Monday, February 8, 2010

Ender’s Game

Here's Roger with his review of Ender's Game. Don't forget to tune in tomorrow for an interview with a writer that reignited my love of Sci-Fi and reminded me that the simplest of Sci-Fi concepts can be the best. :)

Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Coming of Age
Premise: Aliens have attacked Earth and have almost destroyed the human species. To make sure humans win the next encounter, the world government has started breeding military geniuses and trains them in the arts of war. The early training takes the form of games, and Ender Wiggin is a genius among geniuses who wins all the games. But is he smart enough to save the planet?

About: Ender's Game started out as a novelette by Orson Scott Card in the August 1977 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. When it was expanded into a novel, it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. In May 2003, Card released his latest version of the screenplay to Warner Brothers. D.B. Weiss (and later, David Benioff), working closely with director Wolfgang Petersen, wrote a new script. Petersen eventually departed and Card announced in February 2009 that he had completed a new script for Odd Lot Entertainment.

Writers: D.B. Weiss (author of the videogame-themed novel,
Lucky Wander Boy and one of the scribes for the screen adaptation of Bungie's Halo and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire Series for HBO) based upon the novels Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card. Also based upon the screenplays by Orson Scott Card, and Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris (X2, Superman Returns).
Details: Draft is dated 7/7/05

Before there was Harry Potter and Quidditch, there was Ender's Game and Battle School. Sure, when it comes to narrative voice, Miss Rowling is heavily influenced by Roald Dahl, but when it comes to plot elements, it's hard not to draw comparison between Hogwarts and its various houses (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, et al.) and Battle School and its various armies (Salamander, Dragon, etc.).

I've never read Ender's Game, Rog. What the hell is Battle School?

It's a space station where children are trained in the art of war.
You see, humanity is almost wiped out when a race of aliens with insectoid physiognomy called Formics (from the Latin formica, which means ant) invade Earth. Due to the heroics of a backwater half-Maori commander, one Mazer Rackham, the Earth survives the invasion and the Formics retreat.
To prepare for future confrontations, a shaky international military unit is formed, called the International Fleet (IF).
Many children around the world dream of passing the battery of tests the IF conducts so they can leave Earth and train at Battle School.
It's at Battle School where students, some as young as six-years old, are organized into armies and participate in simulated micro gravity battles. The children learn everything from historical battle formations to space combat tactics. Needless to say, the teachers and adults at the school encourage the students to be competitive, cultivating their bloodlust and violent nature.
Picture a combination of the Danger Room from the X-Men comics, a Quidditch Arena from Harry Potter, but set in a ginormous zero-g spherical arena.
Who's this Ender kid?
In the script, we meet Ender Wiggin when he is eleven years old as he undergoes his IF testing. Colonel Graff administers this particular round, "Shapes appear on your end, you arrange them to match the larger shape on my end. It's a test of your facility with spacial relationships." Ender dons a pair of haptic feedback gloves and puts together each puzzle with dizzying speed. Graff manages to remain stoic at Ender's ease with the test, and sends the boy on his way.
Disappointed, Ender walks home and is bullied by his older brother Peter. Peter is a nasty piece of work. Brutal and aggressive, his only goal in life is to attend Battle School, and he loathes his empathetic and weak younger brother, constantly picking on him, infuriated that he can never get Ender to lash out at him in violence. At Ender's house, we meet his sister, the ginger Valentine Wiggin, another empath who shares a close relationship with her younger brother.
In the novel, it should be noted that Peter is jealous of this relationship. In this iteration of the story, there is no character development that suggests such envy. The very Greek psychological subtext is, for the most part, non-existent.
It's here where we cut over to the ruins of Westminster, where we meet an eleven-year old urchin named Julian "Bean" Delphiki. Bean is even smaller than Ender, and he hacks an automated ration teller to gain a bounty of chocolate bars. Unfortunately, he's attacked by a gang of bullies led by Achilles (a nice touch, as Achilles de Flanders is the primary antagonist in the Bean Quartet, the parallel novels told from Bean's perspective). Bean is tasered and left at the scene of the crime, where he is collected by the police and deposited at a hospital. At the hospital, a social worker named Sister Carlotta is intrigued that such a young boy, who has never been to school, has the proficiency to hack machines.
And just like that, Bean takes the IF tests and is on his way to Battle School.
Quick digression: Now, all this is material out of the parallel novel, Ender's Shadow.
Sometimes I think Bean's story is more affecting, more sentimental, because Bean is an orphan. There's an Oliver Twist-like Dickensian sadness to his perspective that's hard not to emphasize with. An urchin who protects Ender, carrying a burden and existing as a hero unsung whose courage breaks my heart. I'm glad to see that he's utilized as a major character in this draft. It's a smart choice. Sadly, there's no later confrontation with Achilles at Battle School, which in the novels, serves as a nice point of character contrast between Ender and Bean when it comes to conflict resolution. One would think that's the type of stuff worth exploring (if one is going to turn to Ender's Shadow for scene material).
Back in America, Mazer Rackham arrives at the Wiggin household to inform Ender and his shocked family, that indeed, he is going to Battle School. As a matter of fact, Ender "scored higher on the Battle School cognition battery than any applicant we ever tested".
Soon after, Ender is on a shuttle with Bean and the other kids who have been accepted to Battle School. Mazer informs them, "You all think you're brilliant already. You're wrong. Less than half of you will advance to the Tactical Academy, and one in ten of those will move on to Central Command. I hope against hope that one of you will be strong enough, smart enough, good enough to be of some real use.
"But honestly, in my opinion, the only one of you worth the fuel it takes to lift you into orbit is Ender Wiggin."
Does Ender being singled out as top talent jeopardize his life at Battle School?
Every new "launchie" is required to go to Battle Room training before they can be assigned to an army.
But not Ender.
Ender is told that he's been assigned to Salamander Army. This incites the ire of Commander Madrid, the fifteen-year old leader of Salamander, who sees Ender as a liability whose presence will ruin his team's undefeated winning streak.
Much of the 2nd Act is spent in the Battle Room.
Have the rules of the games been changed from the novel?
Oddly, yes.
The students are still attired in hydraulics-reinforced flash suits, helmets and propulsion packs (to control their movement).
But in the script, it reads less like zero-g war games and more like a game of Quidditch.
The goal still consists of getting a player through the other team's gate, but that's it. This player needs no support from his teammates. In the novel, the goal was to destroy or "freeze" all of the opposing players. Then four teammates were required to touch the enemy gate with their helmets while the fifth player passed through it.
During these games, Madrid forces Ender to affix himself to a floating obstacle and basically hide as the rest of his team fights. He's not to get in the way at all.
Sucky. Does Ender eventually get his chance to shine?
At first, Ender pleads with Mazer to be demoted out of the Salamander Army, but Mazer refuses.
But hope comes in the form of the comicbook-reading Salamander star player, Petra Arkanian. Petra empathizes with Ender and his sink-or-swim plight.
She takes him under her wing, showing him how to work his suit and maneuver in a zero-g environment. She also teaches him how to handle his firepower and control his shooting.
Everyone questions Ender's talent, until Petra takes him to the Game Room (for recreation) and he discovers a cluster of 2D Real-Time Strategy Games that most of the kids ignore. I imagined something akin to a holographic StarCraft. Entranced, Ender studies the RTS game and is eventually approached by an older cadet, who shows him the rules and challenges him to a game.
This is where it gets interesting.
Petra returns to find Ender, playing ten games at once, against ten other cadets. "He ranges back and forth along the lines, barely taking time to look at each screen before slapping the Command button and barking out commands with Eminem rapidity." A huge crowd forms as Ender defeats all ten cadets, establishing his presence as a tactical wargame phenom.
How does Ender's genius translate to the Battle Room?
Ender begins practicing with a ragtag group of launchies to not only perfect his movement and shooting, but to develop strategies that are much different from what most of the other armies are using. He teaches the other kids, "Even the best armies are thinking about the Battle Room the wrong way. Platoons, lines, columns, phalanxes –- they're all battlefield tactics."
Ender develops guerilla-style zero-g tactics, and it's not long before Rackham puts Ender in command of a new army: The Dragon Army. Ender and his group of young launchies showcase their new style of play and become the new team that racks up an undefeated record, eventually catching up to Madrid and his crew.
The games eventually culminate into a huge battle where Ender and his crew are forced to fight against two armies at once. Of course, using some innovative thinking, Ender leads his team to victory.
This really pisses off Madrid, and soon Ender is forced to finally, truly fight for his life when he's thrown into the Battle Room without his suit as Madrid and his henchman try to kill him. This is a sanitized version of what actually happens in the book, and I think it falls short.
Not a good thing, as this is a major turning point in the novel and it's one of those character-changing and character-defining moments that defines the theme of the story.
OK. So what about this war with the Formics?
Ender survives his ordeal with Madrid and graduates to Command School. Mazer takes him to one of the moons of Jupiter, to the ruins of the command center the Formics used for their invasion against Earth. It is inside the moon where we find the Ansible, a giant blue sphere covered in intricate geometric designs, "It's how they communicated with their home world –- faster than light. We don't know how it works, but we figured out how to use it."
By using the Ansible, they can instantaneously control their entire fleet with no lag. The Ansible is one of those classic science fiction tropes, like Unobtainium in Avatar, that readers of the genre will recognize. Coined by Ursula K. Le Guin, it's derived from the word "answerable", meaning it's a device that will let its users receive answers quickly across interstellar distances.
Ender is taken to the Command Simulator, where he is told that actual Admirals train. Coincidentally, it operates in almost exactly the same way as the Game Room's RTS game (You know, the one he was so good at).
The only fishy detail is that the fleet's ships appear to be models that are thirty years old. Ender is suspicious and confronts Mazer about this detail. He is told, "The prototype craft are great public morale boosters for the air and space shows. This is what we've really got. Learn how to use it."
So all of this is just a simulation, right?
Well, that's what Mazer tells Ender. That it's a training sim, a game to prepare the boy for the real deal.
Upon his first match, Ender thinks he's playing against AI. Remember, this is his first time playing this game. He's still learning. But he seems to be doing well. He's victorious upon his first try.
And apparently, he wasn't playing against AI.
We learn that he just defeated another of Mazer's star pupils, Andrei Karpov. And not only that, he also defeated all four of Karpov's subcommanders. At the same time.
Who the hell is Karpov?
Good question. He's not in the novel. As far as I can tell, he's just a plot device to make an allusion to the competitive chess world, and his existence tells us that Ender is like a chess prodigy.
The final thirty or so pages are Ender and his subcommanders engaged in their final exam on the simulator.
Ender thinks he's playing against Mazer.
He's not.
What? So who's he really playing against it?
Ender is controlling the fleet that's, in actuality, an attack on the Formic home world. He doesn't know he's killing a race of sentient creatures.
To the audience's horror, we gain this knowledge when Bean gains it. As Bean hides this newfound knowledge from Ender, we share his guilt and culpability as Ender sacrifices human beings like pawns to try and best Mazer.
But we know it's not Mazer, it's the Formic Queen.
And to add to the horror, the Formics are ultimately presented as a peace-loving race who travelled to Earth out of curiosity.
Understand: They never shot first. We did.
Damn. That's rough. So, does this screenplay do justice to the novel and its fans?
D.B. Weiss' draft is a fascinating read, but I don't think it's the movie fans are waiting for.
I'm not holding anyone at fault here, far for from it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but even Orson Scott Card himself hasn't written a draft he seems to be pleased with, and I think he's written like fifteen or so.
I also don't think he's ever been satisfied with any of the drafts attempted by other screenwriters, as the closest anyone has come to translating the novel to a visual medium is comic-book scribe, Chris Yost, who has done a bang-up job with the Ender's Game: Battle School mini-series for Marvel Comics (Yost's approach is to pretend he's writing for the HBO mini-series, and he tries to include everything from the novel.)
There are four elements that make this particular from-book-to-screen adaptation a true screenwriter's challenge:
(1) Ender's Game is a bildungsroman with a protagonist who is a child of few words. Much of the novel is Ender's internal narration. And since Ender's mind is that of a brilliant tactician who is trying to understand not only his emotions, but the complicated world around him, it's simply hard to take that internal monologue and give it a visual treatment. Might be good to take a nod from Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind or Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and create visual sequences that exploit what Ender sees when he thinks. Merely an idea. And maybe a bad one at that...
(2) Ender's Game requires a large child cast. When Ender is recruited by the IF, he is six years old. When the novel ends, Ender has exterminated an entire race of creatures. He is twelve. I think it's a bad idea to skew the characters towards older teenagers, as it destroys the innocence lost aspect of the story that it is known for. Already, many fans of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series are upset that the characters in the movie version are older than they are in the books. I can understand why Hollywood would want older actors. It's a difficult thing, finding talented child actors, but for Ender's Game, it is essential.
(3) Ender's Game has child-on-child violence. Nowhere near the gory exploitation of Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, but there's ugly stuff (cruelty) in it that's not going to settle easily into the consciousness of a mass audience. But it's also the type of stuff that gives other coming-of-age novels like William Golding's Lord of the Flies and John Knowles' A Separate Peace raw emotional power. It's the type of stuff that sings of nostalgia and loss. In the book, Ender fights Madrid in a shower, ultimately sending him back to Earth in a body bag.
(4) Ender's Game has a purity and perfection to it that's only going to be muddled with multiple cooks in the kitchen. The egos of multiple filmmakers, from producers to screenwriters to directors, are going to do nothing but scathe a narrative that already works. Sure, find a way to translate Ender's narrative visually, but when you sanitize the story and try to change it, you're already making the adaptation more difficult than it has to be. In this sense, Ender's Game is a novel that may never be turned into a movie fans will be satisfied with.
It's been a while since I read the novel (I was probably around 12 or 13), but one thing that stuck with me all these years was the sense of bonecrushing fatigue Ender experiences as he takes his "final exam". It's a novel that really beats you up, and you feel a loss when you close its pages.
Those feelings, those emotions, are absent from this script.
That's how you know it's not the same.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This script really made me think about theme and character development.
There was some dissonance concerning Ender's character development. Something felt missing, something felt off. I thought about the novel. Sure, it's about innocence lost, but Ender's characterization in the novel was concrete. He was a kid who had to learn how to take care of himself, even if it meant hurting another human being in self-defense. The message wasn't so much that violence is sometimes necessary (if we learn from Bean and Achilles, we know that there are other solutions besides violence), but that Ender had to make a stand and confront aggressors. the script, it's almost the opposite. The lesson that he must learn to take care of himself is buried under the message that, perhaps, yes, violence is the answer. Is that really the theme? And I think this muddling of theme can be traced to Ender's character development. His set-up. Like we're not being presented with the correct scenes to establish Ender's presence as an empath. There's a lot of talk about how unaggressive and empathetic he is. Almost too much talk that tends to work against the showing.
So I guess I learned that showing is always better than telling, and that theme is best expressed through clear character development. And how do you achieve that clarity? Through structure and scenes that show rather than tell.