In 1985 Orson Scott Card published his first novel, “Ender’s Game”, which quickly became one of the most beloved science fiction books of all time. The story of mankind looking to defeat an alien enemy at all costs and therefore recruiting children to be trained almost from birth to be calculating warriors struck a chord with readers and predicted with chilling accuracy the way in which we would interact with technology in decades to come. Given the success of the novel, Hollywood obviously wanted a piece and the book was optioned by Warner Bros. for a major motion picture adaptation. After several unsuccessful drafts the book was deemed “unfilmable” and Warner passed on the option. Enter Gavin Hood, Academy Award winning director of Tsotsi and Rendition. Hood had been interested in the book since 2005 when his agent sent him the book, hoping he might have a take on it, and they may be able to offer a script to Warner. “I read it and [my agent] called me back and I said this is great! What do I do? And he said, sorry to disappoint you but Warner Bros has decided they’re not going to be proceeding with this book, they’ve done various drafts and they’ve just decided it’s not adaptable,” Hood recalls.
About a year later, Hood’s agent called again, this time with good news: the option had been picked up by Gigi Pritzker’s Odd Lot. “[My agent said] it’s a small independent production company, they’re probably not going to have the money to do it, but they’re looking for a writer. You want to take a meeting? I’m like, hell yes!” After pitching a take on the book that the studio liked, Hood got the job. “So then, having got the job, I was like, ‘oh man!’”
‘Oh man!’ is right. Adapting a book that has been previously deemed not to be adaptable was no easy feat, but Hood managed the job with a few rules. “I finally came to a set of rules for myself that made it possible, at least for me, to adapt it,” he says. “Rule one, no scene that doesn’t involve Ender, unless it’s a scene between Graff and Anderson in which they are talking about Ender, so it’s still about Ender. Rule two, we’re compressing this. We’re sticking with one actor.”
Hood admits, however, that these rules, which made the adaptation possible, may not please everyone. “I’m so terrified that everyone who loves the book will say ‘where’s Valentine and Peter’s blogging?’ I’ll fess up right up front – it’s not in the movie! It’s not in the movie for two reasons: one, it took me away from Ender and when I’ve only got two hours to tell the story, I was just away from Ender and therefore I’m losing out on Ender’s story to fit this in, so by stripping this out I get more time with Ender. Secondly, although it was extremely innovative at the time, in 1985, blogging today, everybody does it. Incredible foresight of what the future would bring, but today anybody can open a blog, so spending time with two kids blogging is not as exciting as it was in ’85.”
Despite some of the plot departures, Hood’s main focus was on capturing the spirit of the book in the film, not a slavish recreation of it. “The challenge of the book is to say how can you be true to the spirit of the book and the spirit of the character Ender Wiggin and the moral dilemmas that he faces and the complexity of his character, which is someone who is capable of great compassion and equally capable of terrible violence, which is classically what we are as human beings.
The book is still the book. Please hang on to your book. The movie is the movie. And what I hope the movie does, is through a different medium, try and take a look at the same character, but using different tools. In the way that if I would someone to do a pencil drawing of you and I would ask someone else to do a sculpture of you, you would never ask why the pencil drawing doesn’t look like the sculpture. You would ask, ‘does the pencil drawing capture your essence’? ‘Does the sculpture capture your essence’?”
Once the script felt right, the next big challenge was finding someone to play Ender. Hood notes that finding an actor with exactly the right mix to play the titular character simply wasn’t easy. “The great thing about making films for young people is that it’s during those years, our teenage years and our twenties that we’re really defining our world view, right? And what we’re going to be and who we are,” Hood says, “So you’re looking for an actor who’s capable of believably being someone who is genuinely wrestling with his own nature, and that means you need a highly intelligent young actor.
We auditioned young actors from the age of eight up to fourteen, and we auditioned a lot. There were some wonderful, wonderful actors but when Asa [Butterfield] came along it was like thank God, because this was a really tough find: a highly intelligent, slightly withdrawn, slightly internal, slightly academic, and yet deeply compassionate, intelligent, strong and capable at a certain point of becoming outraged, you need this full range. If we hadn’t found Asa, I was at one point during casting going ‘I don’t know if we can make this. This kid’s in every scene in the movie.’ So it was a real joy when we found Asa.”
Of course, once cast, Butterfield had another great challenge on his hands: going toe-to-toe with a Hollywood legend like Harrison Ford. “We did shoot in sequence and little Asa Butterfield was 12 when we started and 13 when we finished, and grew two inches and frustrated the hell out of the poor wardrobe department, but also was intimidated by Harrison Ford when he arrived on the set which was perfect for his relationship with Colonel Graff, and by the end he’s getting to know him better and (punching sound) give him schtick, so those dynamics were great.”
It will remain to see how audiences, both fans and non-fans, react to the big screen version of Ender’s Game that has been almost 30 years in the making. The film opens Friday, November 1, 2013 in theatres everywhere.
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