I 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.
Anyway, 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.