The Rhythm of Chiasm

Why the Ender’s Game Movie Did Not Work

Ender's Game PosterBefore we begin, I want to make it clear that I do not think that Ender’s Game was a bad movie. It certainly was not a fantastic movie, but it was not terrible. It was okay. The book, however, is fantastic, which raises the question as to what happened to the movie to make it not-so. There are always multiple answers to such questions. The pacing of the movie was too fast for the audience to settle into its world for one, and Harrison Ford’s lifeless body has not done any real acting in years (which is a very sad crime) for another. There is one sin in particular, however, on which can hang most of the blame; namely, Ender’s nighttime conversation with Bean or the lack thereof.

In the previous article, I presented the structure of the book, which forms a chiasm. In the book, Ender’s conversation with Bean is the center of the chiasm; that is, it is literally the center of the entire story and all other plot elements revolve around this single scene. The scene deserves it too. Short of the climax of the book, this is the moment when the stakes are highest for Ender. He is butting heads with his fellow students, and the teachers seem not only unhelpful, but actually fanning the flames of rivalry amongst them. This tension is about to boil over into the final showdown between Ender and Bonzo where the loser will leave in a body bag. In the midst of such chaos lies the calm of the eye of the storm: Ender confides in Bean.

The very fact that that happens is a miracle of characterization. Ender never confides in anyone. He hardly confides even Valentine. He will not even confide in himself. In this conversation with Bean, we see Ender at his weakest as he admits his shortcomings that he never admitted to himself. He tells Bean that he is running out of ideas. He tells him that he is outright exhausted and in every possible way. We, the audience, spend the entire book behind Ender’s eyes, but he never says things like that to himself/us. He will only point out the injustice of the hours the teachers make him keep. This is the point on which the entire plot turns: Ender is tired.

That might not seem that important, but that nuance—that Ender is not just the chosen one, but that he is an exhausted messiah at that—completely changes what the final battle means. In the book, Ender is only more exhausted at that point. He was running on fumes with Bean, and now the engine has completely fallen out of the vehicle: Ender has nothing left to give, except apathy. Apathy is strong with this one. That is how he goes into the final battle. He intends to win—Ender has too much of Peter in him to accept loss—but he also intends to make himself unemployable. He wants to win, but in the worst possible way so that he will horrify the teachers and—like Peter—Ender will be removed from the program. Ender thinks that winning the battle will win his own war, and when he has done that, he turns around to Mazer Rackham and all the teachers with a proud, “I beat you.” To his horror, he finds out that he did, in fact, win a war, but he misjudged his enemy. That is where the tragedy of this story lies: Ender did not know what he was doing. He thought he was winning a small feud with a few teachers. Instead, he committed genocide.

Contrast that with the movie. Ender is never tired in the movie, and he hardly faces any conflict. His battle with Bonzo feels more like a bump in the road than a major conflict: it is just another battle that Ender wins in a long string of battles Ender wins. Promotions follow promotions like they are given away to anyone who shows up. We do not see Ender confide in Bean that he cannot go on anymore. We do not see an exhausted Ender barely able to issue commands. We do not see a sleeping Ender chew his hand to shreds. Perhaps that is understandable for a visual medium, but it could be replaced with something rather than nothing. There is no motif here of an unwilling, tortured messiah, just a kid who is good at video games.

When the final battle does occur, movie-Ender chooses to use his big guns. Why? Because he can. He sees it as the easiest way to win, so he does it. We might be tempted to assume that it was the only way he could have won, but his later outburst suggests that he knew there were other, less catastrophic ways of achieving victory. He annihilates his allegedly fictional enemy and turns around to accept his congratulations. Movie-Ender is also horrified to learn that it was never a game at all, and he begins to shout out platitudes—“How you win matters!”—but Ender, no one made you win that way. You knew (thought) this was the test run for the real war. Why did you commit fake genocide if you would not have done it for real? What you did in practice here, you would have done for real out there. You have no one to blame but yourself. Your book-self had to be tricked into killing the Formics, but your movie-self came up with the idea on your own. You chose to win this way, and this genocide hangs entirely on your shoulders. Rightly will they call you that: “The Xenocide.”

This all hangs on the missing scene. Since the audience never saw Ender falling apart, or even just admit that he was tired, we never saw what Ender had invested in the battle. It was just another game. The Ender’s Game movie ends up showing how significant chiastic structure is as a literary device, for if you tamper with the center, you end up with an entirely different story. In this case, it turned a classic book into an average film.

Yes, Ender, how you win matters. How you characterize your characters matters too. What is true in life is true in fiction: it is not just the destination, but how you get there. In fact, in fiction, the journey matters even more than the destination, for the falling action only plays out what the rising action taught the characters, only more dramatically. If the rising action taught them nothing, then the climax will a dramatic nothing.


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This entry was posted on February 8, 2014 by in Ender's Game and tagged , , , , , , , .
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