Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Ender's Game and contextual consumption.

Let's talk about Gavin Hood's film adaptation of the classic Orson Scott Card sci-fi novel Ender's Game!

If you happen to be unfamiliar with Ender's Game then I will simply say that it is a wonderfully written, extraordinarily inventive, and culturally important story about mind games, war, children, objectification, and the loss of innocence.  I don't want to spoil too much more than that.

If you just want a simple review so you can be on your way, here's the short version of my reaction:  it's not bad!  And occasionally, it's very good.  Certainly there are parts of it that feel rushed and underdeveloped, but unless you're Peter Jackson, that may be inevitable when adapting books to films.  The film's strengths (particularly in its powerful third act) overcome its weaknesses, I think.  My more detailed reactions (spoiler free) are included below, but if you're just clicking to decide if you should see it or not, then my short answer is, "yes, probably see it.  Especially if you're a fan of the book (which you should be).  But be warned that it's certainly not without its flaws."

Okay, let's get started.  When consuming art/media of any kind, context is very important.  Your circumstances determine how media effects you.  For example, the last time I watched Forrest Gump, four years ago, it was nearly unbearable, because of the girl I was dating at the time and her reaction to it.  We actually ended up having a pretty big, stupid argument about the film.  Unfortunately, to this day, Zemeckis' undoubtedly masterful contribution to American cinema reminds me of that discomfort.  With that example, I aim to illustrate that media is not a standalone experience; its influence on our lives is always informed by the other influences that surround us, either in obvious or subtle ways.

The reason I begin with that thought is because my experience at the theater this weekend with Ender's Game was very different from my experience many years ago with the same story as a book.

When I first read the book, I was quite young.  I have read it several more times since then, but its story has always been connected to my late childhood and young adulthood, and all the feelings that I associate with that era of my life.  From an adolescent perspective, Ender's Game is about isolation, disillusionment, and fear.  It's about the painful paradox of societal expectations placed on teenagers:  the world wants them to act like adults, but treats them like infants.

Experiencing the story again now is quite different because I don't have the same context of vulnerability and angst.  My context now is more that of a tired, disillusioned adult; I'm worried about the future of this world and I'm uneasy about warmongering governments.  I didn't have that disillusionment as a teenager, thank goodness.

Furthermore, I've been thinking and reading and watching a lot about war (particularly Vietnam) lately.  In the past month I watched Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Coppola's Apocalypse Now for the first time.  War is often meaningless; war is chaos; indeed, war is Hell.  And who do we send off into this hellish, chaotic, meaningless nightmare?  We send our young; we send our "able-bodied."  The average age of American soldiers who died in Vietnam was 22: that's four years younger than I am now.  Like most kids, I used to think of soldiers as "grown-ups."  I thought of people older than me and bigger than me - people whose understanding of life and sex and violence was so beyond my own.  But now, when I think of soldiers, I think of kids, much younger than I, often still in their late teens.  I think of people who were very recently told by their High School teachers and counselors that they could do anything they set their mind to.  Then, within less than a year in many cases, they were trained and hardened and shipped overseas to shoot bad guys.  When I think of war, I think of young men fighting old men's battles.

One more bit of context:  I work at a residential treatment center (which doubles as a therapeutic boarding school) for adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18.  My responsibility to take care of the students is a huge part of my life.  I think about these kids all the time:  their drawings fill my car, their names populate my prayers, and their anxieties fill my nightmares.  That's perhaps the most significant context in which I experienced the film adaptation of Ender's Game.  Because while I watch Asa Butterfield's performance as Ender Wiggin, I no longer see an avatar for myself; rather, I see a representation of my students, those who look to me as caregiver.  The character of Ender speaks to me deeply and tragically, because he represents an objectified subject, an exploited innocent, a mistreated child.  He represents the psychological cost of war.

As a teenager reading the book, I wanted to be the protagonist.  Now, ten years later, I want to protect him.

Because of this context, I found Ender's Game to be pretty powerful, and like I mentioned in my brief review above, I thought its ending was particularly effective.  However, the film has its flaws.

I think the film's main problem is pacing.  It darts from scene to scene for the first hour, and therefore struggles to let its audience get their emotional footing.  It feels rushed and abbreviated, which takes a lot of the potency away from its more heavy moments.  The characters and their relationships feel underdeveloped because of this pacing problem.  I understand there is no easy way to avoid this issue when adapting a long and complex book.  The Harry Potter films struggled with the exact same thing (except for the seventh film, which had a wonderful balance of character and plot and was well-paced).

Another problem the film has is that its narrative edges are too soft, so to speak.  It pulls its punches.  The book drives its point home with real costs, and with brutal and devastating violence (both physical and psychological), but the film obviously has investors and the MPAA to please.  So it ends up feeling sterilized, both aesthetically and thematically.  It's too shiny and soft when it should be terrifying, and this takes away from its allegorical strength.  A review in Christianity Today claims that because the movie has "scalped the more brazen, the more expected, violence," it "feels morally listless and dishonest."  I think I agree.

Despite these problems, I think the film was worth seeing.  I won't deny, however, that my reaction was informed by my own subjective biases and individual experiences.  I am a product of circumstance and my context happened to make Ender's Game a pretty edifying experience.  If your experiences have been similar, then perhaps you'll feel likewise.  Or perhaps not.  I wish I could endorse the film more wholeheartedly and universally than that, but I cannot.  It simply isn't good enough for me to.

But after a decade and a half of waiting, I'm glad to have at least seen something.  Because one of the greatest sci-fi stories of our generation deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible, and if more people are exposed to the book because of this movie, then I'm happy.
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