Ender’s Game Over

Ender's Game film posterI have a personal rule not to get involved in online discussions which have the potential to turn fractious. Yesterday I made the mistake of responding to a kindly put question on a well known social media site. The question was, should people boycott a film based on a book because of the views of the author?

Yes, see that big can of worms labelled TOXIC? Oh look, there’s a can opener! Of course we are talking about Orson Scott Card and the soon to be released film based on his 28 year old novel Ender’s Game. The whole thing got started because of this article.

Now some background. I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy for 40 years and have never read a word of fiction by Orson Scott Card. None of his work has ever appealed to me. Until very recently I knew almost nothing about the man. A while back I heard Ender’s Game was being filmed, and thought nothing of it. Then a whole controversy blew up about the film, based not around the film itself, or the book it is adapted from, but around views expressed by Card which have nothing to do with Ender’s Game, book or film.

On the well known social media site I suggested it would be strange in a country dedicated to the principle of free speech to boycott a film, far more so when the reason for the proposed boycott is not because of the content of the film, but because of entirely unrelated views expressed by the author of the source novel years after the book itself was published. I also mentioned that the film is the work of hundreds of people, only one of whom is (nominally) Orson Scott Card. According to the Internet Movie Database he is one of eight producers, which is almost certainly an obligatory credit for writing the book, not for being involved in making the movie.

My comment was misunderstood to indicate concern for the financial welfare for the hundreds of people who worked on the film. Not so, they have already been paid, and apart from the few who will share in the profits, the success or failure of Ender’s Game will make little difference. Of course in regards to future employment it’s always nice to be associated with success, and to be able to tell people you worked on something they’ve heard of, rather than that unknown dud which went straight to DVD. No, my point was that a book is one thing and a film is something else. A novel is the work of one person (or occasionally two), while a film is a massively collaborative effort. Ender’s Game the film is a separate thing to Ender’s Game the book.

Ender's Game - coverAnyway, I got rudely told off. It was suggested I have a naïve view of the film industry – apparently gathered from watching Entertainment Tonight (a show I have never seen) or reading the Hollywood trades (which I have never done) – because I pointed out that films rarely have much relation to the material they are theoretically based on. The gist of the argument against me was that Hollywood is in the business of making money, so why would film companies spend money buying the rights to literary properties if they didn’t intend to adapt those properties into films?

Well, it happens all the time. Hollywood buys the rights to literary properties because of the relatively cheap built-in publicity and credibility name recognition of a well known novel brings to a movie. It doesn’t matter that most people haven’t read the book, that they never will read the book, only that they have heard of it. Hollywood has always done this. But these days getting an advantage in publicity is more important when the market is dominated by eagerly anticipated sequels. Movies like Skyfall and Iron Man 3 sell themselves with a ready made audience. An original screenplay is a far harder prospect. But if you don’t have a franchise then a film based, however nominally, on a well known book is a big plus.

Take current release World War Z. The film has little in common with Max Brooks’ novel other than the title and the fact that both concern a worldwide zombie outbreak. The book takes the distinctive position of reading as an oral history comprised of interviews with dozens of survivors of events which spanned a decade and ended a decade before the interviews were conducted. And the novel features traditional slow zombies, something which greatly affects the way events play out. The film dispenses with all this, following the adventures of one man rushing around the world over a much shorter period of time during an outbreak of extremely fast moving zombies. One could probably put forward a good case for demanding a refund if you expected a film which actually adapted the novel World War Z to the screen.

But audiences don’t expect films to be faithful to books. Hollywood buys the title (and sometimes they even change that – see Blade Runner), some name recognition and a core idea or interesting character. Few would argue that Jaws, the novel, is a better than Jaws, the film. And the film only bears a passing resemblance to the book. Mass audiences don’t care. Far more people will see any given film than read the book it is based on. The differences between book and film are, for the vast majority, unknown and irrelevant.

So given that the film of Ender’s Game has nothing to do with the controversial views expressed by the author of the novel (to which it probably bears little relationship anyway), why, in a country dedicated to free speech, would one even think of boycotting it?

Free speech is meaningless if it doesn’t extend to speech one finds objectionable or offensive. No one objects to people saying things they agree with, or don’t disagree with. And one can’t logically believe in free speech then punish someone for using free speech by boycotting a piece of work which has that person’s name attached, however nominally.

The truth is there are reprehensible people everywhere. If one boycotts Ender’s Game because of the views of Orson Scott Card then surely one must boycott Star Wars, Alien, Planet of the Apes and Avatar, if not because of opinions disseminated by Fox News, then because of actual systemic criminality in parts of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

I had not read a word of opinion by Orson Scott Card until a couple of weeks ago. When I did I was shocked that such a respected author and major name in publishing would espouse such hateful points of view. I have absolutely no truck with his opinions. He is free to say what he likes, and others can form their own views about that. But I won’t be boycotting Ender’s Game. Though I won’t be going to see it either. Not because of anything said by Orson Scott card, but because I expect it to be another mindless Hollywood spectacle. I’ve no interest in the book, and the film will almost certainly be even less interesting, all sound and fury signifying nothing. A bit like the opinions of Mr Card.

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  1. I’m not *really* going to jump into this, as I’ve already argued/discussed it on Facebook—and no minds are going to be changed by anything I say. Why I’m commenting now is that you’ve made at least one incorrect statement above, which should be corrected:
    You said, “Hollywood buys the title (and sometimes they even change that – see Blade Runner), some name recognition and a core idea or interesting character.
    Actually, by copyright law (unless it’s changed a whole lot since I looked into it) titles are explicitly NOT copyrightable.

    I slightly knew Dr. Alan E. Nourse, who wrote the book “Bladerunner,” and he was surprised and delighted when Ridley Scott’s film company chose to pay him for using that title instead of Philip K. Dick’s original “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” They were in no way obligated to do so, legally.

    Right now, I could legally write and publish–if I could find a publisher who would do so–a book called “Ender’s Game” and OSC would have nothing to say about it, copyright-wise.

    Do I support OSC’s very public and vehement anti-gay/gay marriage stance? No, of course not. Am I going to buy any more OSC books or reread “Ender’s Game”? Also no—my own sister is gay, and many of my friends are; I’ve only met Card once, and while he seemed a pleasant enough fellow, I rather like my sister a whole bunch more. And she’s never publicly espoused hate (or privately, for that matter) against a whole bunch of people she doesn’t know personally. (Well, she’s not terribly fond of the Westboro Baptist Church, as far as I know.)

    But I’m not going to boycott the movie; neither am I going to see it in the theatre. I will, probably, rent it as a video after it goes to video. Either from my local video store—yes, we still have one—or from Netflix. At this point, I don’t think the movie will benefit Card any more than it already has, unless it becomes a huge hit. Then it might inspire more book sales or sequel sales—I believe there are more than a few sequels. And in my opinion, boycotting TOR books, who purchased and published the book long before OSC became a spokesman for hateful crap, is the same kettle of fish.

    1. You are right that titles are no explicitly copyrightable (so far as I understand). What I meant, and what I think is clear from my post is that when the film rights to a book are purchased what is being bought is the story / characters, and that what Hollywood is generally interested in acquiring is the right to exploit that story and characters in association with the title under which they story has been published. Of course I could write a book called Star Wars but I couldn’t legally use any of the story elements, characters, places, technology, etc. specific to George Lucas’ Star Wars universe. And no one would publish it.

      I have just finished reading a science fiction novel by Guy Haley called Crash. He was perfectly entitled to use that word as his title, but obviously not to use elements of the J.G. Ballard novel or David Croenberg film of the same name, or indeed of the Paul Haggis film also of the same name, or the 2008 TV series which again used the word Crash for its title. If Mr Haley is fortunate enough to sell the film rights to his novel what will be being bought is the right to use his story and characters in association with the word Crash (or any other title the filmmakers see fit), but obviously not the right to incorporate elements of any other previous work which also happened to share the same title. Ditto Nina Allan’s Stardust, which I recently reviewed on Amazing Stories; an entirely different work to the Neil Gaiman novel and associated film of the same title.

  2. While he is free to spout his hateful politics–no one is saying that Orson Scott Card cannot say whatever he wants–I too am free to say that I will not see his films for that reason.

    I am not limiting his right to say something; I am expressing my own viewpoint, that I should not, morally, support the work of noted bigots. By saying, “He should be free to say whatever miserable things he wants without punishment,” you’re saying I should not be able to have my own speech.

    1. I’m all in favour of free speech but it doesn’t extend to fabricating quotes and attributing them to someone else. Nowhere did I write “He should be free to say whatever miserable things he wants without punishment,”

      1. (I didn’t mean that as an attribution–I have a bad habit of using exaggerated simplifications as rhetorical device. It comes from using the internet too much! So I apologize for that.)

        But by suggesting that boycotting a movie because of views the author held was “strange”, you’re marginalizing people who want to express their viewpoint by boycotting the film. If boycotting isn’t a valid option, then how are we supposed to express our disagreement with his views? More specifically: how are we supposed to do it in a way a bottom-line oriented business will understand?

        Basically: he has the right to say anything he wants. If he does, then anyone boycotting the film necessarily has the same right, unless refusing to patronize something is less protected than hate speech. Basically, “And one can’t logically believe in free speech then punish someone for using free speech by boycotting a piece of work which has that person’s name attached, however nominally.” isn’t just something I believe in, but it’s how the system works. He can say it, and then I can object to him saying it, and not support him because of it.

        1. You are absolutely correct Tom, in that effectively your exposed one of the ironies of free speech. That while OSC is free to say what he likes, you are equally free to respond how you wish, including boycotting the film based on his work. The irony being that – I’m sure support free speech – you equally support the idea of punishing someone for exercising their right to free speech. I don’t think there is any right or wrong to this. But it is certainly ironic, even paradoxical.

          1. I’ve seen this discussion about a hundred times. Some of the people who state this idea get very impassioned about it, and are just positive that when I choose not to buy something because of what someone said, I am now censoring him. It’s one of the ways I know that our education system is awful.

            I wasn’t obligated to buy his stuff now, and I wasn’t before. He has the right to make of an ass of himself, and I have the right to speak ill of him for saying so. That isn’t ironic.

            I even have the right to say, “I don’t think you should see the movie,” if I want to, though I’m not saying that. And if I say it, you can say something bad about me. Still no irony.

            I suppose I’ll see the movie on cable someday. Since movies have so little to do with books, it’s possible they might actually fix the ending, which is utterly broken. I’ve always considered this book proof of how important is to get the reader to like the beginning. The book had no satisfactory ending, and the character development was unbelievably stunted.

            When Iread to the end, I literally believed that I hadn’t gotten the entire book. I couldn’t believe how awful the ending he was.

            He’s a planetary hero who does nothing for the rest of his life, hides out? They had many adventures.. which we aren’t told about? His serial killer brother um… went with him?

            I still can’t believe how many people don’t have a problem with it.

            If I were going to boycott the movie, it would be because they kept the same ending, not because Orson Scott Card is an ass. (I don’t know whether they will keep the ending anyway.)

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