Posts Tagged ‘books-to-movies’

Read It Then See It: Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies

April 23, 2013

Now that the Rise of the Guardians movie is out on DVD, I thought it well past time to post my review of the third in the Guardians of Childhood series.  Here are my reviews of the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund, and my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

ToothianaThe Book
Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, by William Joyce.  Published in 2012 by Atheneum Books

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation.  Now available on DVD.

Genre
Fantasy/Fairytale

Age Appropriate
6 and up.  You’ll note that I’m bumping this up a year from the first two.  While you could probably still get away with it at 5, the third installment takes on a bit of a darker tone.  Not in a Harry Potter way, but in introducing more tragic elements that, while brilliant, are a bit more troubling than the first two.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Oh my, YES. 

Book Availability
I have the hard copy, but this is now available on iTunes for $10.00.  I downloaded the sample and have to say that in this case, the wonderful illustrations lose a little something off the page.  There is something very classic and tactile about Joyce’s illustrations.  The book feels like some old treasure recently unearthed.  I’d go for the hard copy myself, though maybe I’m just showing my age.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
The evil Pitch’s defeat at the Earth’s Core has led the Guardians and the people of Santoff Clausen something close to a new Golden Age.  But while the children are free to plunge into the depths of their collective imagination, and the Guardians Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, and Ombric the wise deepen their friendships and skills, our heroine Katherine feels uneasy.  Caught between the world of children and her very adult responsibilities as a Guardian, she cannot shake the feeling that while Pitch may not be seen, he is not gone forever.  Indeed, her dark dreams seem somehow to confirm it.

Joyce captures Katherine's emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

Joyce captures Katherine’s emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

And in the world of dreams, one woman reigns supreme.  Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairies, born of the joy of love and the tragedy of loss, raised by fairies to save the memories and joys of childhood stored in the teeth of children.  And when Katherine loses her very last baby tooth, Toothiana comes to collect this great prize.  But she is not the only one hoping to collect the tooth, or Katherine herself.

Flying monkeys!  Flying elephants!  The return of Pitch!  Yet, amidst all the action comes a connection that Katherine cannot deny—a seeming bond between her and the villain she fears the most.  And that bond may take more than just her life, but her very soul.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I tried to keep my summary to a mere tease, because you really NEED to read this book.  It is, without hyperbole, the Empire Strikes Back of this series.

Katherine’s more somber tone, one of a girl becoming a woman under the most unusual and difficult of circumstances, is absolutely brilliant.  Joyce mixes the confusion of youth with Katherine’s inherently good soul in a way that does have some similarities to Luke Skywalker’s coming of age (but with far less whining).  Her friend Night Light’s confusion and ultimate dismay over her transformation, and her dreams mimics how friends often feel when they see their friends change as adolescence sets in.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

Toothiana herself was a real revelation.  Her tragic backstory was simply mythic, bringing in a more Oriental tone hitherto not seen in this series.  I also loved the notion, different than the film, that the tooth fairy armies are all actually her.  I don’t want to give away any more than that.

Also, a new force from our imagination emerges as a more neutral arbiter on affairs.  I won’t say who it is as the reveal I thought was brilliant.  What is so fabulous about this ethereal character is that it forces the Guardians to admit their own shortcomings—embracing the want to destroy the enemy over saving the good.  Only Katherine, even after everything, refuses to give in to hate.  But her refusal may well be her downfall.

Other than the fact that I feel like Nicholas St. North was being pushed more to the background here, which I didn’t love, there is simply nothing I can find in this book that isn’t absolutely remarkable, including one heck of a cliffhanger at the end.  It is a rich and very complex tale that brings an added depth to this storyline that, frankly I didn’t expect.  The fact that Joyce can continue to surprise is a testament to the depth of his imagination and talent.

Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Joyce’s tale opens up a plethora of conversations to have with your children.  Here are a few I thought of, but this series is so thick with ideas you’ll need to brush them away from your face.

The Loneliness of Tweendom:  Katherine has entered that most difficult of phases of development, as she begins to say goodbye to childish things.  Her membership as a Guardian brings this plight into sharp focus, and it is a wonderful way to introduce this feeling of not fitting in, and the difficulty that can come with feeling “special” in circumstances that, while here have their root in age, can evolve into any number of directions.

The Road to Hell… Good intentions—that’s what the Guardians are filled with.  Defending the innocent.  Fighting evil.  But, in a very interesting reversal of the Batman Begins mantra, “It’s now who I am inside, it’s what I do that defines me,” this book really challenges not just actions, but the feelings that motivate the actions.  What an amazing gateway to discuss the importance of feelings and the paths that feeling “justified” can take us.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch's evil look makes a great "Book/Cover" discussion.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch’s evil look makes a great “Book/Cover” discussion.

The Bad Guy, Reconsidered:  The first two books begin to set up Pitch as a tragic character, but this one brings this plotline to a new level, connecting him and Katherine in a very interesting way.  So what at first is a very stark line between the light and dark becomes more blurred, but not in a “no one is really good or evil” kind of way.  Instead, Joyce is speaking more to the paths in both intention and action that lead us down the road to good and evil.  This is a wonderful way to bring in a reconsideration of the nature and how we should treat the person we consider “The Bad Guy.”  Katherine’s actions contrast with the rest of the Guardians very starkly, setting up a heck of a cliffhanger and a heck of a discussion.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

Looking forward to meeting the "real" Jack Frost soon.

Looking forward to meeting the “real” Jack Frost soon.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you can read my review of the film here.  I found it disappointing, and it seems I’m not the only one as it seems the flop cost a lot of DreamWorks employees their jobs.  Of course, I liked John Carter, and that was even more of a flop, so box office isn’t always the best barometer of quality.

That said, most of my friends whose kids enjoyed the movie said that they had seen that first, then immediately jumped into the books.  Now that the DVD is out, that might be another solid pathway to getting your kids interested in reading this modern day classic.  But do note that, with the 3rd book, there seems now to be a more definite rift between what is in the books and what the movie was all about.  Especially because we’re going to get a look at Joyce’s version of Jack Frost in the next one.  I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Of Boy Scouts and Superman

March 18, 2013
The wife?  Gorgeous.  The rest?  Meh.

The wife? Gorgeous. The rest? Meh.

I hate nature.

Not that I want to destroy it or anything; I spent the better part of two decades as a lobbyist and organizer trying to save it.  But in terms of enjoying it, let me just say this.  You see a picturesque ocean, I see an endless stretch of something that I can neither stand on nor breathe in.  Hell, I can’t even drink the stuff.  I’m still not sure what’s so beautiful about that.  With our annual trip to the Keys coming up soon, trust me, I’m going for the pie.

I was noting this particular out of my myriad peculiarities this past Friday, which happed to be “Scout Day” at our synagogue.  A number of boys, girls, men, and women including several of Gus’s classmates got up on the bimah and spoke of the connection between scouting and Judaism, most notably the emphasis on doing good deeds (mitzvot).

Whenever I see those Boy Scout uniforms, they burn like a scarlet letter on my parenting soul.

Ahoy!  I be Homerrrr!

Ahoy! I be Homerrrr!

You see, my big boy has in the past expressed some interest in joining the Boy Scouts.  And it probably would have been good for him, too, given my wife is not a huge fan of “roughing it” and my idea of communing with the land is a lovely stretch of well-manicured savannah abruptly enclosed by a semicircular fence bracketed by two garish yellow foul poles.  The pangs of guilt in not adequately preparing him to survive the zombie apocalypse are amplified by the social deprivation he’s expressed at not being part.  It’s the classic “all the cool kids are doing it” argument he expressed to me once again as we drove home.

But even with the young men proudly speaking of all the mitzvot they have done as Boy Scouts, perhaps in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday, this Pharaoh’s heart hardened and once again said, “No, no, no.  To Boy Scouts you cannot go.”

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

Indeed, I saw more than a certain sad irony in a mention of Scouting Day at a synagogue.  Jews have historically been a people on the outside looking in.  On Passover, we are instructed to remember our time as slaves thousands of years ago as if it were happening to us right now.  “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  We are commanded not to ignore injustice both by deity and by tradition—something I find bonds me to Judaism despite my rather militant agnosticism (I don’t know, and neither do you).

But, of course, as we sat there hearing these young men speaking of the environmental and social ethics of Scouting, we heard nothing of the great white elephant—the national BSA’s continued singling out and exclusion of any gay or lesbian children or parents from being a part of the organization.  I understand why this was excluded from the program—I’m not quite that obtuse.  There was no reason to cast a pall on these kids who got so much out of this experience with this inconvenient truth.  But I don’t think I’m the only one in the sanctuary who could feel it ghosting the proceedings.

I tend to prefer the "warts and all" philosophy

I tend to prefer the “warts and all” philosophy, however

What surprised me a bit as Gus and I discussed this issue once again was the discovery that when he talked with his friends who were in the Boy Scouts, each and every one of them vehemently denied that the BSA had this policy.  Now, I don’t think that their parents have been lying to them.  Indeed, I just had a discussion with a couple of our good friends who have their son in the Boy Scouts.  When they decided to do it, the issue of the national policy was absolutely part of their discussion.  But knowing that in this liberal haven of Arlington that the issue would have little-to-no impact on their particular troop made them feel the on-the-ground positives outweighed the rhetorical negatives.

That seems quite reasonable to me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Gus’s friends have no idea about the BSA’s anti-LGBT policy is not a concerted effort on their parents part.  They joined the Scouts at a very early age, when this issue would have frankly been too complex to explain to them.  Given in a liberal place like Arlington this issue just simply isn’t an issue for their troops, it’s simply never come up.  And because in so many other ways the Boy Scouts is about respecting and helping others, it just seems antithetical to any child participating that it would also have such an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Can't hate this guy

Can’t hate this guy

As I continue to mull this decision, I always remind myself that my own moral compass is certainly far from true north.  For instance, I always loved the (should be in the) Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and even though I was taken aback when he called Rush Limbaugh “American Royalty” back in 2005, I decided that I would divorce the catcher from the man, and continue to be a fan of the player.  Why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the Boy Scouts?

It is actually a somewhat similar issue happening right now in the nerd world that gave me a bit more clarity. As you might remember, I rather enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which will be coming out as a motion picture in November.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued to hear that DC comics is giving him his own Superman series to play with.  But then, I was hit with the news that Card is anti-gay marriage and has made some statements over the years that could be considered quite homophobic.  Here’s a very thorough article from Hollywood.com that traces the saga, and the publicity problem that both DC and Summit Entertainment have on their hands.

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

I’m far more iffy now as to whether I’m going to complete my Read It Then See It on Ender’s Game, as not only does Card personally believe in something I find terribly discriminatory, not only does he belong to what I believe to be a discriminatory organization (the National Organization for Marriage), but he is a member of their board of directors.  He is therefore actively using his celebrity to empower an organization that’s entire purpose—unlike the Boy Scouts—is to discriminate against the LGBT community.

There seems to be a difference in my mind between personal differences and institutionalized discrimination.  And while BSA is a private institution, it is still an institution.  So this is why I will still put Piazza’s #31 on my back, but Card’s Superman comics will remain on the shelves and I will continue to deprive my children of the unquestionable benefits of the Boy Scouts on this principle.

I admit fully that the line from disagreement over objectionable personal belief to institutionalized discrimination can sometimes be a murky one.  But it is that institutionalization of bias that, as a former slave in the land of Egypt, I simply cannot abide.

ew.

So this is the slightly wavering, yet deeply-etched line that I draw in the sand, and what I am committed to teaching my children.  If the BSA lifts its policy (something that doesn’t seem likely in the near future), however, I would be happy to allow my sons to take part.  Heck, I’ll even go on a camping trip with them.

Just don’t expect me to like it.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2

March 1, 2013

Well, Gus is having his first day back in school (crossed-fingers).  So of course, I spend my first hours alone doing what?  Reading a comic book, of course!  Oh, and for continuity, here is my review on the first issue of this series.

Star-Trek_Countdown-to-Darkness_2The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  I added a year on here as there is a particular scene where (SPOILER) one of the Phadians are pretty savagely beheaded (END SPOILER).  Frankly, I didn’t feel that particular image was needed to make the point, but it’s there and so it may not be appropriate for younger children.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Far more interesting and tight storytelling than the first issue.  Good action, but far more importantly, a very interesting dilemma put to Captain Kirk.

Book Availability
Once again, I downloaded this from iTunes for $3.99.  Again no sign of the comics at my local bookstores, though I’d guess the compilation will be there once it comes out.  BUT, I did note that once the NEXT issue of the comic comes out, the price of the previous issue DROPS to $1.99.  So if you’re willing to wait a bit, you’ll get yourself a bargain (relatively speaking).  Issue 3 is supposed to come out on March 13.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers—more than minor if you haven’t read issue #1)
And so we pick up with Kirk and Spock surrounded by light blue Phadians (I’m assuming that’s what they’d be called, as they’re actually not aliens.  In this case, the humans are the aliens) and a former Captain of a starship Enterprise, Robert April.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren't green, scantily clad women.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren’t green, scantily clad women.

We find out that some two decades ago, April, in command of the previous Enterprise, discovered that the blue Phadians were being exterminated by an aggressive subsect of their kind called the Shadows.  It was a classic and brutal case of genocide.  April decided that, in this case, he could not let the Prime Directive stand in the way of saving an entire race.  So he “went native” and his First Officer and friend covered his tracks.

Before Kirk and Spock can get back to their shuttle and crew, the Shadows attack and drive them and April deep into the catacombs where the last of the blue Phadians reside.  It seems that once April introduced advanced technology to this war, someone else jumped in quickly to assist the Shadows.  Their forces were now poised for a final offensive to complete the genocide that they started.

As April, Kirk, and Spock debate the morality of the Prime Directive, one of them slip off, and head, fully armed, toward the Shadow army.  Who it is, however, might come as a bit of a surprise.

Quickie Review (same spoiler level as above)
I liked the first one just fine, but I felt at 22 pages it was a bit thin.  It’s funny, because even though this one is also 22 pages, it felt like SO much more.

The plot itself was very rich, as it really tackled the moral ambiguity that goes along with the Prime Directive.  This issue speaks volumes to current issues, as the technologically sophisticated United States has the ability, as we did in Libya, to play a decisive role in deciding a civil war.  Yet, in cases such a Rwanda in the 1990s, we did nothing and allowed a genocide to happen.  When is it right to interfere in the affairs of other nations?  That, on a planetary scale, is what’s being debated here.

Spock's messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

Spock’s messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

A couple more fun things happen here, as we continue to get a different feel for this Spock.  I’m not sure I like it, as the more I see, the more different he becomes from the Spock I grew up with an idolized.  In some ways, it definitely makes for an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m afraid that the scars of Vulcan’s destruction might actually serve to limit the character’s growth as everything seems to revolve around that now.

It was also fun to see Uhura in command of the Enterprise, as this new generation of our intrepid crew break from the shackles of the glass ceilings of the ‘60s.  However, I really did not like the way McCoy was written, as his interaction with Uhura made him seem power-hungry and scheming, which is completely against type.

I also found it unfortunate that the art of the old Enterprise wasn’t more “old school.”  My understanding is that their original idea for opening the movie in 2009 was to have the Enterprise under April’s command, looking just like it did in the original series, come into contact with the Narada.  I think that would have been amazing, and they could have nodded to that here by drawing his Enterprise more like the one from TOS.

That said, there was a nice drawing of an old-school looking tricorder, and both a race and a name from Star Trek of old that was fun to see.  In all, a very strong issue both for the Trek novice and nerds like me.

Overall Read Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As you might expect, this issue really expands upon the last one.  So what I noted in issue #1 definitely still applies here.  But there is one very large new issue that’s a doozy of a discussion point:

An amazing and haunting book on Rwanda–well worth a read

Genocide: Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for humanity, as we have yet to overcome as a species the drive to exterminate entire peoples simply for what they are.  In this issue of the comic, we have the Shadows painted as nothing but bad guys.  I’ll be curious if they stick there in that “comfortable dilemma” of whether good guys should go in and get the bad guys even if it doesn’t seem to be their business, or whether they’ll open up the Shadows a bit more.  As, of course, the “We were just following orders” is also one of the great debates over what to do in the face of, and the aftermath of, genocide.

As difficult as this issue can be, however, it can also be used as more of a personal allegory to cases of racism, bigotry, and bullying.  Is it always the right thing to do to get yourself involved when you see someone else doing something wrong?  If you see injustice, is it better to involve yourself as an advocate for the one being abused, or an arbiter to help diffuse the situation?  April leaped in as a defender, not doing anything to even try to see if he could change the situation without taking sides.  Was that the right thing for him to do?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it sure is interesting to talk about.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Eh, go play with your Death Star

Oh, go play with your Death Star already

I wish I could say that issue #2 made me feel a little less nervous about what to expect from the movie, but it didn’t.  I think the issue itself is great Trek, but I remember in the Star Trek: Countdown series before the 2009 film, there were wonderful, Trek-like allusions and discussions, but because the film was intended for an audience that had no familiarity with Star Trek, little-to-none of that was included in the picture itself.

I have to say that perhaps a little bit of more worry comes from feeling 2nd best now that JJ Abrams has taken on Star Wars.  It’s not that he’s doing the new movies—that’s fine by me.  It’s that when he agreed to take it on, he said, “I can just say what I want to do: I want to do the fans proud.”  Given his quote while making Trek 2009 was “I’m not making this for the fans,” I still continue to be concerned that while he enjoys the Star Trek characters, he does not seem to really enjoy the core of Roddenberry’s vision.

Yes, yes.  I’ll try to remove the Tauntaun-sized chip from my shoulder before I see the movie in May…

The Review: Beautiful Creatures

February 27, 2013

Well, I have a bit of a blogging backlog as for the past two weeks we’ve been dealing with the impact of a pretty severe concussion my big boy suffered. Indeed, I was about 20 minutes into the movie as I went to see it on the first day when I got the call from the school that he needed to be picked up.

Well, Gus, still not able to get back to school, went with me this afternoon and we finished what I started. I’ll post more about my poor big fella later, but frankly I’m a bit talked out when it comes to that. So a little escapism first both for you and for me.

You can find my Read It and See It review of the Beautiful Creatures book here.

Beautiful-Creatures-Movie-PosterThe Movie
Beautiful Creatures, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
Yes. Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Originally published in 2009. First of four in the Beautiful Creatures series.

Genre
Paranormal Teen Romance

Age Appropriate
11 and up. I said 10 and up for the book, but there’s a little more sexual innuendo and some aggressive necking in this version in what felt like an attempt to be more “Twilight like.” So I’d bump it up a bit.

Good for Grown Ups?
No. Pretty muddled and insipid throughout, this movie seems far more directly geared toward a teen audience without any real attempt to make it into more than that.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
The effects of the movie were, as my son said, “cheesy” so there’s really nothing there to surprise or shock. This is a romance-heavy plot, so you’re just going to bore the living bejesus out of young kids if you take them, so do yourself and them a favor and see what’s streaming on Netflix.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Much like the book, we start with high school junior Ethan Wate stuck in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. His mother recently died and his father has cracked under the strain of the tragedy. Only Amma, the housekeeper who has been like a second mother to him, is keeping things together. But he longs to leave the pain of the past and the small-minded pursuits of Gatlin society behind him.

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

But when Lena Duchannes comes to school, Ethan’s entire world will be turned upside-down. It starts just by defending her against the taunting of the bigoted “mean girls”, who ostracize her as a devil-worshiper because she is living at the old Ravenwood estate with the town shut-in, Macon. But as they get to know each other more, a bond forms between them, cemented by a curious broach that gives them a vision of two lovers separated by tragedy in the Civil War.

As their friendship turns to romance, Lena opens her secret world to him. She is a Caster, a magical creature from a long line of such, and is fated due to a curse brought on by those lovers to be chosen for a light or dark path on her 16th birthday. As the mysterious world of Casters opens, so too does the dark side of Lena’s family, who see her as a portal to bring their kind out of the shadows and into control of the world. Her fate, and their love, will determine the fate of us all.

My Review
When I had to leave this movie the first time, I told Gus that I felt pretty good about it. I was very pleasantly surprised by Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan. First, I liked the southern drawl he used even though the book clearly said that his mother taught it out of him. It lent some grounding to the setting that was really needed. I found his confused, depressed, and funny attitude to really work in the roll. Further, he seemed to have some real chemistry with his buddy Link, played by Thomas Mann.

Had I never come back, I would have been better off. I assume the pull to be Twilight was just too great, as the humor quickly drains from the story and shifts quickly to teen melodrama. Link and the funny buddy relationship quickly become an unfortunate afterthought. What I assume were budget constraints made the supernatural settings and effects feel entirely unbelievable, and in an attempt to keep focused on the protagonists, the rich world of the book is sliced so much that it becomes entirely unrelatable and uninteresting.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I felt the good performances also ended with Ehrenreich. Alice Englert does generally fine as Lena, but I couldn’t get over the thought that they were just looking for the new Kristen Stewart. Jeremy Irons felt like he was sleepwalking, complete with an accent that seemed to flitter in and out at any time. Viola Davis also screamed “Show me the check!” Emma Thompson at least looked like she was trying, but her role was so poorly written, especially with the new and asinine plotline of Casters taking over the world (why hadn’t they already?) she ended up feeling more like a caricature in both her rolls.

And what was a fairly thin plot in a very long book is rendered completely incomprehensible here. Both Gus and I looked at each other, and felt the whole thing made no sense. Indeed, it felt like that so much import was put on the scenes with Ethan and Lena fighting for their love, that everything else became unimportant. So what was left was a lot of teenage whining and something about magic people needing to do some magical stuff because, well…it’s magic.

The only plus over the book that this has is that there is a little more sexual substance between Ethan and Lena. That felt needed and realistic given the intensity of their feelings, and the fact they’re horny teenagers. But in the book, physical contact between the two of them actually hurt Ethan, a fantastic little detail about how their love was forbidden. Leaving out some of those easy details robbed this film of any of the creative charm of the book.

In other words…yuck.

Overall Score: 1.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
As I noted in my review of the book, it has its moments. But if you look and say “I don’t want to spend the time on a 600 page book, so I’ll just see the movie instead,” don’t waste your time. Either read the book or don’t read the book. But don’t go looking for the book in the movie, because it’s just not there.

Read It and See It: Ender’s Game

February 8, 2013

As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan.  I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other.  So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.

Enders GameThe Book
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.

The Movie
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children.  Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them.  While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child.  On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids.  So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups.  I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book.  Serious nerd cred right there.

Book Availability
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well.  If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist.  On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of.  But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”

Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic.  The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader.  And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two.  After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for.  Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago.  In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him.  His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.

Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul.  And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him.  That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style.  At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted.  It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.

As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access.  In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.

Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book.  Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position.  I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had.  The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.

The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me.  I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward.  Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.

And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war.  Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.

Don't do it, Steven!  Just fade to back!

Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!

My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.”  For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation.  This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.

I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that.  He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure.  If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine.  But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist.  This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.

So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids.  Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:

The Curse of the Special Child:  Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that?  What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood?  How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?

The Needs of the Many…  Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems).  At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line.  This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.

And do the Ends Justify the Means?  This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book.  The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour.  But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion.  It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.

Can't go wrong with a Horta!

Can’t go wrong with a Horta!

Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy.  It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark.  While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.

Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence.  Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do?  What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?

Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games.  Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities?  Does it desensitize?  How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

Looks like they're aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay.  Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.

The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think.  And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.

I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:

In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.

The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective).  I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact.  Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.

Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.