Perhaps the most important lesson I took away from Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Art of Adaptation’ course was that in order to take a book and transcribe it to the screen, you have to remember first and foremost: the screen is visual. An author’s intent is to build a picture for the reader, a richly textured world with characters we can see, hear, and (in some cases) read the thoughts of. On the screen, the character is brought to life by facial expressions and dialogue instead of internal monologue. In the text a character frowns, deep in contemplative silence while we, the readers, follow their thoughts. The actor must convey this internal debate physically and through dialogue. So too the director must set the tone using colours, camera angles, and music.
Having said this, we all know that the movie adaptation will never be completely faithful to the story presented within the book. It just can’t happen. Too many subplots or extraneous characters, unnecessary details to a visual audience. That’s just the way it has to be in order to fit 150 pages into 120 minutes. Take for example the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It is a story about a child becoming a soldier. It is a messianic tale with a massive political and philosophical debate raging at the heart of it, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The story revolves mainly around super-smart children— and I do mean children, Ender Wiggin is six at the time he is chosen to go to Battle School. Once chosen, they are taken to a space station and trained to be soldiers and commanders through the use of technology, strategy, and a certain amount of ruthlessness. It’s Lord of the Flies in space, with the children then going on to fight an actual war.
I loved this book growing up, I still enjoy it in fact. When I heard it was being made into a movie, I groaned and sighed and at the same time was elated. I knew that the basic ideas would translate— childhood ending too soon, the burden of purpose, expectation, war, and isolation. What I also knew was that the battle sequences, already thrilling to read in the book, had the potential to be utterly amazing on the big screen. I was not wrong. Visually, Ender’s Game is stunning. Zero-G training battles, the interactive videogame that Ender plays, and the aliens and their worlds are all beautifully and creatively rendered. That said, the story itself is disappointing. Where the machinations of fearful men were so cleverly written into their speech and actions, in the movie they are blundered through frankly disappointing dialogue and bland acting. Instead of allowing the message to unfold within the action, we are preached at. War is bad, racism is bad, xenophobia is bad, creating child soldiers is bad… The only thing that’s ‘good’ in this movie is the ‘little guy’ facing up to the ‘bad men’.
A major portion of the book’s plot is forged through the series of battles Ender experiences. With the progression of each battle he is forged into the soldier and commander he has to be. I understand the limitations of adaptation, à la Kevin MacNeil, but I don’t understand why the director couldn’t use the battle room scenes to further the plot as well. Come on! Battles! Such a visual medium for character growth! As it stands, the battles, while fun to watch, lacked any deeper meaning besides being a great visual stunt.
I give the director and the actors due credit: I enjoyed this film. As a movie it was engaging and lively. It had great graphics and battles. It had the basic tenants of the plot from the book. Coming out of it, though, I found I could only describe it as preachy, inconsistent, and superficial. As a writer, I can only hope that should I ever score a movie deal, I remember my own advice: divorce the book and the movie. They can never truly be the same.