Here’s a book that actually got a movie (and is often touted as a sci-fi classic), but still doesn’t have a very strong fandom. There are many reasons why adult geeks are less than likely to proclaim themselves avid fans of Orson Scott Card’s most famous novel, Ender’s Game–some good and some not so good. As for me, I borrowed it from a friend a couple years ago, finished it in three days, and immediately bought my own copy so I could read it again. It easily makes my own personal “Top 5 Sci-Fi Books of All Time” list.
I like it because it fits some incredibly complicated ideas into a simple story about a boy who’s trying to do well in school. That’s Ender Wiggin’s only goal for pretty much the whole book: learn as much as he can, pass his tests, and keep the school bullies off his back. Normal kid problems. Except that Ender is six, the academy he’s attending is called Battle School, and every one of his “tests” is based on a life-or-death scenario that will confront him for real sooner than later. And the school bullies? They’re a test, too. So we get a really great glimpse of what an exceptionally bright school kid’s life is like, and what a soldier’s life is like, all in one package. Plus, the zero-gravity fighting scenes are very cool (and pretty realistic by sci-fi standards), and the “mind game” Ender plays is as fascinating as it is creepy. This is one of those rare books that you can read over and over, seeing something new every time.
Needless to say, when the movie came out, I went to see it on opening night. I was one of the few who did. A bunch of people in the geek community tried to boycott the movie because of Orson Scott Card’s beliefs on gay marriage (never mind that you’d be hard-pressed to find a story that had less to do with homosexuality one way or another), and that, combined with some bad early reviews, kinda hurt its chances at the box office.
Personally, I liked the movie, but it felt a little…unremarkable to me, especially compared to the book. It took me a while to figure out why. It was very faithful to its source material, apart from aging all the kids about ten years, which was understandable. And it had Harrison Ford! In space! How can that go wrong?
Eventually I realized my main problem with the film version was that it felt like a kid’s movie–and an overly serious one at that. The book’s violence was toned down to the extent that the movie barely earned its PG-13 rating. Peter and Valentine, their twisted relationship, and their political schemes, were cut out almost entirely. And I think both omissions hurt the story, because Ender’s Game is not really a kid’s book. Although plenty of kids read and like it, it wasn’t written with an under-twelve audience in mind. It’s rather violent, and the violence is especially disturbing because it’s happening between little kids.
And that, for me, is where the emotional punch comes from: it’s one thing to write a story about what war does to people, but if that story is told from a kid’s perspective, you feel it on a more visceral level. Even in space. I also think Peter is vital to the story, if only for the ironic contrast between him and Ender. He’s also up there with the creepiest psychopaths in fiction, and everyone loves a good psychopath.
Anyway, bottom line is: the book is amazing, and the movie is just okay. Which is true for most book-to-movie adaptations, is it not? At least we still have the original…to read over and over and over again. 🙂