Adapting Ender, Part II: Uncanny Children
Okay, kiddos, since it’s Friday I’m going to try to be a bit shorter than usual. Don’t forget to check out the archive if you’re new to the mad, mad world of Pop, Drop & Roll!
Yesterday I gave a rundown of what I think a solid adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game will look like when it hits the big screen, so today I’m going to serve up a bit more theory and then get down to checking out the cast and crew.
Children are notoriously difficult to work with, according to the Hollywood model. Not only do you have limited hours per day to work with minors on set, but as a filmmaker you have to ensure you have a prescient child that can deliver not just lines, but emotion profundity on command.
That, to me, was one of the things that made me shriek like a Krayt Dragon when I heard Ender’s Game was going to be adapted. The odds of finding the RIGHT kid to portray Ender’s complex balance of brilliance and sensitivity seemed impossible.
From a symbolic perspective, children are the indicators of a film’s essential mythology. In horror, you often run across the demon child, who’s all kinds of Antichrist-y, bringing the apocalypse and whatnot. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and you get the sensitive angelic child, whom darkness is threatening to swallow (thematically, a corruption of innocence).
Here’s another thing to bear in mind: in our culture’s symbolic structures, nature is feminine (hence “Mother Nature”) and order is masculine.
When children are ancillary characters, we can count them as extensions of nature, as they’re the closest to raw humanity that’s tolerated in our culture. They’re the archetype of the Fool - someone whose wisdom comes from a different intellectual system than our own, often a mentor who can guide the troubled onto a more satisfying life path (thus do we get sayings like, “Out of the mouths of babes...”).
Horror movies are about a descent into the maw of chaos and (often) narrow escape, while SF/fantasy are more about the child sharing their intellectual light/wisdom with all those who follow them. They’re a messiah.
Ender is definitely the prescient-child archetype, but the funny thing is that he isn’t really an extension of mother nature personified (I’m just working with Ender’s Game here, btw, not the other novels of the Enderverse - otherwise I’d be at this keyboard all week and then some). Instead of coming from the side of nature, Ender is someone who NATURALLY hails from the masculine hierarchy that society has constructed; he’s a tactician within a culture that (not unlike ours) is all about structure and following the rules. His world is about warlike dominance rather than coexistence - which is demonstrated by the “game” of astronauts vs. Buggers.
So Ender’s journey is really about a child who finds their way BACK to what a messiah-child is supposed to be: naturalistic, merciful to enemies, and compassionate. And that is going to take a LOT of talent to pull off.
For a long time, this film was slated to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who helmed films like The NeverEnding Story, The Perfect Storm, Troy, and the 2006 disaster film Poseidon. Given that his stories often involve adult warfare, I wasn’t sure how that was going to translate to child armies of Ender’s Game.
(And anyone who watched Bastian “rationing” his sandwich in The NeverEnding Story should be as suspect as I am about how Ender’s Game might have turned out. I mean, I adore that movie, but certain parts play like nails on a chalkboard.)
Once Gavin Hood took up the directorial mantle, a lot of my previous anxiety vanished. Having directed the very sensitively-handled Tsotsi, I have a certain amount of faith in the guy. Whether or not choosing to write the adapted screenplay himself will work out as well as it did in Tsotsi remains to be seen, but I’m definitely willing to be optimistic.
Asa Butterfield is a really interesting choice for Ender. I hate to be shallow, but I think he can pull off that quasi-Lost Boy look that I always imagined Ender possesses - and after watching Hugo, I’m quite sure he can pull off the emotional complexity the role demands.
Butterfield is in no way as young as Ender is in the book (and therefore not as physically small, which might throw off some of the dynamics), but that’s one of those trade-offs you’ve got to make as a filmmaker: go with a solid young actor who’s a bit too old (but can therefore play the prescience card) or go with an unknown who might crack or prove offputting. So again, I’m on board with Hood’s decision-making process.
I can’t speak to Jax Pinchak, who’s playing Peter, but Abigail Breslin is another example of hit-the-nail-on-the-head casting. Talk about emotional complexity! Valentine is a really tricky part to get right, because although she’s probably not going to get tons of screen time, she’s Ender’s heart. We have to BELIEVE in Valentine, and see Ender through her eyes.
Ender and Valentine form the relationship core of this story - which often manifests as a romantic relationship in adult-heavy movies - and if we don’t buy this, the whole movie will tank. Again, though, Breslin’s a seasoned veteran, and has a proven track record of anchoring films (Little Miss Sunshine immediately springs to mind).
I’m not going to spend much time with Hailee Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian, but I do have to say she’s going to be fantastic. After True Grit, I’m totally convinced we’re going to get some awesome film scenes with my favorite sharpshooter, so let’s keep moving on.
Harrison Ford playing Hyrum Graff is this film’s major coup, IMHO. This isn’t a Han Solo do-over (although HOW FUNNY is it that his in-film assistant is played by a guy named Han Soto! I’m still geeking out over that one), yet since it’s another SF film, he’s going to bring a hearty contingent of fans who want to see him in another alt-world role.
My only real concern with the illustrious Mr. Ford is the worry that he’ll end up stealing the film due to lopsided writing. Graff and Anderson are peripheral to the main story for much of the novel, having their own brief conversations on the side and then actively popping up around Ender and Valentine for brief periods of time. If they’re getting tons of face time, it’s going to feel like Hood is pandering to a veteran actor, which is going to MAJORLY suck focus away from Ender and Valentine plotlines. So here’s hoping Ford/Graff is like the icing on a cake: there for a touch of something dynamic, but nothing too far overboard.
I think Viola Davis as Anderson is a really nice bit of casting. This is a novel without many female roles (Petra is, in essence, one of the guys, which leave Valentine holding the feminine bag, as it were), so swapping another dude in power for a chick is going to break up the all white-male dynamic that seemed to pervade the book’s upper echelons of power. This is a story of a CULTURE that’s essentially selling their children into soldiership, not of a certain demographic doing so. The multiple Tony and Drama Desk award-winning Davis is going to be a total badass, but as with Ford, I hope they keep her somewhat corralled: she’ll be much scarier if we don’t see her every few minutes.
So that’s it for Ender’s Game for the moment - and the countdown to November 13 begins! If you see the film on opening night, I’ll be the one wearing the “Paddling the old knew” or “Your ass is Dragon” shirt. Grey orange grey FTW!
Tune in Saturday and Sunday for some kind of TBA madness in the weekend editions of Pop, Drop & Roll - and don’t forget to leave requests and comments in the field below, or on Twitter!
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.