Orson Scott Card’s science fiction classic, Ender’s Game is defined by moral ambiguity. A book about children, it is no children’s book. In it, six-year-olds already find themselves in military schools, fighting for the chance to enter the off-planet Battle School where they will leave behind all thoughts of family and home for round-the-clock military training. Their struggles are viewed by the authorities through monitors attached to their brains. Their goal? To qualify for command positions in Earth’s life-or-death struggle against the Buggers. These insect-like creatures have attacked Earth twice, seeking to wipe out all mankind to make room for their own species. They almost succeeded, and humans now are determined to take the war to them, before a third, perhaps fatal attack.
In the novel, costs associated with this determination to preserve mankind have been extremely high. Basic freedoms have been lost to citizens, including the freedom to have more than two children—“thirds” are allowed only for military reasons and, perhaps, to pariah religious recusants. Even very young children are exposed to insistent propaganda to justify very early military training. But the military is not simply evil. It has not taken over all of public life, coexisting with significant freedom of discussion, and its demands are rooted in genuine, well-based fears. The Buggers, after all, never communicated with the humans they sought to exterminate. They are utterly alien from human ways and biology. They have never learned to communicate in any outward fashion, by sign or sound. And this lack of communication has prevented any reliable intelligence-gathering, forcing humans to seek in the very young a mental agility and openness to understanding that may allow them to learn the tactics and strategies necessary to win the war.
Ender Wiggin is mankind’s best hope. And that hope itself is born of moral and religious conflict. His own parents have chosen to leave behind ties to families of religious recusants, yet accept parenthood of a “third” as a service to mankind. He has been allowed to be born after his borderline sociopathic brother and highly empathetic sister washed out of the military program. He survives and, though psychologically scarred, thrives mentally in the face of cruelty from his brother and from other children, as well as the manipulations of a morally tortured “mentor” who insists that Ender must learn that he can count on no one but himself for help. Before reaching puberty, Ender becomes the unwitting leader of Earth forces. Informed that he, through the deception of his mentors, has annihilated an entire species, he suffers guilt, gains revelatory knowledge of the true intentions and character of his enemies, and quickly develops a desire for knowledge and redemption that launches a series of crises that will play out in the course of several succeeding novels.
No mere rehearsal of the “facts” of this novel can do justice to the subtlety and depth of the moral dilemmas faced by its characters, or of the dignity with which Ender in particular faces insoluble conflicts and the darker side of his own being. The book Ender’s Game is dark—at times very dark—and one is persistently reminded of how outsized the conflicts presented are to its protagonists, many of them, again, young children. There is, here, a struggle for dignity, both for individuals and for mankind, with both victories and tragic losses. The reader is made aware of the fragility of that dignity and even of the potential loss of the drive to maintain it in difficult circumstances.
No movie could reproduce the subtleties of this novel. The medium and time frame do not allow it. Events must be accelerated and character development sacrificed to action (though, clocking in at less than two hours, this movie seems clearly to have sacrificed even more than was necessary in the interests of pacing and simplicity). What makes the movie of Ender’s Game a true tragedy, however, is that its makers chose, not simply to streamline the story, but to bowdlerize it to match their own shallow, smug biases.
The “corrections” of Card’s nuanced vision are both large and small. The largest and probably most damaging change was to simply eliminate the second Bugger war. Rather than responding to two near-fatal attacks, the military in the movie are seeking to exterminate a species that has attacked them but once. In case the “anti-militarist” point is not clear enough, we are explicitly told that the Buggers (now solely known by their more formal name of “formics”—no demonization of The Other for these moviemakers) have made no aggressive moves. Massive military buildups apparently mean nothing. The military is not made unrelentingly evil, however; they are only mostly and predominantly evil. Harrison Ford’s character, loosely based on Card’s Colonel Graff, seems to feel some affection for Ender, and there is a black female psychologist who even attempts to apologize to and comfort Ender, though her white male commander interrupts and puts a stop to it. The smugness reaches its nadir with an offhand comment from Mazer Rackham, the hero of the “first” war who, on seeing the Bugger home world, opines that it clearly is overpopulated and overdeveloped, and that the need for more space to meet the needs of excess population must have motivated the Bugger invasion.
One can almost hear the script meeting that produced this little nugget. “Well, obviously, we need to show that overpopulation and environmental degradation caused this interstellar war.” “Great! That makes the story relevant!” “But that is not what the author said.” “Oh, please! How could we possibly take that homophobe seriously? He even seems to think that maybe the policy against third children was unnecessary and promoted an attitude that undercut colonization efforts, leaving mankind vulnerable to annihilation.” “What about the other, partially developed Bugger world we show? Would that mean they had no other places to go besides Earth?” “Look, everybody knows overpopulation is a bad thing, so let us just make the point and move on, shall we?”
Of course, that conversation probably never took place. There was no one there to question the smugness.
Card, who gets a producer’s credit but was cut out of any creative role in the film and receives no money from ticket sales, can hardly be blamed for the travesty visited upon his book. One wonders, in fact, whether he might be regretting the deal he signed some ten years ago to have the film made. He got a movie that makes a mockery of his art, along with hateful attacks aimed at his person on account of his religious and moral beliefs (a Mormon, he has expressed opposition to same-sex marriage). One can only hope that he was paid a pile of money to undergo the indignity of having such small people do such great damage to something truly worthwhile.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.