Director Gavin Hood knew he was taking a big risk with his adaptation of Orson Scott Card's classic sci-fi novel Ender's Game.
Speaking with Blastr during the film's recent press day in Los Angeles, Hood -- whose resume includes Tsotsi, Rendition and, unfortunately, X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- confirmed that he enjoys adapting material from other sources for film but admitted that approaching one of the most important sci-fi works of the past 30 years was daunting.
"The thing that's key when you're doing an adaptation is to find what it was what emotionally moved the reader," says Hood. "What themes, ideas or concepts made you feel emotionally connected to those characters? It's not necessarily the exact plot that makes you love a book. It's a feeling or a flash of insight or a sense of empathy that an author creates in a book that lingers and stays with you. And so for a film to succeed as an adaptation, I think you have to try and identify that and replicate that in your audience. You have to leave your audience feeling similar to the way they felt when they finished reading the book. And that doesn't necessarily mean that you can translate exact scenes into scenes in a book."
What that meant for Hood as he wrote his screenplay for Ender's Game -- after a number of others had taken a crack at it, including Card himself -- was that the story had to be streamlined (a major subplot involving the political career of Ender's older brother Peter was excised) and that, most importantly for this story, much of what was internal in the book had to be made external. "A lot of what an author of a book makes you feel comes from the way he describes what characters are thinking and feeling," explains the South African director. "And especially in a book like Ender's Game, which is incredibly internal in many places where the author describes what Ender's thinking, what he's feeling, that explanation and that insight into his thought process is bonding you with a character."
It was partially Hood's desire to create a successful bond with Ender -- the young boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who is recruited by the Earth government of the future to become a military leader who can lead the planet's defenses against an alien invasion -- and partially his own protectiveness toward the source novel that led Hood to write the adaptation himself. "I suppose I am [protective]," he says. "But having said that, I got an enormous amount of input, because you put your first draft out and then you go to see what the audience, which at that point is your producers and some of your friends, feel when they read it. Am I achieving what I'm trying to achieve? So certainly it's not like you write one draft and say 'That's what I'm making.'
"I mean, I went through many, many drafts on this script," Hood continues. "It's hard for me to always say how many drafts, because I tinker and then I flavor something and then I tinker more. But there were many, many drafts in order to try and generate the feeling of attachment to Ender Wiggin and an understanding of what I think is the core interesting thing about him, which is his capacity for compassion and his equal but opposite capacity for violence and his struggle to reconcile those two impulses and find some sort of balance and way to live, you know, without being a victim of excessive violence, or frankly, in certain moments, perhaps too much compassion."
The question of compassion vs. violence, as well as the moral quandaries of pre-emptive war, the militarization of society and the indoctrination of children, are keenly brought to the fore in Hood's film, as Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and war hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) attempt to mold Ender and his teammates at Battle School into brilliant tacticians yet ruthless warriors. Nearly 30 years after Ender's Game was first published, those subjects remain relevant today. Is that because of the predictive nature of science fiction itself or the fact that little has changed in humankind's thinking since the book was written?
"I think that's a great question. I think we probably haven't progressed in the thousands of years that we've been on the planet, and we probably won't," says Hood with a small laugh. "What's so interesting about us is that as much as our technology advances, the reason we can still watch plays from hundreds of years ago and all the way back to the Greeks is because emotionally we keep having to learn the same lessons over and over again. Emotionally we still need the same things. We need love, we need affection, and we still suffer from the same difficult emotional impulses for jealousy, or we feel terrible when we're betrayed. These things haven't changed no matter how well our iPads work. They just take place in newer and more interesting or more unusual environments. And science fiction is great because it affords us this opportunity to create a world that we've never seen before, and yet explore concepts that are timeless and universal."
One of the timeless aspects of the film version of Ender's Game is the visual style that Hood brings to the screen. The movie has an elegant, almost classically futuristic look (if that oxymoron even makes sense), and many of its images -- a ship taking off from a massive launchpad, or the devastated surface of an alien planet -- are almost reminiscent of the great pulp sci-fi covers of decades past. We ask Hood if he was influenced by those or at least interested in channeling them for a movie that itself is based on a work of sci-fi literature.
"I don't know," he says frankly. "Probably, and not consciously, but as a fan you absorb all kinds of things. And I know I've absorbed a lot of Kubrick too. People go, 'Oh, some of your shots are very Kubrickian.' It's not like I want to imitate Kubrick, it's just that I've loved his movies and I love those classic sort of iconic compositions that really speak to a sort of a formal military rigidity. And I don't know, I think when you're making stuff you don't even realize where your influences are coming from until someone points them out to you. So I don't know that I consciously did it, but you might very well be right."
Whether Hood wants to return -- or will have the chance to return -- to the world he's created for Ender's Game on screen is an abstract question at this point, at least until the box-office returns for this movie prove healthy enough for the studio (Summit) to consider approaching the five other books that follow. And then if Hood does want that opportunity, the next adaptation will bring a fresh set of challenges.
"It was really a struggle to get this one to the screen, and I think the studio and everybody is waiting to see whether this one is well received before they will commission another one," says Hood candidly. "And the reason that one is tricky to commission is only because, as you know, [second novel] Speaker for the Dead takes place 30 years later. So we'll have to be quite innovative in terms of how we approach the sequel if we want to use our young cast, which I think we do. So there are many conversations to have, but none of them are even going to happen unless this movie kicks ass."
Ender's Game is out in theaters this Friday (Nov. 1).