In November of 2013, one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time will be released as a big-budget movie. I’ve got very mixed feelings about this, which leaves open the question: Will I go see it?
I first read the book Ender’s Game about 25 years ago. I was on a camping trip, and almost refused to leave the tent because I was so engrossed in the book. I immediately decided that it was the best science fiction novel I’d ever read.
Since then, favorites have come and gone, but Ender’s Game has always been in my top 5. For me, it had the perfect combination of very personal introspection and characterization, global politics, action-and-combat, and youthful anxiety and psychology that I could identify with. Even to this day, I will re-read the book about once a year and it dazzles me every time.
Unfortunately, it is exactly for this very reason that my first reaction upon hearing that a movie was being made was a feeling of…. dread.
Making a good science fiction (or fantasy) movie from a good science fiction (or fantasy) novel that has a large and passionate fan base is just plain hard.
For one thing, you have to stay true to the story, or you piss off the fans and alienate them. This is the biggest mistake that I see happening again and again. The most successful book-franchises-turned-movie-franchises are ones where the movie script sticks close to the books, at least for the first couple of movies in the series: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games (so far). The worst failures tended to be the ones where the script writer or director felt too much of a need to “add stuff” or change critical lines or plot points: Dune, Percy Jackson.
What directors need to realize is that when there is a large and dedicated fan base for the books, your first job is to capture them as fans of the movie. Only secondary to that is the job of getting new fans who had never read the books. If you think you are “starting from scratch” with the movie, your movie will go down in flames.
Of course, some types of changes are more acceptable than others.
Cutting a long novel for the sake of time is reasonable, and the Harry Potter films demonstrate that it can be done very well. In the movies of the later books, some entire story lines were cut (e.g. House Elf rights!) but it was done in such a masterful way, preserving the key plot points, that it didn’t matter much.
Adding plot lines or character details is much more risky. I cringed in Narnia Movie #2 (Prince Caspian) at the addition of the cheesy romantic innuendo between Caspian and Susan. I imagined some fat Hollywood executive who had no appreciation for C.S. Lewis’s writing sitting back and saying, “This needs a romantic sub-plot! We can’t have a movie that doesn’t have teen romance in it!” It made me gag. However: it was minor enough that at least it didn’t spoil the movie for me.
When it gets too out of hand, though, it can completely destroy a movie. I had to walk out of the movie version of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” after 20 minutes, because there was so much in the movie that was badly-written that had no connection to any of the books at all.
But whether talking about additions or cuts, there has to be respect for the existing fan base. If there is a “favorite line” or “favorite scene” that fans of the book are all looking forward to, and it isn’t in the movie, then the movie will be a failure: no further questions, end of story.
So this leaves open the question: what do I, personally, need to see done well in order to be happy with the movie of Ender’s Game? Just off the top of my head:
1) The battle room scenes have to be epic, but they have to be more than “shoot-’em-up” scenes in null gravity: they have to capture the sense of strategy that we get in the book.
2) The fist fight in the bathroom between Bonzo and Ender. This is one of the most tense and riveting personal confrontations in the book, and has to be done well.
What do I think they could get away with cutting?
1) The details of the Peter/Valentine political maneuvering. They need to allude to this, because the dynamics of the relationship between Peter and Valentine are important to Ender’s storyline in a few places, but they could potentially cut some of the details. Naturally, as a fan, I wish they wouldn’t…. but I’m not going to toss out my opinion of the entire movie if they do trim it back.
2) The computer simulation mind game at the school unless they plan on making a movie based on Speaker for the Dead (the second book in the Ender’s Game series). The mind game is very interesting psychologically and added immensely to the book, but I can understand if it doesn’t translate well into the big screen. My main concern is that the mind game is pivotal to the storyline of the character “Jane” in the second book. In some sense, we will be able to tell whether the script writers wanted to “keep the option open” of writing a “Speaker for the Dead” movie, based on how they address the mind game in this movie.
The trailer and the IMDB page
1) The special effects look excellent. What is shown (briefly) from the battle scenes look very well done. If nothing else, this movie will be a visual spectacle, to be sure.
2) The minor details look like they were crafted well. Based on publicity stills, things like “the monitor” on the back of Ender’s neck look exactly the way that I pictured them in my mind. So that is nice.. it makes me feel like it’s more likely that when I watch this movie, I will really be watching the same story that I have been imagining for 25 years.
3) The casting looks incredible. Harrison Ford as Graff is brilliant (…although will he really put on the pounds during the section of the story where Graff is supposed to get fat? We’ll see if they keep that detail!). All of the children look like children, which is absolutely critical to the functioning of the storyline. I’m glad they didn’t age the main characters too much. (This was one of my biggest pet peeves with the Percy Jackson movie.) And they kept the ethnic diversity of the children in battle school admirably: this is one thing they could have fucked up without people noticing, but I’m glad they did it right.
My only criticisms of the casting are very minor. Peter Wiggin is supposed to have dark hair, like Ender. The actor is blond. Will they dye his hair in the movie? Will it matter? Maybe not. After all, Josh Hutcherson has dark hair and they made him blond for his character in Hunger Games, and I was fine with it. So I’m not sure that that type of detail matters.
4) I have heard that they will be incorporating material from “Ender’s Shadow” into this movie. To an extent, this makes a kind of sense. I hope they do it well, because it’s a risk. Will they sacrifice story details from the main Ender’s Game story to make it all fit? I hope not. But in the new “Hobbit” movie, they incorporated material from Tolkien’s “Silmarillion”, and they did it well… so perhaps there is hope that it will be done well in this movie also.
5) It amused me that they “gave away the ending” in the trailer … but the shot is only seconds long and anyone who doesn’t already know the story won’t realize what it is. So maybe that’s ok. 😉
Since everyone is talking about it, I think I have to address it: What about politics?
Specifically, does the fact that Orson Scott Card is a raging backward homophobic prick make a difference to me?
Well, it doesn’t change my opinion of the story he’s created. I can respect him as a story-teller without respecting him as a person, and I can love something he created without loving all of his opinions.
Certainly, this is true for other stories as well: Heinlein was a hard-line pro-military conservative, C. S. Lewis was a radical Christian and a little bit racist, the list could go on and on. But for me, I can love the art without loving the artist.
From a practical standpoint, of course, it does give me the feeling that I would rather not contribute to Card making more money. I don’t want to feel like my dollars are “supporting him as a person”, despite the fact that I wouldn’t mind “supporting the Ender’s Game story”. Regrettably, in the real world these two things are not separable.
So where does that leave me….?
THE FINAL VERDICT: Will I go see the movie?
Of course I will. But if it goes off the rails too much and threatens the way I feel about one of my favorite science fiction stories of all time, I will walk out. I’ve done it before.
Fingers are crossed.