The Man Behind the Curtain

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, today I had several friends share the new trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Ender’s Game, and I’ll admit, I was pretty much 6’3″ of solid trepidation when I clicked on the video. I’ve loved Ender’s Game for more than a decade now – I read it at least once or twice every year, and I’ve taught it to students ranging from 7th graders to undergrads. (On the whole, the 7th graders have gotten it better than any other group so far, by the way.) But the book has been famously hard to pitch as a film, for a number of very good reasons:

1 – Child soldiers. Sure, it’s not like they’re in Saving Private Ryan, but you still have kids fighting kids. Viciously. Not to mention what happens later. Also that the kids were often naked in the book, but honestly, I don’t think that was ever actually proposed for any of the various film versions over the years, so I don’t really count that one as a real objection. 

2 – The very political Peter & Valentine subplot, which I suspect will be significantly reduced in the film, if not chopped entirely in favor of simply using the emotional dynamic of the Wiggin siblings as part of understanding Ender.

3 – Lack of a love story, which Hollywood apparently assumes is mandatory for a movie with explosions or women will instinctively boycott it. I really hope they don’t add one; this was a sticking point for author Orson Scott Card in the past, and killed several previous versions.

4 – Child actors. This goes hand in hand with #1, really, but from the production side as opposed to the thematic. The kids are young – really young – but few real kids can carry these complex roles, or look convincing as action stars. So you have to age them up … but age them too far and a lot of the point is gone. 

5 – Cerebral storyline. Ender’s Game is a complex, nuanced examination of empathy, survival instinct, fear of the alien (in every sense of the word), the cost paid by some for the good of all, and the fragility of love. It has some thrilling battle sequences at Battle School, both in and out of the games, as well as some wicked awesome fleet engagements, but it’s definitely not an action-heavy epic in the conventional sense. 

All of these remain interesting questions as the geek world parses the trailer and immediately begins their “OMG IT LOOKS AWESOME!” “OMG IT’LL SUCK!” “RABBIT SEASON!” “DUCK SEASON!” argument loop, and I’ll be following more updates as the film comes closer to release. There simply is a lot of content available for a film adaptation of Ender’s Game to use, and I’m really curious to see what they’ll keep, what they’ll discard, and why they make the modifications they do.  

What jumped out at me today, though, was that in reaction threads across several different Facebook accounts on my feed, little firestorms of debate ignited over whether or not supporting the movie could be justified given Card’s avowed and very public anti-government, anti-homosexual political activities. It’s no secret that the man, a devout Mormon, has donated a lot of money to groups actively fighting things like marriage equality or gun control laws, and that understandably upsets a lot of people who don’t agree with him or his stated beliefs.

Outraged at Card’s politics, these people refuse to do anything they think will support him – buy his books, see his movies, attend his speeches – and many of them are quite incensed that some of their friends continue to do so. At the same time, a number of people on the other side are getting defensive The argument seems to more or less follow this pattern.

Protester: How can you like Card’s books? He’s a homophobic bigot!
Fan: Hey, I don’t support him personally, but I love the book! I think it’s amazing.
Protester: But buying his books puts money in his pockets! Which means you’re essentially contributing to his attempts to suppress marriage equality!
Fan: I’m sorry, I just don’t think they’re the same thing. I think it’s fair to like his work and not agree with him personally. Besides, if you start “disqualifying” art just because the creator is a jerk, you’re going to have a very long list of banned things.
Protester: I’m not talking about other people, I’m talking about him in particular. If you see this movie, you’re giving him and his fellow bigots aid and comfort ..

And so on. Both sides have good points, which means it’s time to consider the two perspectives individually and see if we can’t figure out how to untie this particularly difficult social knot. 

The Art Is Not the Artist …
By and large, creative types are like most people, in that a few of them are saints, many are sinners, and most are a mixture of both. Lots of artists famously abuse drugs and alcohol, indulge in Dionysian sexual excess, espouse lunatic political/religious beliefs, and otherwise are not people you might care to hang around with, much less invite home for dinner. They say you should never meet your idols, because they’ll never measure up to what you want them to be, but they should also say that some of your idols would be just plain dangerous to be around in general. Sure, having a drink with Hemingway sounds like a blast, but a few mojitos too many and suddenly you’re in a bareknuckle brawl with a dozen townies while Papa hollers homophobic slurs and rants about Spanish socialism. A lot of artists were objectively terrible people in one way or another, and speaking personally as someone who strongly supports gay rights in general and marriage equality in particular, I find Card’s personal views on the subject despicable. But I also find it hard to argue that the book is a masterpiece of science fiction, and since Ender’s Game doesn’t advocate his objectionable beliefs itself, I don’t feel the slightest bit uneasy reading and endorsing it. Card and his book are not one and the same. 

That’s the lovely thing about art, in fact – it exists separately from its creator. It can help to understand a bit about the artist and where they came from in order to get more insight into their work, but it’s not necessary. Ultimately the work has to stand on its own. And that also means that enjoying art created by an utter lunatic bastard doesn’t mean you also endorse their goals or ideals. Which means that you are perfectly entitled to love the sin and hate the sinner when it comes to art. T.S. Eliot was an absolute jerk by most accounts, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t write some staggeringly beautiful poetry, and you’re certainly allowed to enjoy his work without feeling the need to defend yourself against people railing against his obnoxious personal habits.

… But It’s OK to Draw A Line Too.
It’s also very possible to go too far in the direction I just outlined and try to dismiss people’s complaints with a slippery slope argument, specifically by saying something like “Well, if you refuse to read Card’s books because of his right wing views, you also have to stop watching Firefly because Adam Baldwin is an outspoken conservative, plus like a whole bunch of rock musicians are drug addicts and perpetrators of domestic violence, so that’s out, plus the director of that movie was indicted for manslaughter, plus …” Basically, they try to say that since you’re obviously not going to stop supporting every artist with questionable views or a nasty criminal record, you’re being a hypocrite for boycotting one while ignoring all the others. Or they’ll bring up people who committed “worse” crimes and ask if you’re going to boycott them too, implying that if you don’t you’re not really serious about your views or that you’re saying victims of other crimes are less important. 

Granted, sometimes there might be some merit in this position on a simple level – if you say you will never willingly support art created by convicted child abusers, it’s going to be hard to enjoy that Polanski festival without coming off as more than a little bit of a hypocrite – it’s really a pretty lousy argument in the long run. People are entitled to pick a particular instance or individual, draw a line and say “No further” and not have to justify it to other people at every turn. We all pick our battles in life, and it’s possible that something about a particular cause or creator or creation just provokes this response in you.

Sure, if you’re going to say that you’re standing on a larger principle than just one artist or one work, it’s probably a good idea to do some research and make sure you’re not contradicting yourself, 

Remember, It’s OK to Not Like Things
Ultimately it’s all about remembering that there are many instances where reasonable people can disagree about the proper course of action, even if they agree about the underlying facts of the situation. We can agree that Ezra Pound was a vile anti-Semite, for example, but still disagree on whether or not this means it’s acceptable to read his poetry. 

Likewise, boycotting a particular artist or work of art is fine, but it does not automatically follow that someone who doesn’t choose to join said boycott is advocating what you disagree with. At the same time, a person’s decision to not support an artist or a particular work is theirs to make, and does not have to be justified in some larger framework in order to be valid. Respect each other and the ability of other people to have differing opinions, and resist the urge to create false dichotomies, such as: “You’re either a fan of Ender’s Game or a supporter of marriage equality!” It’s often possible to be a bit of both, or follow a third path that isn’t covered in those narrow options.

Don’t be afraid to take a look at the man behind the curtain, as it were, but don’t let what you find overshadow the action going on in front of the footlights. There’s often a place for both, and it’s worth looking close enough to find it.

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