‘Ender’s Game,’ Genocide, and Moral Culpability

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for the novel and movie versions of Ender’s Game.

A film version of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game has been a long time coming, though in the months leading up to its release, the headlines were as much about Card’s social and political views as the content of the book itself. But even before Card’s views on homosexuality took center stage, Card was already courting controversy just by publishing the very book upon which his reputation largely rests. In their recent work Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010science fiction writers Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo nicely sum up the key to both Card’s literary success and literary infamy:

What stroke of genius propelled this book to such influential heights? It’s simple, in retrospect. Whereas most exciting controversial novels include one or two hot-button topics at most, Card’s novel is composed of nothing but a half-dozen hot-button issues wrapped in a bildungsroman.

Given the abundance of incendiary topics that Broderick and Di Filippo note, many of them still relevant (homosexuality not really among them, ironically), it’s unsurprising that Card’s book would receive some pushback. In watching the movie following a reading of the book, I find that the film’s vision largely distills the novel’s essence and in the process provides a more charitable reading of Card’s work than some of his critics.

The novel Ender’s Game is set in a future reeling from attacks by insectoid aliens known colloquially as “Buggers.” Earth survived the first attack by sheer happenstance and so, wary of a second attack, the human military begins planning possible preemptive strikes. A key part in this operation is the training of child tacticians, since it’s believed that children’s minds are more flexible and adaptable. Key to this equation is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a particularly innovative child who International Fleet Colonel Graff believes is the perfect synthesis of his brother’s calculated ferocity and his sister’s intelligent compassion. As the novel progresses, Ender is treated by his superiors and fellow cadets with almost unremitting brutality, but he learns combat tactics through practice games and earns the respect of those around him. At the novel’s conclusion, Ender learns that his final “game” has actually been enacted in real time, and that he has annihilated the entire Bugger race. He is appalled, and only becomes more so when he learns that the Buggers had no further designs on Earth and had been attempting to contact him throughout his training.

The initial reception to Ender’s Game in the 1980s was mixed. Though it was very popular with science fiction fans generally, some science fiction critics found its portrayal of Ender to be troubling. Respected novelist and scholar Brian Stableford has called the book “in essence a hyped-up power fantasy.” More thoroughly, John Kessel has criticized Card’s books for “Creating the Innocent Killer” in the figure of Ender. Kessel’s arguments are well-worked and thought-provoking, deriving from an essentially consequentialist ethic: how could Ender not be morally culpable when his actions directly lead to genocide (or xenocide)? In a postscript to the original article, Kessel clarifies that he is not rejecting the role of intentions in moral decision-making but adds:

Card sets up Ender to be the sincere, abused innocent, and rigs the game to make us accept that he does no wrong… But in the real world genocide is not committed by accident. We see the immoral consequences of such a mode of thought in the heaps of dead bodies that history has piled up, committed always by leaders who tell us they only meant to protect us from evil. I just will not accept that.

Kessel’s concerns here ought not to be taken lightly. In Christian virtue ethics, both intention and consequence are significant. The New Testament tends to take the issue from the opposite angle: external acts that have obviously good consequences may still be morally reckoned as sin if the actor’s intentions or motives were impure. Yet the nature of the moral realm is such that virtuous character will tend toward producing virtuous actions (what the Bible often calls “bearing fruit”). An added level of complexity comes in a distinction that Christians make and religious skeptics do not: the eschatological dimension of judgment. Since God searches hearts and minds, He is qualified to judge on the basis of motive and intention to a degree that no human can.

Yet intention cannot be everything: Scripture also is clear that there can be sins committed unintentionally, and one could contend that Ender is guilty on this count. In such a case, perhaps the relevant question would be whether or not Ender should have suspected that the final destruction of the Buggers was more than a simulation. He is obviously written as an intelligent young man, very aware of his superiors’ attempts to manipulate him. Still, anticipating that level of duplicity is a tall order from anyone, and even if we assume that Ender’s unwitting cooperation adds a level of moral complicity to his actions, surely the primary offenders remain Graff and his Machiavellian associates.

Of course, whatever these complexities, no Christian would think to treat murder or genocide flippantly. And this is where I find Kessel’s thesis questionable. His postscript ends with an analogical reading of Ender’s Game: “in the real world genocide is not committed by accident.” This presupposes that readers might make a dangerous logical leap from reading Ender as “innocent killer” to accepting the “well-intentioned” excuse from past war criminals or perhaps exonerating future genocides. Yet it’s the nature of science fiction as a genre to probe matters not simply as they have been or are but also as they might be: Ender’s Game is speculative, and unless I am mistaken, its readers can understand it as such. Such speculation might still be specious if Card presented the destruction of the Buggers lightly. However, he does anything but present it lightly. Given the traditional stigma attached to the “bug-eyed monster” trope in science fiction, it would hardly be surprising if Card had chosen to present his aliens simply as voracious, hostile beings whose destruction was warranted. But when Ender realizes that the Bugger species has been contacting him, he develops a connection with them closer than any he feels toward any human but his sister. In the Ender’s Game novel, it’s the adult military officers who are the Others, not the alien insects.

And here is where I found Gavin Hood’s film version to be helpful. In its two-hour running time, the Ender’s Game movie must consolidate many of the book’s moral complexities. It’s essentially faithful to Card’s novel (Card has expressed satisfaction with it), but in order to streamline a book that spans several years and hundreds of pages, it simplifies and polarizes the focus somewhat. Ordinarily, I would be irritated by this process of simplification, preferring the text’s original nuance. But given that some critics have read Card’s nuance in ways that find him and his protagonist morally risible, I find the way in which Hood’s redaction crystallizes a charitable reading of the novel’s intentions to be a welcome presentation.

The novel’s chapters are always introduced by behind-the-scenes conversations between Ender’s military handlers, especially the characters of Graff and Anderson. Ultimately, while they retain some sympathy for Ender’s plight, these officers are all pragmatists who will use Ender and the other children in their perceived fight for survival. The movie cuts away or reduces many of the military personnel, creating a “good angel”/“bad angel” dichotomy between the gruff Graff (Harrison Ford) and the compassionate Anderson (Viola Davis). While Ford invests Graff with real personality, there is never any doubt that the viewer is intended to reject his callow treatment of his young ward.

The film’s portrayal of Ender is sympathetic throughout, especially as he is embodied by the quiet, brooding Asa Butterfield. To an extent, the movie keeps Ender’s internal struggle to embrace his sister’s compassion as opposed to his brother’s viciousness. Here again, however, the weight of that internal struggle is reduced. Peter Wiggin (Jimmy Pinchak) is scarcely seen, and while Valentine Wiggin (Abigail Breslin) remains a key figure, her physical presence is likewise drastically reduced. This has the effect of de-emphasizing the darker aspects of Ender’s nature, the ways in which he fears he might too closely resemble Peter. Similarly, the movie cuts out a book subplot in which Ender frequently castigates his young understudy Bean (Aramis Knight); Hood presents them as comrades who bond almost at once and experience little tension. Hood keeps the scenes in which Wiggin physically defeats Stilson (Caleb J. Thaggard) and Bonzo (Moisés Arias) but underplays Ender’s calculation in the battles and avoids direct reference to their deaths.

The result is an Ender who is still conflicted and engaging but whose darker impulses are less pronounced. These simplifications reach their apex in the aftermath of the movie’s climactic battle scene, when Ender and his team unwittingly destroy the Buggers (called “Formics” in the film). As one familiar with the book, I could not gauge whether Hood meant to surprise the audience with the revelation that the battle had not been a simulation. But he clearly coaches his actors to portray the children’s surprise at this revelation. Butterfield is at his strongest here, and in his last confrontation with Graff, his rage and dismay are palpable. In Hood’s film, then, Ender is indeed the means by which the Formic xenocide occurs. But not only is he depicted in Hood’s version as having been wholly unaware of the reality of his actions, it’s quite clear that Ender would not have participated had he known they were real. And the movie ends, as does the book, with Ender’s final contact with the last surviving egg of the Formic queen, a reminder that his kinship with the aliens is perhaps greater than his kinship with most humans.

But then, this only smooths out a few wrinkles from the book. The movie takes a shorter road to arrive at the same destination as the novel. I suspect that fans of Ender’s Game have long realized that analogies between Ender and Hitler are exaggerated, and indeed many critics have agreed (despite some disapproval, the novel still won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards): one can acknowledge the horrors of the violent climax and still find Graff and his team as those upon whom the primary burden of moral culpability rests. As Broderick and Di Filippo note, Card was taking on some very ethically challenging material when he wrote Ender’s Game, and neither the movie nor my review can scratch the surface of the many difficult debates it raises. As I’ve noted elsewhere, however, great books (including great science fiction) ask difficult and uncomfortable questions of us. Ender’s Game — both the morally complex novel and the simplified yet still challenging movie — certainly does this, which already puts them beyond much of the shallow entertainment produced today.

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