his 1991 introduction to an updated version of the novel, Card muses on the fact that “stories can be read so differently—even clear stories”. It’s true. We all inject our own personal experience into what we’re taking in; everyone starts with a different lens.

Card may have put the words on the page; he may have outlined the communication breakdowns, the grey areas of ‘necessary’ evils, the almost arbitrary delineation between friend and enemy, but put in the context of his controversial comments and public priorities off the page, an interesting contrast begins to form.

Ender’s Game is an excellent book written by a complicated man who has some horrible opinions. But perhaps, bringing my own lens to someone else’s words, maybe there is some fleeting hope in this, from the same introduction: “…human beings may be miserable specimens in the main, but we can learn and, through learning, become decent people.”

 

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This is a The Book That piece, part of a series where writers reflect on books that have been particularly meaningul, profound, or plain-old angry-making. To read more in this series, click here.

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Elizabeth Flux's picture

Elizabeth Flux

Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Writers Bloc. Her nonfiction work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture, feminism and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. Her most recent fiction publication is a short story in The Legend of Monga Khan. She previously edited Voiceworks and On Dit, and in 2016 she attended the Hong Kong International Festival funded by the UNESCO City of Literature Travel Fund. Twitter @ElizabethFlux