‘Ender’s’ Shame

The film version of Ender’s Game, which just opened this past Friday to decent box office results, is based on a beloved, award winning science fiction novel by someone named Orson Scott Card. It tells the story of a young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin who becomes the savior of mankind. In the book, two major wars are fought against an alien race wanting to establish a colony on Earth. Convinced that a third battle will break out, the military create a cadet school for young children to train them in the art of defeating this extraterrestrial menace. Through many simulations of possible combat scenarios, Ender becomes the most brilliant candidate among the many, and ends up leading our high tech troops in proposed strategies against the “Buggers.” Of course, it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT) these were not practice drills, but actual skirmishes that end with thousands dead and a planet destroyed.

Ender is consumed with guilt and goes about trying to reestablish the Bugger race on another planet. Thus, we have several sequels. There are also elements involving his brother, sister, and various friends and allies within the Command School, but from the brief description above, it is clear that Ender is another Messiah Complex character, a science fiction given where one brave (and usually, above-average soul) sets out to bring down an entire government/enemy. It’s a part of dozens of plots, from The Matrix to The Terminator. When adapted into a film, Ender and his companions follow a similarly scripted path, though much of Card’s subtext is missing. In fact, if you read the synopsis of both the film and the novel version of the tale, you can see how Hollywood homogenized the narrative to make the movie more of an action thriller and less of a serious speculative think piece.

Not that Mr. Card’s work requires any real depth beyond the basic boy’s adventure tale. He’s not Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, or Ray Bradbury. The Ender books may have won Hugos and Nebulas (the literary equivalent of Oscars) but they aren’t the thought provoking tomes many make them out to be. Instead, it’s safe to say that they are basic introductions into the genre, a way of showing kids a kind of pre-video game conceit of goals, bosses, cooperative play, and perhaps most importantly, personal ideology. Ender goes against the ruling powers to provide a new possible life for the Buggers (later referenced as the “Formic”), once again relying of the formula which excuses rebellion as courage and individualism as heroics. Card’s books provoke thought, but the concepts and core philosophies seem easily grasped.

And this would be the end of the scholarly lecture had the author not opened his mouth over the last few months and literally stuck his huge, homophobic shoes right into his open hate-filled pie hole. Now, no one is suggesting Card has no right to express his views. We still live in a country where freedom of speech is (still mostly) preserved, but many have called for a boycott of the man and this movie because of his derogatory, anti-gay rants. Without going into detail (a Google search can fill you in), it’s clear that Card does not like homosexuals. He has extremely negative views on same sex marriage and argues that anyone who disagrees with him is actually the intolerant bully. Hiding behind the First Amendment (which doesn’t guarantee you freedom from censure, Mr. C), he seems to be systematically trying to undermine the work done by writer/director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and his capable cast.

Over the last few years we’ve had several situations like this. Back in 1995, Victor Salva was hired by Disney to direct the film Powder. It was later discovered that the filmmaker was a registered sex offender, having served time for molesting a boy on one of his previous sets. He served 15 months in prison and wandered around looking for work before getting back into moviemaking. Since then, the scandal has followed him, though he’s managed to carve out a niche in horror. His Jeepers Creepers franchise is on its third installment, and the whole pedophile thing has become a footnote of sorts. It’s still there, but it’s not stopping producers from backing his efforts.

Then there are the cultural examples, like Barillo pasta and Chick-fil-A. Both food giants offered up a similar stance to Mr. Card – read: gay is BAD – and thanks to social media and other grassroots campaigns, both have seen significant resistance to their culinary offerings and views. Protests, boycotts, and petitions have highlighted the hate speech employed, causing many to reconsider their dining choices. Over the course of these complaints, many who don’t really cotton to politics and philosophies have wondered – what’s the big deal? So a pro-Christian company like Chick-fil-A (which is NEVER open on a Sunday for those very reasons) thinks homosexuality is an abomination. It’s part of their Bible-backed philosophy. What does that have to do with waffle fries? Similarly, those who fell in love with Card’s book as a kid have voiced a similar stance. Even in a world where we believe in equality and acceptance, why does one writer’s misguided musings matter?

It’s a tricky question, and one not easily answered. Many have taken to looking for clues in Ender and other Card novels, looking for proof that the man is out to brainwash his readers with his anti-gay beliefs. Recently, the use of the term “Bugger” was bandied about by pundits, as though it was proof that the book’s main purpose was to showcase the mass destruction of what that slang term signifies. Also, the pro-child, early indoctrination angle which Ender rejects has also been linked to any number of unacceptable philosophies (fascism, communism). Add in the ongoing battle worldwide with the close minded and criminally confused (Russia passing sweeping anti-homosexuality laws, African countries making the murder of gays “legal”) and there is every reason to be concerned…and yet, this may all be a tempest in a tea pot. One imagines that few who found the book when it was published in 1985 discovered Card’s “secret agenda” (if there is one to locate) – and sadly, disagreed with it.

Tolerance is never automatic. You can’t walk into a KKK meeting and demand that the membership respect minorities and those of differing religions. As a famous Rogers and Hammerstein song opined, hate has to be “carefully taught” and that any real change comes from decades of redefining the dialogue. Back when Ender’s Game was first published, there was a witch hunt taking place regarding AIDS. HIV was considered the “gay plague” and more misinformation and direct damning took place than the frequenting of a million Chick-fil-A franchises. Over time, the clueless and culturally backward were schooled in their stupidity, and today, we are more understanding and forgiving. Not perfect, but definitely not “keep that sick kid out of my school” strident. That Card still believes the same biased BS is a reflection on him and his supposed intellect than anything else. We’re supposedly smarter than that now.

And yet, there are those who still suggest that, by seeing a movie, one is supporting such hate. Partially, this is true. Every time a studio greenlights one of Salva’s projects, they are turning a blind eye to his past. Sure, second chances are nice, but perhaps not in the case of someone who has sex with children. In Card’s case, he’s been spouting off like this since the ’90s, so it’s nothing new. He’s a Mormon, which explains away the religious viewpoint, and his political stances can be strangely contradictory (he defends Sarah Palin against media attacks, but then turns around and states that he disagrees with her on most issues?). Like Chick-fil-a, Card’s criticism of homosexuality is based on words written hundreds of years ago to organize faith into a form of ritualistic celebration. He believes them. You don’t have to.

For a bit of personal perspective, I had a good friend (who, as time would tell, I no longer communicate with) who hated Jewish people. He believed everything stereotype and ethnic slam, and made these feelings known whenever he could. We tolerated him because, well, because we were all teenagers and couldn’t conceive of the bigger picture. One day, this friend came over to the spot we all hung out at. His face was distraught, as if he had just received some horrific news. When we asked him what the problem was, he was matter of fact: he had just found out that one of his favorite actors of all time was Jewish. He was mortified. He was angry…and most importantly, he was confused. Later, when talking privately, he fumbled through some statements, basically implying that he’d been tricked into liking a Jewish person because “X” didn’t make it clear what religion he was. Needless to say, he eventually became a pariah within our clique. Again, irrational. Again, over and done with.

For Card, this isn’t a question of ridiculous hate (for most people, it is). He has the word of God to back him up. But this puts moviegoers in a strange predicament. Since one assumes that Hollywood would never purposefully support such same sex vitriol, you can conclude that either the suits failed to properly vet this man, or as Hood said in a recent interview, the views expressed in the book were antithetical to those now expressed by Card. The director sees the themes in Ender’s Game as in direct contradiction to its author’s prejudice. Certainly, there are scholars who have crafted entire dissertations on whether or not Ender’s Game (and its sequels) support Card’s out of touch views, but if the movie was made by someone who purposely avoided same, should we be concerned? Hood is an outspoken supporter of homosexuals and same sex rights, so one assumes he could control the content of his adaptation to avoid any of Card’s crude pitfalls.

Still, there are those who will argue over whether or not Card will make money off the movie (he won’t ) and who worry that, even without such a cinematic windfall, the popularity of the film will equal to an uptick in book sales (which the author still benefits from). For them, the issue is cut and dry – hate speech should not be tolerated or rewarded. On the other hand, one has to remember that Hollywood, for the longest time, tolerated its own inexcusable bigotry towards people of color. Collaborating with Card may seem suspect today, but 60 years ago, it was business as usual. As we come to terms with our past and look forward toward a better tomorrow, situations like the one with Ender’s Game will be seen as what they truly are: part of the growing process, an aside in our increased attempt at understanding. Hopefully, we can learn from it, though the lesson may not always simple to see or easy to understand. Card could care less. Luckily, we can.