In 1983, Star Wars saga creator George Lucas told interviewer Aljean Harmetz that movies are "an extremely significant influence on the way society operates ... Films and television tells us the way we conduct our lives, what is right and wrong". His remarks echoed those of Elmer Davis, WWII director of the US Office of War Information who said: "The easiest way to inject propaganda ideas into most people's minds is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized". With this in mind I would like to suggest that, if it is faithful to the book, the upcoming Ender's Game film, set to be released this fall, will probably inject a massive dose of poisonous propaganda into the minds of millions.
For this short piece, since I have not seen the film, I will draw upon Orson Scott Card's original 1985 sci-fi novel and the 2004 essay, "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality", by John Kessel. Kessel's essay, of course, also refers not to the film adaptation of Ender's Game but to the book and its sequels. Kessel's review essay is thorough and well written and I have no intention of trying summarize or replicate it here. It will suffice here to offer a few simple observations.
What makes Ender's Game so poisonous is that Card's protagonist, Andrew "Ender" Wiggins, commits two homicides and genocide against an insect-like but highly intelligent alien species. Yet, in each case Ender is set up and presented as an "innocent killer", to quote Kessel.
In the case of the genocide of the "buggers", eleven-year-old Ender believes that he is engaging in a sophisticated strategic warfare simulation at "Command School." In fact, he is unwittingly directing earth's spaceship fleet to destroy the buggers and their home world in the third Formic war.
The reader is presumably supposed to exonerate Ender of genocide because he didn't know he was directing a real war and because he feels badly about it when he learns the truth. One problem with this, though, is that no inadvertent genocide would have occured if Ender had ruled out such a strategy a priori. Though Ender thought he was engaged in a simulation he knew the putative purpose of the exercise was to prepare him to actually command the fleet during the real, impending war.
A worse problem though is that Ender's instructors-commanders are all observing Ender's behavior in real-time. They also know they are not watching a simulation. At one point, Ender contemplates using the Molecular Disruption Device (the "Little Doctor") to destroy the entire bugger home world. Here's the dialogue between Ender and his mentor, Mazer Rackham, hero of the second Formic war:
"Does the Little Doctor work against a planet?"Suffice it to say, Ender uses the Little Doctor, destroying the bugger's home and ending the war. His observing instructors-commanders are jubilant and openly praise Ender (296). In the book, no one--adult or child--is ever called to account for the genocide.
Mazer's face went rigid. "Ender, the buggers never deliberately attacked a civilian population in either invasion. You decide whether it would be wise to adopt a strategy that would invite reprisals." (290)*
Here's how Kessel summarizes Ender's character arc:
In relating Ender Wiggin's childhood and training in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card presents a harrowing tale of abuse. Ender's parents and older brother, the officers running the battle school and the other children being trained there, either ignore the abuse of Ender or participate in it.
Through this abusive training Ender becomes expert at wielding violence against his enemies, and this ability ultimately makes him the savior of the human race. The novel repeatedly tells us that Ender is morally spotless; though he ultimately takes on guilt for the extermination of the alien buggers, his assuming this guilt is a gratuitous act. He is presented as a scapegoat for the acts of others. We are given to believe that the destruction Ender causes is not a result of his intentions; only the sacrifice he makes for others is. In this Card argues that the morality of an act is based solely on the intentions of the person acting.
The result is a character who exterminates an entire race and yet remains fundamentally innocent.
One of Kessel's main themes is that "Card has constructed a plot and argued hard for an ethics under which Ender can kill without being guilty." This "morality of intention", where good intentions morally negate/trump evil deeds, is "in Speaker for the Dead [a 1986 sequel to Ender's Game] ... 'the only doctrine' of Ender's new religion ..."
In a section titled "Why is Ender's Game popular?" Kessel also writes: "I would suggest that the methods of evasion that I have delineated in the text, and their congruency with the psychology of adolescence, offer an explanation for the novel's deep and broad popularity." Perhaps this helps explain why the book appears on the "United States Marine Corps Commandant's Professional Reading List" as required reading for "Primary Level Enlisted" personnel.
The United States Marine Corps Professional Reading Program also requires Ender's Game for entry-level commissioned officers and has/had a six-page "Ender's Game Discussion Guide" that says:
It [is] perhaps unusual that a hugely popular work of science fiction would be included on the Marine Corps PME [Professional Military Education] Reading List. While this book is aimed at Privates through Lance Corporals and Officer Candidates/Midshipmen, more experienced Marines can get a lot out of reading it. Ender's Game is more than about the difficulty and excitement that competition provides in preparing for combat. There are lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics as well. Such richness in range and treatment has made Card's book an oft-read and re-read title for many years; Ender's Game has been a stalwart item on the Marine Corps Reading List since its inception.Not surprisingly, in the Marine Corps materials, I could find no evidence of concern with genocide or the other major moral issues Kessel raises. More surprisingly, such concerns were also not in evidence in a recent post praising the film on io9.com. There and on Daily Kos, the main political/social issues raised seem to be with Orson Scott Card's conservative views, especially his opposition to same-sex marriage.
*All page numbers above are from the February 2002 Starscape paperback edition of Ender's Game.