(Spoilers abound in the below interview. Do not read until you've seen the movie (unless you've read the book, in which case you're obviously good to go.)
ENDER'S GAME is a science-fiction adventure twenty-eight years in the adapting. Based on the Hugo Award-winning novel by Orson Scott Card, the material offers an intriguing mixture of militaristic brio (loudly echoing Robert A. Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS) and the first stirrings of young adulthood. And yet it is also a problematic book for a number of reasons - namely Ender's age (ten) and a third-act sucker punch that leaves the protagonist and the reader questioning all they've just experienced. For a potential big-budget studio tentpole, ENDER'S GAME does not offer a conventionally satisfying conclusion. It's got much more on its mind.
Writer-director was keenly aware of the challenges before him in adapting ENDER'S GAME, and has delivered a confidently streamlined narrative. By nudging Ender's age up to twelve (and casting actors further into their teen years), he has avoided the troubling sight of grade-school students beating the snot out of each other. It may be a slight altering of Card's vision, but Hood atones for this minor infraction by sticking with the novel's sobering anticlimax: Ender has been recruited to wipe out an alien species, and he unknowingly succeeds in doing so while leading what he believes to be a simulated battle (which is set up as a sort of high-stakes final exam).
Hood evinced a mile-wide humanist streak in his masterful 2005 adaptation of Athol Fugard's TSOTSI, which asked the audience to take a walk in the shoes of an unrepentant thug who's accidentally kidnapped an infant. That film builds to a finale that finds hope in its seemingly bleakest moment. Hood attempts to pull off roughly the same trick here, but he must also deliver a rousing adventure en route to this epiphany. We cheer Ender's progress as he emerges as a leader in various war games with his peers, but recoil when the reward is full-scale genocide. Hood doesn't offer any easy answers: the analogue here is Hiroshima/Nagasaki; whether this was a necessary strike is left up to the viewer.
I hadn't intended to linger on the climax of ENDER'S GAME when I chatted with Gavin Hood a couple of weeks ago, but it wound up dominating our ten-minute conversation. Hood eloquently discusses the difficulties of adapting Card's novel, while also revealing how his own experiences in the South African military colored his view of Ender's journey. We also talked about his feelings on whittling down the Valentine/Peter subplot, and whether he has any plans to return to the work of Athol Fugard.
Mr. Beaks: It seems that one of the big challenges in making this movie is that you're working from material that is the beginning of a much longer journey. In writing the film, how did you strike the balance between telling this story, but also setting up what could be a longer saga?
Gavin Hood: I think you're right in the sense that you're setting it up, but you don't want to feel that until the end. I think you have to feel that this film can stand alone in the sense of it being the story of Ender's coming of age and his owning responsibility for what he does and can do as opposed to giving that responsibility to someone else. I think the focus for me was not on how many more films can we make, but on how can I best in film, which is tricky, convey to the audience what the book does so well, which is the inner struggle of this boy and his struggle between his capacity for violence and his capacity for compassion, and how he reconciles these conflicting impulses. By the end, at least, he takes responsibility for having to think about them, and not hand over his talent to adults or anyone else going forward. So if we are lucky enough to make a sequel, it's in a way tricky because this character has already been through his major emotional journey of self-discovery. I mean, he's going to have to figure out how he lives up to it, but what we had to achieve in this film is the sense that he really has moved from being a young boy to being a young man, and he understands that he will, from now on, take responsibility for his own destiny.
Beaks: It's such an unusual story for a mass audience. There's got to be a certain amount of exhilaration and adventure, but it leads to a somber climax. What was the key to managing the tone?
Hood: The tricky thing with this kind of movie is not only does the boy experience all this cool stuff, but when you're making a film of this size, you need for the audience to have a really great time in terms of their expectations of an epic movie. But in a way we play the same trick with the audience that Graff plays with Ender: you seduce the audience into a story with battle scenes that are really fun to play, that seem like awesome cool games, and you cheer, I hope, with Ender when he wins that final battle. And then the rug is pulled out from under his and your feet. For fans of the book, it's less so because they know the twist, but since ninety percent of the viewers have not read the book, you want to make sure it works for them, too. Ender wants to win, and, at the end, his ego is part of what gets him. He jumps around and says "How about that! Game over!" There's a huge ego moment there that's perfectly understandable and hopefully most of the audience is feeling that, too. "Yeah! We kicked their ass!" And then both the film and the Graff pull the rug out from under the audience and Ender, and say "This wasn't a game. How do you feel now?" I think in a way that what we were trying to achieve in the film was a parallel with the audience with what Graff was trying to achieve with Ender.
Beaks: Thematically, it's a pretty daring thing to do with a film of this nature.
Hood: I think that's why nobody wanted to make it for a long time, so we'll find out November 1st whether we succeeded. But I was drawn to the fact that this was a story that wasn't just about a good guy who is somehow wronged, or his daughter's wronged, or somebody's wronged, and he spends the next two hours taking revenge and setting the world right, and somehow everything is okay after that. So often in big films, that's the simple, basic idea: good is unsettled, we chase after bad, bad gets a beating and everything is good again. What I love about ENDER'S GAME is that it refuses to see the world in those simplistic terms. And yet it is a little unconventional for an audience to see a young twelve-year-old carrying a movie of this size, where the adults are basically supports to the children, and for it then to leave you with some questions that may be a little uncomfortable and generate some debate. But if we've done our job, that's the reason we made the film. If it generates some conversation while at the same time delivering some cool visual effects and stuff that you expect from a movie of this size, then I think it was worth making.
Beaks: Your films have always had a real humanist element to them, especially TSOTSI. Here, you're pondering the horrible necessity of war, and there is this Hiroshima kind of kick to what happens. With that kind of theme, and with the way Americans have become so used to being at war, was there something you were maybe trying to get people to reconsider?
Hood: Sure. I kind of can't help myself because I was drafted when I was seventeen, and there was a profound impact from those two years in the military. I lost a close friend, and I was very angry and distressed and confused by that entire experience, and angry at myself for not thinking through it before going in. You think you're immortal, and half of it seems like a crazy adventure game. You'll just get through the training and be tough with your buddies, but it's really more complex than that. I suppose when I talk to my young nephew, and he asks about the military, I try to say, "Well, just think about it. They recruit you on the basis of 'we've always needed young people to fight our wars because we need a level of naivete going into this stuff. And we need a very simplistic view of the world. That's good, that's bad, I've got to do this, and I'll be a hero. I'll learn a lot. I might even go to college. I'll have a cool time jumping out of planes, and it'll be awesome.'" And the recruiter doesn't say to you, "By the way, you may suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of your life and lose some friends and lose a leg and come out and find it's hard to get a job because you've got to deal with all of this stuff." Because then we wouldn't get anybody to fight these wars, right? So I prefer to speak to the individual, which is "Make whatever choice you like, but make it consciously. Make any choice you feel is right, but don't be naive." I think that young people are more intelligent than we give them credit for, but they are also in a strangely vulnerable place where they still want to please adults and prove themselves to society.
Beaks: Was there one part of the book that you hated to have to excise?
Hood: There's a subplot that takes place between the brother and sister that's a very beautiful and, at the time it was written, very prescient story. Valentine and Peter have a whole thing going on in the internet, which in 1985 was incredibly prescient because it barely existed. They blog under the names of Demosthenes and Locke, and achieve these huge followings on "the nets" as [Card] called them in those days. Here we are now with the internet and people blog and they have Facebook and they tweet and they amass followings. The reason I let it go was because it's no longer as innovative in a sense as it was at the time. Now everybody does it. Also, frankly, a storyline about two people blogging, as brilliant as it is on the page, and the philosophy they espouse, is not easy to film. It's not very cinematic watching a kid type at a computer. So I let that storyline go and I focused solely on Ender's journey and Ender's storyline, and decided to put Ender in pretty much every scene of the movie because the complexity of that title character I felt required that the audience stayed with him all the time in order to experience this journey of this boy who sometimes does things we don't like. He overreacts in his beating of Stilson; he goes too far. And if you went off and went into a subplot about Valentine and Peter and then back to Ender five minutes later you might've lost the audience with Ender. I felt that I just needed to focus on Ender's journey in the movie because in two hours I wouldn't be able to do justice to the subplot of Peter and Valentine. Any space I gave that would mean that I'd lose time with Ender, and then I wouldn't do justice to Ender.
Beaks: Any plans to do another film from the work of Athol Fugard? I'm a huge admirer of his and I love the way you adapt his material.
Hood: Man, thank you. I would love to. I'm definitely looking at something, but I'm not going to say I'm going to do it until things are fine. It's so hard sometimes on these things. The next time we talk, it'll be "What happened?", and I'll have to explain why it didn't happen. But Athol is a phenomenal writer, and I would be thrilled to do something else. There is something I'm looking at, but it's not an easy one. TSOTSI was similar to [ENDER'S GAME] in that it was so much about what's going on inside a kid's head. Athol's such a good writer that if you do his work you want to make sure you can deliver a very emotional experience.
ENDER'S GAME is currently in theaters.