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Critics, community and 'Ender's Game': An interview with Orson Scott Card

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 9:11 p.m. MDT

Prior to the film release of Prior to the film release of "Ender's Game, author Orson Scott Card participated in a Q&A with former Deseret News reporter Jamshid Ghazi Askar. (Deseret News archives)

Nov. 1 marks the premiere of the film adaptation of "Ender's Game," a best-selling science fiction novel published in 1985. In this interview, conducted Aug. 30 by former Deseret News enterprise team reporter Jamshid Ghazi Askar, author Orson Scott Card talks about writing his own screenplay for "Ender's Game" 20 different times. He gives his opinion on the acting in the movie and explains why director Gavin Hood didn't want the book's author hanging around the set.

Card also talks about whether he's conservative or liberal, whether his beliefs are manifest in his fiction and why dinner with strangers is his idea of a personal hell.

Deseret News: How did it feel for you, Orson Scott Card, adapting Orson Scott Card?

In an interview with KSLs Carole Mikita on the In an interview with KSLs Carole Mikita on the "Deseret News Sunday Edition," famed science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card talks about the controversy concerning the film adaptation of his novel Enders Game. (Screenshot YouTube)

Orson Scott Card: I've been re-adapting "Ender’s Game" for years. When I wrote the novel "Ender’s Game," I was taking the short story and I began much earlier. By the time I got to the events of the short story, the original was out the window. ... That adaptation was in '85, and then I went back and did the (Ender's) Shadow books in the '90s. ... I came back to the well again with "Ender in Exile," where I took basically the space between the second-to-last and last chapter of "Ender’s Game" and turned them into a novel in order to explore his path toward preparing himself to govern a colony. It wasn’t relevant to "Enders Game," so I skipped right over it. But it is relevant to the character, to who he was. So that was a fun book to write.

But I've been back revising the material repeatedly.

And then during the prep for the movie, I wrote 20 versions of the script myself. I was trying to figure out how to solve the problems. It’s a devilishly hard book to adapt for film. The biggest problem we had was that I would write draft after draft and people who already knew and loved the book would say, "This is it. You nailed it. This is great. This is even better than the last one." And then (I) would hand the script to someone who had never read the book, and they would have no idea what all of it was about. So clearly it was still dependent on having read the book and already caring about the character, and that’s not what you want.

Probably one of the greatest adaptations of a classic novel to screen was "Sense and Sensibility," Emma Thompson's brilliant adaptation. You don’t have to have read the book to get every single nuance. Then when you do read the book, you realize she actually did a better job than the book did of delivering the story clearly and well. Jane Austen was inventing the novel form at the time and that was her first full-length novel, and so it's not a surprise that Emma Thompson was able to clarify over what she did.

But adapting "Ender's Game" was just so hard. But I finally found a way that worked, but unfortunately I did my last draft after (director) Gavin Hood had already started work on his first draft. As far as I know, he never read any of my drafts. There's no reason he should have. You’re going to lose your job for filming the author-written script, so my scripts really served mostly as showing proof of concept, feasibility studies. That you could do a script even if this isn't the one they intended to use.

You’ve got to realize that terrified executives in Hollywood always want to know what to say about a script, which means it has to look like it was a product of a film school, which means they have to be able to detect clearly and obviously the three-act structure, to see all the plot points, the formulaic things that they expect. ... Nowadays, with anything they do, they’re going to be very leery of investing millions of dollars into a script that doesn’t look familiar to them. So that was Gavin Hood’s job, was to deliver a script that would look familiar to executives and make them comfortable. It was not really to deliver "Ender's Game" itself. But that’s fine. I made strong changes to the script myself. I had arguments with people. In fact, in some respects, Gavin’s script is more faithful than mine. ... He stuck to the structure of the novel in ways that I wouldn’t have and didn’t in any of my scripts.

So it's not a matter of faithfulness. People who go there thinking they’re going to see a film of scene-by-scene novel of "Ender's Game," there’s no way we could deliver that. That would have been 5½ to six hours long anyway. Nobody would have sat still for it.

So they’re going to see a sort of a reduced, compressed, simplified version of "Ender’s Game" with older actors because it’s just so hard, so impossible to work with children — so many children. It wouldn’t have worked. So they had to age it up, and I gave consent for that.

There’s some extraordinary performances. I’ve been able to see some of them. Harrison Ford is wonderful. He’s one of the best actors who’s ever worked in American film. He gets no credit for it because everybody always thinks, "Well, he’s not even acting." That’s what good acting looks like. … It was great to watch him work with Asa (Butterfield) and other actors and see the results that he helped bring out in them. And of course, Ben Kingsley is wonderful. The whole cast really does a very good job. And the kids do a good job. Asa's best performance so far is in this film. ...

I did get to watch one scene being filmed, and I would watch them do take after take. And Harrison would murmur to Asa, "Let's do this, let's try that." The change would be subtle, but it would transform the scene to a different meaning, to a different emphasis. As Harrison explained to me afterward, he said, "I just want to give the editor lots of options." And, then knowing the process they've been going through in editing the film — recutting and recutting to really sharpen and tighten it — the options that he gave them, they were useful. They were really valuable.

I’m very happy with the results of the work of these actors.

DN: When Harrison Ford was cast, he reached out to you?

OSC: No, I didn’t have any direct contact with him until I met him on the set. None of the actors did. Gavin Hood — no director does — did not want the author of the original material hanging around. It just distracts the actors. He would want them only to work with him. When I’m directing a show, I don’t invite the writer along. So that’s not a surprise. I had minimal involvement. Once Gavin Hood took over, it was his show, not mine, and I act accordingly.

DN: Do you feel that you’ve paved the way for other LDS authors?

OSC: Oh, no. This has nothing to do with LDS. In fact, Stephenie Meyer has had way more film success than I’m ever likely to have. The Twilight series — if anything, she paved the way. But I don’t think anybody says, "Let's find another story by a Mormon writer." No one actually cares. What they look for is, did it sell, does an audience like it, is it a strong story, do we know how to market this if we make it. If the answer to all those questions is yes, then there's a good chance that they’ll at least make the attempt.

DN: How has time affected and changed you in terms of the way you write?

OSC: That’s always such a worry. ... My heyday with "Ender's Game," I am not worried by the fact that this book, which was really rather early in my career — I’d written four or five books before it; it was my first story that was published — I’m not even trying to match. Everything that I write, I would like to have reach as large an audience as possible, and if it surpassed "Ender’s Game," I’d be thrilled, but I’m not trying to compete with myself. I did the best job of telling that story that I could at the time. When I go back and adapt it, I cringe at a few things ... because I’ve learned a lot. But I also don’t try to fix problems. I am thinking of a new edition of "Ender's Game," not to fix things that are broken but to reconcile the contradictions between the different times I went through and told the story. ...

Let’s just say that each story gives its own set of problems, and meeting those challenges is all a writer can hope to do. Some of them I succeed better than others. "Ender's Game" seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people. I have no idea why. If I could do it every time, I would. But I am happy with the readership that every single one of the books has achieved.

DN: Do you feel like "Ender’s Game" is your best piece of writing?

OSC: No, far from it. But it’s my most resonant story. It was written in 1984, and I was 33. I’ve learned a few things since then. I’ve written many books that I consider to be better works of art and even some stories that I feel more emotionally involved with. I think that the two series that I just began — "Lost Gate" is the first of the Mither Mages books, and "Pathfinder" is the first of a young adult trilogy — they're as good as anything I’ve ever done. "Pathfinder" is probably my best science fiction. Period. Better than "Ender's Game" for taking the possibilities of the science fiction genre and spinning a yarn. And they're building up their own audience, each of them. ... They have a life of their own, so we’ll see where they go.

DN: Have you come across any kind of article about you that you really felt captured the essence of you as an author?

OSC: That would be hard because I don’t read articles about me. I have other people read them and tell me if there's something I need to deal with. It just makes you too crazy. I mean, I bring a set of communitarian values to my fiction. Not my plan, just who I am. But I think it's partly the experience of being Mormon — or maybe it’s my communitarian values make me very compatible with being a Mormon — but Mormons all live in these little villages where we’re intensely involved in each other's lives, where our roles shift from time to time, so we’re constantly moving into new roles and positions within Mormon life. So that colors and affects my fiction. ... What I find interesting is the people who commit and keep their commitment at great personal cost, the grown-up story, the story of parents, the story of people who sacrifice for community but stay in it and have to live in the mess they made. ... They don’t take off their mask and go back into society under another name. They have to be who they are, wear their own face in their community.

This has made some critics very uncomfortable right from the start. And as my politics diverged from the political correctness that has captured the left — I mean, (in) 1976 I was a Daniel Patrick Moynihan liberal Democrat — and without changing any of my principles, I’ve now become quite a right-winger in the eyes of the left. And I’m a little baffled by it because I’m a liberal and they’re not. They’re repressive, punishing, intolerant of the slightest variation, absolutely the opposite of what it means to be a liberal. But that’s the way it goes. They still get the label. I am the fact of what it meant to be a liberal. I find the most liberals who feel like I do among people who are labeled as conservatives. It’s a very odd thing.

But that political thing has affected the criticism of my work. And it would just make me crazy to read asinine, irrelevant comments by critics who think they’re saying something intelligent.

You see, what happens is, if you respect a writer, then you talk about the work. If you disdain the writer, then you try to psychoanalyze the writer and figure out why would he write this. And that’s all I get from science fiction literary elite. If they mention my work at all, which they rarely do, it’s to dismiss it and to psychoanalyze me, which they are incapable of doing since they’ve never actually formed the kind of community bonds that my fiction always depends on. They have no idea what I’m talking about. They couldn’t produce that fiction if they tried because they don’t share those values. But readers do.

It’s really an odd thing. When you write communitarian fiction, what happens is, the fans that show up at your signings are people who respond to community values. I’ve had bookstore people — widely separated; it’s not like they get together and chat about Orson Scott Card signings — but I’ve had the remark in awe, “Boy, the fans in your signing are so patient and ... they're so nice to each other, and so many friendships begin in line, and people exchanging emails and phone numbers and so forth and taking pictures of each other’s cameras ... people who've never met before." … Because the people who respond to my fiction tend to be people who want to build community.

That’s not the elitist literary view. Those are people who are about writing fiction that will impress people, that will make them rise above the community. I write fiction that’s about people who immerse themselves in community and who don’t think that they're better than everybody else and who aren’t trying to impress everybody. A very different set of values, and I get the results.

I don't read the criticism of my work. Every now and then, my wife or someone else will say, "Here’s one you want to read." So I’ll read it. And it’s nice to have people say nice things or to say interesting things. They don’t always just give me just praising things because frankly I’m not interested in foolish praise either. It makes me feel like I failed because they misunderstood my book. ... If the things they’re liking are things that I don't think are in there, then that’s just as frustrating as if they hate it for things that aren’t in it.

But if there’s something interesting being said, then I’ll see it. But I hate to give offense to anybody who has written careful reviews, but I really don’t hold those in memory, and I certainly don’t think about them while I’m writing my next work.

DN: When did you develop this approach or protocol?

OSC: There was a lot of nastiness in the science fiction community over "Ender's Game's" awards. The elitist, the exclusivists, the people who actually despise the reading public, were hostile to "Ender's Game." They are people who have made it almost a career to write anti-"Ender’s Game" articles.

It’s kind of pathetic and sad. My answer to them has always been, "If you think it's not good, write something better. See how the audience responds. Don't keep sniping at mine. Get a life." But that’s neither here nor there.

It became clear very quickly that I didn’t belong in Science Fiction Writers of America, the professional association. They give you an award with one hand but they slap you silly with the other. I realized that if I stayed involved in that community, I’d start caring about the things they cared about, and I didn’t care about that, didn't want to become that. So while I have many good friends in the science fiction writing community, I’m not a member of any organization there. I don’t take part. I’ll go to an occasional science fiction convention when I’m invited by people who actually want me and not Ender Wiggin. But those are extremely rare, as in one every five or six years, or abroad where American political concerns don’t interfere. (If) somebody wants to invite me to a convention here in the States, they’re immediately going to have intolerant fascists of the left start threatening them: "We’ll boycott your convention. Nobody will come if you have Card there. Nobody wants to hear anything he has to say.” In other words, the opposite of liberal. That sort of thing comes up all the time. So it’s just easier not to even try or worry about it.

DN: Have you considered ... "Maybe it would just be easier to kind of soften my beliefs that offend people."

OSC: My beliefs don’t offend people. If you vary from the line, then they treat you as if you are the opposite of them. I am actually more liberal than any of the liberals who have attacked me.

I don’t know how I would alter my beliefs. Become more idiotic? Adopt their self-contradictory, asinine belief system that has nothing to do with the real world, that’s based on dogmas that have never been tested in the real world? I mean ... it’s easier to write science fiction than to take seriously the silliness on both left and right, I have to say. ... Both belief systems are really not philosophies; they are really incoherent and self-contradictory. I’m not interested in that. I couldn’t make them work as fiction. I couldn’t invent those as political systems that would be believable in a science fiction universe. Only because they really exist are they believable, because if 30 years ago I had written a story in which either the far left or the far right philosophies were, the audiences would go, "Nobody would ever believe that. That’s just too silly. They couldn’t hold those two ideas simultaneously.” Oh yes they can, because they don’t think and they don’t analyze. So, no, it isn't even remotely tempting.

The thing is, in my fiction, I don’t even put my beliefs in there. That’s the thing that’s frustrating.

For example, in "Empire," which was attacked savagely as being a right-wing screed — absolutely not true. If anything, it’s right down the middle of the road. It shows idiots on both left and right. The only thing is that I actually show positive characters who hold conservative views. Well, I was writing about people in today’s American military. ... The overwhelming majority of the military share values more like President Bush’s than President Obama’s.

So if I’m going to write those characters, I’m not going to do what left-wing writers do, which is please their friends by having all of their characters be liberal no matter what — all their positive characters — and only boneheads and idiots can be conservatives in their fiction. I’m going to write a good character who believes as my friends in the military tend to believe.

Just writing honestly makes them attack me because they can't bear a favorable depiction of someone they disagree with. It’s intolerable to them. They are arch-fanatical puritans. They can’t bear the thought that someone somewhere who is intelligent might not hold the same idea as them. It’s the essence of intolerance, and that’s the way they are.

"Empire" is actually about tolerance and has been attacked by the intolerant for being so right-wing, which it absolutely is not.

It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating.

The reviews that were written painted it in the eyes of people who hadn’t read it — and this was the goal — as being just a far-right screed. And therefore there’s no reason to pay any attention to it. So I’m actually talking to everybody. It’s not a far-right screed. It's about trying to restore civil dialogue in America and to stop the violent rhetoric that leads us — frankly, the violence of the rhetoric today is very similar to the way it was before the Civil War. I think those are the only two times when it’s ever been as extreme and as intolerant and hate-filled. And the worst thing is, the people who accuse others as polarizing the most are the polarizers themselves. The far left is the source of 99 percent of the polarization today while they accuse the right of being polarizers merely for disagreeing with them or having another thought. Which is very frustrating in itself.

When you write a book that, if anything, is about tolerance, but it’s received with such intolerance, then you begin to despair of whether it's possible to talk to these people in this time. But I still find readers, and those readers do understand what I’m doing. Maybe it will make a little difference, maybe a little change.

DN: What’s your motivation (for teaching) writing workshops?

OSC: First, when I teach writing at a university and when I teach writing in these workshops, the first thing I tell people is, "What are you doing here? Why aren’t you home writing?"

If you're not actually producing large amounts of fiction, then any writing class you take is going to be a waste of time because you’re not going to be prepared to understand anything that’s being said to you. You have to have your hands deep in the mud to get some idea of what’s growing there.

Having said that, my writing workshops are geared not toward art per say. Most writing teachers deal with style in the same way that most acting teachers deal with some version of the method. And it’s all a waste of time. The one thing that you can't teach is style. Well, you can, but the result is ... almost unreadable type of prose.

Real style comes from not thinking about style, just using your natural language. It will come out completely different from anybody else’s. Then you concentrate on inventing a good story, telling honest stories about real characters and being fair to all of your characters; being clear about their motivations. If you’re spending your time concentrating on those things, style will take care of itself. ...

The most I can do, I suppose, is help them solve this or that problem or get this or that idea, encourage them in what they’re already doing right, and now and then give them a tool that they were almost but not quite ready for and now they got it, so they can move ahead.

I don’t expect to change the world with it, but it does encourage and help writers to get better at the actual work of writing.

DN: I get the sense in talking with you ... that you really value ... the human connection.

OSC: I am really deeply introverted. My idea of hell is to spend eternity going to dinner after dinner with strangers, sitting at a table with seven or eight people and trying to make conversation with strangers. That’s the most horrible thing in the world.

When I’m teaching a writing class, I’m in control of the situation. Give me an audience of a thousand people, and I’ll go for as long as you want and I’ll keep their interest. But don’t put me alone with four strangers. That’s horrible.

There are a lot of introverts like me. We can perform, but we don’t want to converse. I have no small talk. ...

I’m second counselor in the (LDS ward) bishopric right now. The hardest thing I do is one-on-one conversations. It’s a good thing for temple recommend interviews that we have a form. But when I get to know people, then I can converse perfectly natural with them, but I really have to know them before I can do that.

There are a lot of people like us. I’d say the world is almost evenly divided between introverts and extroverts.

But there was a time about 100 years ago when people really regarded gabby, talky people as annoying and foolish. The strong silent type was what was admired. The Gary Cooper character really was who we looked to and admired. But now we look to the glad-handing. "I want my child to be more outgoing,” “I’m so worried my child is so shy and socially awkward.”

That’s not socially awkward; that's private and self-contained. Good for him. He’s thinking thoughts instead of babbling.

We live in an extroverts' world right now — extroverts' culture. But we introverts, we learn to fake it and get by.

DN: Do you ever think about your legacy? What do you want your legacy to be?

OSC: Well, my legacy is my children, their children, our family, things I do in the ward. I’d like to think that I’ve been able to make a difference in some people’s lives there.

My books are what they are. If they don’t outlast me? I wrote for my time. That’s really all you can look for.

It’s nice that Shakespeare’s stuff is still read, but he went through a long period of eclipse when people largely ignored him.

It’s great that Jane Austen’s work survives, but that doesn’t mean that the other writers of her period whose work doesn’t weren’t worth reading and didn’t contribute to the time.

I have no idea whether I’ve created any lasting monuments. Just as with Shakespeare, people will receive my stories — if they are still reading them in 100 years — they’ll re-interpret them into what they want them to be. And they’ll be changed into whatever people expect them to be.

You can’t control that. I’m not interested in controlling the future. The best I can do is offer stories that I care about and believe in right now. So when you talk about my legacy, the only things I’m doing that last are my family, my friends, my ward. That stuff lasts. Those are the lives that you touch. ...

As I lie dying, I’m not going to wish for a stack of my books to be brought in. I’m not going to want people to read aloud passages from my work. It’d just frustrate me because I’ll realize how bad it is.

The only people I’ll want to see are family and a few friends, friends that are like family to me, and that’s what matters.

But you know, I’m a communitarian, so it’s the community.

The thing that fiction’s valuable for is that every novel creates a community of people who now have those memories in common. If I say to you, "Remember, Frodo gave his finger for you," you’ll get the joke if you’ve read "Lord of the Rings." Even though we edit it in our minds and it’s different, we have some memories in common that we can’t get in the real world. We can witness the same event, take part in the same event that will be completely different to us. But when we read the same work of fiction, that structures and orders series of events in a way that clarifies our thought and that we can share those memories together in a way that means something.

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