In order to defeat your enemy, you must know your enemy…and to know them is to love them. That is the essential theme of the movie I saw tonight, and it just kills me that I can’t share the exploration of these incredible themes with some of those nearest to my heart because of their objection to the author’s politics, or their objection to the paths the story takes in exploring these themes. For me, moving through this story is incredibly powerful, all the more so because of the questionable paths, not in spite of them. Another theme explored by this story, and another one that leads to the half-dozen stories and the world building that follow, is whether the ends justify the means, whether it is morally acceptable to use hideous, abusive, destructive actions to attain a noble goal (although here even the nobility of the goal is called into question).
(I’m reminded here a bit of the book Exchange of Hostages, which I picked up off a free-trade bookshelf in the narrator’s lounge at the Texas Talking Books studio shortly after it was published. I get drawn to pick this book back up every decade or so. I can’t handle reading it more often, nor do I care to read any of the further novels written with that character and universe. What draws me back is not some sick fascination with or love of detailed descriptions of torture and slavery, but rather the way in which these exaggerated pieces are used to examine both character and the ends/means relationship. Like the story I saw transferred to the big screen tonight, Exchange of Hostages uses abhorrent means to illustrate the moral bankruptcy of proceeding “by any means necessary.”)
Throughout the story, the reader/viewer is presented over and over with viciousness, ruthlessness, treatment that would be considered child abuse by any standard we recognize in the Western World today (and most of the rest)…and then asked to weigh that against a threat to the entire human race. Again and again, those in command say, “But we must!” Again and again, the victim insists, “I want to reject your premise,” and the stakes are raised again. Secrets, lies, deceptions, and genocide. Is it right? Is it just? At what point does self-defense become offense, become objectionable? That question is raised fractally, both in small scenes and in the larger storyline, over and over.
In the end, you have the ultimate warrior…of peace, determined to find a way to turn it back, fix it, pay back the moral debt forced on him by others.
Gods, I wish I could share these things with more of my friends! At least they are a discussion point and a teaching tool for my children.
If you haven’t figured out what I’m talking about by this point, it’s Ender’s Game, and here come the nitpicking and the spoilers.
I expected the movie to differ significantly from the novel. I know you can’t take a book straight to the screen, you just can’t, even more so when your main character ages from 6 to 16 in the process. There are other elements that just flow better on the screen if they are tweaked and adapted. A change of scenery here, a tweak of battle tactics there. While these things bothered my husband a bit, and I know they have completely thrown out other lovers of the book, I don’t mind. I expect these things, and what fascinates me is seeing the vision of the screenwriter and the director unfold, seeing how they choose to convey the story, whether they capture the heart of the story or not. This time, they did, resoundingly.
Unfortunately, I think the editing required of the details may leave this movie feeling hollow and forced to viewers unfamiliar with the book. That’s a shame, because the “movie first, book second” crowd are probably going to decide, based on this movie, that the book is not worth their time. Having read the book, I have a good handle on Ender’s character development, and I’m filling in the left-out details as the movie progresses…the battle tactics, the fights, the storyline of the computer game, the relentless wearing down of Ender by everyone in power over him. The casual movie-goer is going to miss all of that and leave not understanding just what baggage Ender is bringing to the final showdown, all the buttons that have been pushed to make him snap. That’s a shame.
One thing that did bother me incredibly was the incredible attention paid to reinforcing gender roles. All the girls have very long hair, kept coiled in huge braided buns most of the time. The main female character lets hers hang loose in a ponytail, as if anybody practicing throws and hand-to-hand combat would even consider leaving waist-length hair flying free in a curtain around her. When Ender’s class reaches Battle School, part of their orientation is an emphasis on gender-specific bathrooms and the severe punishments for being in an area not reserved for your gender. NONE OF THIS WAS IN THE BOOK. This was enough to throw me out of the story fuming internally for a while when they made the bathroom announcement, and I kept noticing little things like the hair, like the only woman in command being given an emotionally-charged ancillary role, etc. It’s like they went back in at the last minute and said, “Okay, to hell with all these gender-equalizing military SF scenarios, let’s see how much division we can set up between the genders without actually creating purdah!” It is gratuitous, unnecessary, unrealistic, totally uncalled for…yeah, it pissed me off. Obviously I have a personal preference for gender neutrality, I always have, but when you’re dealing with SF that is extrapolating our current culture even a hundred years into the future, it seems like the most logical result. If you want to take it in another direction, you should have to justify that. You should have to justify boys and girls sharing a bunkroom but not showers, training but not command, battlesuits but not regulation haircuts.
That’s my only real beef with the movie, I promise.
Here’s a little Easter Egg for you: there’s Braille here. If you look closely at the nametags everybody wears, their names are spelled out in Braille using holes instead of raised dots. Grade 1 uncontracted Braille, with the name split evenly over two lines. I didn’t catch on to this until they were on the formic outpost base, and once I recognized it on Graff’s nametag I was wishing for a “reverse” button so I could go back and examine the other nametags I’d seen earlier. Apparently, this was an intentional use of the Braille code by the designers in an attempt to create a machine-readable code based in something real. Fascinating find!