The novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a complex story that traces the life of a young boy, beginning when he is 6 years old and concluding when he is 10. It is also just the first part of a much larger story that spans 12 books in total. In short, it is a massive property, and for years Hollywood studios wrestled with how they could adapt it to film. Most eventually gave up trying.
When writer and director Gavin Hood began his work on adapting the book into a single movie that would also serve as the first in a potential new film franchise, his task was daunting. How do you keep the heart of the story that million so people have read and adored, and still make it work as a film? And how do you even make a film that focuses on a child that isn’t always likable? Changes in the characters had to be made, and cuts were inevitable; some deeper than others.
With the movie opening November 1 (check out our review), we had the chance to sit down and go one-on-one with Hood about the cuts he made, the process of adapting a beloved book, and designing the future of Ender’s Game.What was the most challenging aspect of adapting this novel into a screenplay?
A couple of things. First and most significant was the fact that it’s very much about what goes on inside the mind of this young protagonist. He’s young, and yet he’s got these complex feelings and emotions going through his mind that are really quite unconventional, shall we say, for a big, popcorn movie in the sense that he is not just a good kid. He’s a complex kid who is capable of real acts of violence, which is kind of alienating for an audience, but he’s also capable of great compassion.
And so these are rather tricky themes that are not commonly found in a young protagonist in a big movie. I was really worried about how I would be true to those complex ideas in the film, and one of the ways I felt I had to do it was to say, in the film, I’m going to stick this kid in every single scene, which sounds great in theory until you tell your producers you want to make a film with a 12 year-old in every scene, and he’s going to carry the movie. I think it was the right choice in retrospect because we were lucky enough to get Asa Butterfield, who I think is a fabulously talented young actor who can delivery that kind of intelligence and complexity.
I needed to put him in every scene because I needed the audience to bond with him and so just when they are repelled by, for example his attack on Stillson, you’re still with him in the next scene and he’s feeling this tremendous regret as if he’s too much like his brother. Whereas if you try and make it too much of an ensemble cast, you give the audience too many choices of who to bond with, and that might turn against your lead. But if you force them to be with your lead every step of the way, they may not like him, but at least they’ll understand him.
There were a couple of scenes that will be on the DVD that I wish could have stayed in the movie. Really it’s the subplot that I really liked between Ender and Mick. They have a scene in the dining hall where Mick’s approach to this whole thing is, ‘To hell with them. I’m not going to cooperate. What do you wanna be? A friggin’ hero? You want a medal? Good for you, you schmuck.’ That’s the kind of one attitude to being drafted, which is just ‘I’m not interested.’ Then there’s a middle ground, which is also going to be on the DVD, which is a scene between Ender and Dink, where he says to Dink, ‘You’re twice as smart as Bonzo. Why don’t you lead?’ I have that. We filmed that, and it’s a wonderful moment, and yet it’s just a conversation.
“This thing comes up, and all of the stars come up all around me, and it’s being projected, and I thought ‘That’s it.'”
When you’re in these test screenings with questions like ‘Is the pace dropping here?’ … it’s hard for a director. But I’m thrilled to say, that the studio has said yes, absolutely put those scenes on the DVD. I look forward to talking about those two scenes on the DVD because they’re part of the progression of leadership. Because ultimately Ender takes responsibility as a leader, which Dink refuses to do.
In a way, Ender is braver, but it also has consequences, and part of the reason he takes the job is an ego reason. And yet, if you don’t have that ego, who’s going to lead? These are complicated themes and that’s a little subtheme that’s sort there, but it will fun to talk about it on the DVD.
Well, let’s go to the simulation, because that’s the biggest tech area. I was just very afraid that the final battle, which takes place on computers, and once again I was wondering how I was going to make that visual. It’s great in the book, you’re imagining enough. But when you have to realize that visually and kids are sitting at terminals and they’re playing a game, even if they have the cool pieces of Razer tech… I remember seeing that and saying ‘Yeah, that will be cool in the movie, but I can only do one or two inserts with that and then it’s boring.’
So, I was at the planetarium with my kids, and I was still thinking ‘How am I going to do this game?’ and I sit down in the planetarium because they love space. This thing comes up, and all of the stars come up all around me, and it’s being projected, and I thought ‘That’s it. I just have to make an environment in a video game where you can look around you, which you don’t do yet. I mean, I want to play this video game. Then, I also saw a conductor conducting at the Disney Concert Hall, and I saw how much energy this guy was putting in, yet he’s standing in one place. I was so afraid of the static nature of that stuff because the kids are just static. How am I going to make this exciting?
So, I thought if I give him a huge screen that he has to move, it’ll be like a conductor with his orchestra below him, and then set the world of the video game all around him. And we use what we do on iPads now, only magnified to a new, gestural language… I’m just stealing the idea of zooming in and out with your fingers by having him do it with his hands. People are doing that kind of gestural language on certain flatscreens, so we were just thinking, ‘How can we take what is essentially a video game and max it. Make it into something you wish they would set up at Universal studios and let you play.
That was the next thing, what to leave out? To try and connect the audience to the inner life of Ender, I decided to stick with Ender. So, who am I leaving out? I’m leaving out any scene which doesn’t involve Ender, except one or two between Graff and Anderson where they talk about Ender, which in a way it’s still about Ender. Which brings us straight to Valentine and Peter’s story, which I happen to really like. Demosthenes and Locke I think, especially in 1985 when that was written, was unbelievably prescient and smart. I mean, to foresee the internet… it was hinted at and was sort of around back then, but he really foresaw the use of the internet by ordinary folks like you and I and kids, and the kind of power that they can generate as writers on that net was incredibly prescient.
“So, you have to make tough choices. They’re painful to make…”
However, here we are in 2013. We now all use the internet. Most people have Facebook, they blog, they Tweet. So, it’s not as exciting for an audience as it might has been then. More importantly, when you make a film, it’s really hard to make two kids typing on a computer cinematically exciting. And to present the kinds of arguments that are presented by Demosthenes and Locke, which require some pages, can sound very talky in a movie. Books do some things better than movies. Movies do some things better than books. The challenge for me, as a fan of Ender’s Game the book, is to say, ‘I never want to say that the film replaces the book.’ It can’t, it mustn’t, it shouldn’t. Imagine that Ender Wiggin exists outside of this book. Orson has described him magnificently in narrative prose. Imagine I came along at the same time with a camera and followed this kid around, and I tried to film and feel his world using my tools. And I can do things that the novelist can’t do. I can get a reaction on that kid’s face, that might take the novelist a paragraph to describe. But I can’t describe with my camera what Demosthenes and Locke are doing in a way that isn’t perhaps visually very dull.
So, you have to make tough choices. They’re painful to make, especially when you’re trying to make something that has to fit into two or so hours. My feeling was that it’s called ‘Ender’s’ Game. The one thing I will never be forgiven for is if I lose the twist at the end. Or if I compromise on the aggression shown to Stillson. There are certain key, iconic beats that are about Ender’s journey, and his journey of coming to a point of independence and not needing to please authority anymore. Not being driven by that own ego need to win, because I love that he’s not a perfect kid. He has an ego. He wants to win! I felt that it was better to be true to those core feelings that the book generated than to try to get everything in and end up diluting too much.