Adapting Ender, Part 1: The Hollywood Monomyth
Disclaimer: I am going to spoil the bejeezus out of the 1985 Orson Scott Card novel Ender’s Game. If you haven’t read it, get thee to a bookstore! Seriously, fifty lashes with a wet noodle.
Okay, read it yet? Here we go...
I’m really excited about upcoming Ender’s Game film adaptation, but also really worried. This movie has been in the pipeline for a really long time, and while films generally take something like a decade to get through pre-production, filming, post, and then hit screens, I’m just not reassured.
Besides, how many times have you watched an adaptation of a beloved book and walked out of the theater thinking how much it sucked?
Adaptations are phenomenally difficult to pull off, because the writer has to take too much source material for 1.5-2 hours - the standard runtime for a Hollywood feature - condense it, and make sure that it’s going to make for a satisfying cinema experience.
We’re not just talking about a lot of cutting and pasting: somehow the writer has to re-arc the story so it’ll fit with film structure.
I’m kinda intense about screenwriting structure, so I guess it’s best that I get this out there in post #3. If you really want a solid intro to film structure, though, you should read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Hal Ackerman’s Write Screenplays that Sell: The Ackerman Way, Richard Walter’s Essentials of Screenwriting, Paul Chitlik’s Rewrite, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, any book Tim Albaugh might one day write, and any Joseph Campbell you can get your paws on. Those dudes seriously know what they’re talking about.
To really dig into film structure (don’t worry, I’m bringing it back to The Wiggin after this), bear in mind that what movies are showing the audience is the journey of ONE protagonist as they deal with the ONE fatal flaw that is dragging their life off-track.
Let me say that again. ONE protagonist. ONE fatal flaw.
Two hours may seem like a long time, and it can be, if it’s used incorrectly. As a writer, you’re generally introducing an audience to a completely alien world, and in order to tell a comprehensible story within that time limit, you’ve got to give the audience a hand. Giving them just ONE person they’re following, and ONE fatal flaw that person is dealing with helps them figure out what they should be paying attention to.
The fatal flaw is whatever aspect of the protagonist’s psyche that’s leading them into death. This death can be literal, or it can manifest as a lifetime of disappointment and ruin. Either way, it is BAD, and we don’t want to see protagonists go there. If they don’t fix things, why have we bothered to watch them spiral out of control for several hours?
Fun fact: even in tragedies, protagonists fix their fatal flaw (often kicking the bucket in some way that evens out the cosmic scales of their life).
If you really, really haven’t read Ender’s Game and don’t plan to, you can check out the summary on Wikipedia. Seriously, though. You should read it for yourself (*cough* *cough* *Dan Dunkle* *cough*).
The first step is the hook - the event that pulls the audience into the protagonist’s world within the first five minutes. The removal of Ender’s monitor could definitely work for this: Ender’s a brilliant strategist, but ultimately, he’s a little boy, and watching him endure that kind of agony, and then get picked on by bully Stilson will make you root for him fighting back, despite what the audience will know are lethal consequences for Stilson.
And so we very quickly come to Ender’s fatal flaw: he’s utterly merciless to his enemies. The reason we can root for Ender is that he’s a little kid, and - as he reiterates throughout the book - just wants people to leave him alone.
I think that fight with Stilson would make for a great Mini Crisis, a moment 10 minutes in where the protagonist faces a challenge that foreshadows what’s ahead. By a little after this point we can have sibs Peter and Valentine established, and Graff takes Ender to Battle School soon after.
The book spends a fair bit of time with Ender in his Launchie training, and even though this is a new world for him, I don’t think that’s the full-on “magical world” through which the protagonist journeys during Act Two (I like to call this time the Proto-Magical World). Learning about how to “fight” in zero-G isn’t completely alien to Ender, so he’s not out of his element, ergo, we’re still in Act One.
During the Proto-Magical World Ender makes the first of his truly great allies, and then, since the Power That Be feel he’s doing so well, he gets assigned to one of Battle School Salamander Army at a ridiculously early age. That’s our Break into Act Two point.
New arena, new enemy: here we have Bonzo Madrid, who makes Ender’s life a living hell. Ender excels despite Bonzo’s cruelty and attempts to hold him back, and he’s eventually transferred to Rat Army, where his tactical skills are honed further. Amid all of this, he’s playing a heavily archetypal and in some way self-aware game called the Giant’s Drink, which is making him confront some pretty potent subconscious demons. Seriously, I live for the day when I can play something like that.
At the midpoint of a film, the energy shifts, spinning the story off in a new direction. For Ender, this is getting command of his own Battle School army, where he brings together his previously sown allies and starts serving all the other armies. Like ya do.
It’s interesting to note that the Midpoint is ALSO where Ender reaches The End of the World in the Giant’s Drink game. This point symbolically shows Ender what he really wants, and lays out the path for the back half of the story.
Dragon Army starts taking down enemies like crazy, and this is our False Epiphany - the point at which the protagonist would stop the movie if they could. Ender’s winning, he’s got a tight-knit phalanx of friends/allies, and everything looks golden for Ender to be sent to command school in a few years - even earlier than most other kids, as per usual.
This period between the False Epiphany and the End of Act Two (a.k.a. the Low Point) is where it really hits the fan in a screenplay, and Ender’s Game is right on track. The higher-ups start throwing crazy combinations of battles at Ender, trying to rig games against him. Of course, his winning streak continues, but it’s taking a huge psychological toll on a kid who isn’t even ten yet.
The downward slide culminates when we come back to Bonzo, who’s still been lurking around making Ender’s life difficult. One sneak-attack in the shower later, and Ender has unintentionally killed again. As before, Ender just wanted to be left alone, but has been forced to lethally defend himself thanks to noninvolvement by the Battle School staff. Nice going, guys.
At the Low Point, Ender - as with all protagonists - essentially breaks down. Instead of allowing the muckety-mucks to hustle him along to Command School, Ender rebels and forces them to send him to live beside a lake for a few months. Valentine, who serves as Ender’s figurative heart, is brought by the suits to get their boy back in fighting form, and she manages to do so - hating herself for it the entire way. The noble Third, indeed.
Command School introduces bully/mentor Mazer Rackham, a former Ender-ish tactician who saved Earth from an alien invasion nearly a hundred years before, and who has been kept alive by relativistic spaceflight. Ender and Mazer do their thing for a while, and then Ender gets reunited with his old teammate/underlings as they do battle after battle in a simulation of alien vs. human skirmishes in space.
The battles take a huge toll on both Ender and his companions, but they soldier on until they reach a simulated planet: the alien homeworld. Ender does what he’s been trained to do and runs a suicide mission on the planet, destroying both the aliens and his own ships...and then it turns out it was all real. These weren’t simulations Ender and his crew have been fighting, it’s been all-out war.
This seems like it would be the big final resolution for Ender, and in a way it is. Yes, the plot line is neatly tied up, but Ender still hasn’t dealt with his final flaw: he has to integrate mercy. Of course he didn’t want to fight those big three battles - against Stilson, Bonzo, and the Buggers - but was manipulated into doing so. For Ender to come into his own, he has to make some huge gesture that sticks it to The Man and follows his own heart.
So Ender’s true final challenge is something he’s been preparing for all along via the Giant’s Drink game. He finds a planet that’s a real-life version of part of the game, and when he reaches The End of the World, where he previously found a serpent with Peter’s face (indicating how he fears he’s going to turn into his psychopathic brother), Ender finds an egg holding a new alien queen.
Three is a really mythic number in our culture, so having those three lethal encounters of increasing scope has given Ender the wherewithal to decide on his own path. He takes the Queen’s egg with him, planning to find a planet where he can really right the wrongs of his genocide, no longer being controlled by anything but his own conscience.
That’s how I’m hoping the movie of Ender’s Game will go. But as with everyone else, I’m just going to have to wait and see.
Okay, tune in tomorrow for Adapting Ender, Part 2: Uncanny Children, a discussion of the cast, crew, and other issues regarding November 2013 film adaptation of Ender’s Game!
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.