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There had to be a lot of relief around the L.A. offices of Lionsgate and OddLot Entertainment when word came in on Nov. 2 that Ender’s Game, the science fiction film the two production companies had co-financed for more than $110 million, would not be a flop. After taking in $28 million in its opening weekend and topping the box office, Ender’s Game looks likely to recoup its investment. What it doesn’t look likely to do is make much money beyond that, and the possibility of a sequel seems increasingly unlikely.
On the surface, Ender had all the makings of a winner, the kind of winner, that is, that spawns two or three more winners just like it. Similar to the behemoth Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games franchises, the fantastical story was based on a best-selling youth novel and stars a cast of high-demand, up-and-coming actors. The two teenage female leads, Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld, have both been nominated for Academy Awards. Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, won rave reviews in 2011 for his turn in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
Thanks to a space-age setting and a number of zero-gravity battle school sequences, Ender also boasts special-effects appeal in spades, and though early reviews weren’t exactly raves, they were mostly positive—far more positive than the critical response the first Twilight movie received. But there was one thing those popular wizard/vampire/girl-warrior movies didn’t have, and that was an author (Orson Scott Card) who also happened to be an outspoken advocate for traditional marriage. Despite initial fan buzz at the outset of Ender’s production, when gay rights groups began to drum up controversy in the months leading up to its release, media reports turned decidedly sour.
The question of whether a boycott launched by Geeks OUT—a group whose mission is to “raise queer visibility within the worlds of comics and gaming,” and promoted by MoveOn.org—has had a direct impact on Ender’s ticket sales remains a matter of considerable debate.
Motley Fool stock analyst Steve Symington dismissed the idea that it could have much impact: “For every person adamantly opposed to seeing Ender’s Game because of their distaste for Card, it seems safe to say there’s probably another on the other end of the spectrum.” And even within the gay community there’s been plenty of disagreement over whether a boycott was a good idea.
Pointing out the severe backfire LGBT activists experienced when they singled out Chick-fil-A, Diane Anderson-Minshall, editor-at-large of leading gay magazine The Advocate, challenged readers whether they similarly avoided works associated with Roman Polanski, Alec Baldwin, or Mel Gibson. She finished by saying of Ender’s Game, “I’ll be in the theater. I’m going to stand in line, eat bonbons and popcorn, and give a thumbs up or down based on what’s on the screen, not who’s behind the book.”
Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of gay rights biopic Milk, similarly posted on his Facebook page, “Boycotting a movie made by 99% LGBT equality folks in an LGBT equality industry is a waste of our collective energy.” Even The New York Times decried Geeks OUT’s efforts against the film as “misguided” and “closer to blacklisting” than boycotting.
Yet looking at Lionsgate’s marketing efforts suggests that the bad press—and there was a lot of it—had a constraining effect on public interest in the film.
J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins were as out front and center as the studios could convince them to be during the launch of movies made from their books, giving interviews, attending conventions, and walking red carpets. Card, however, was nearly invisible during the lead-up to Ender’s release, and the studio and filmmakers have made it clear this was how they wanted it.
To start with, they removed Card’s name from the movie’s Facebook page. Then the film’s trailer alluded only to its being based on a “world-wide bestseller” without making any particular mention of the perennially popular author. Finally, despite being a huge name in the sci-fi world who has attended the event to promote his work before, Card was noticeably absent from a panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con that included star Harrison Ford, director Gavin Hood, and producer Bob Orci. One Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate’s parent company) exec was anonymously quoted in The Hollywood Reporter saying, “I don’t think you take [Card] to any fanboy event.” Another said Summit intended to “keep him out of the limelight as much as possible.”
Lionsgate even went so far as to issue a statement denouncing Card’s views and promising to hold a premiere fundraiser for gay causes. “Lionsgate is proud to have recognized same-sex unions and domestic partnerships within its employee benefits policies for many years, we obviously do not agree with the personal views of Orson Scott Card and those of the National Organization for Marriage.” They further made it clear that not only did Card not have any creative involvement in the film, due to a deal made 10 years before, he would not make any more money on it regardless of how it performed.
Taken together, it’s a very unusual way to go about promoting a movie based on the work of a hugely popular author, akin to promising Game of Thrones fans that HBO producers didn’t let George R.R. Martin anywhere near their series. It seems quite possible that OddLot and Lionsgate’s attempts to head off controversy may have actually served to dampen the enthusiasm of the very audiences they were seeking to attract—Card’s loyal readers and those most likely to stump enthusiastically for the film.
Twitter and Facebook often drive word-of-mouth film marketing these days, and mentions of Ender on social media sites leading up to its release were unusually low, especially for a movie based on a novel that has been at the top of The New York Times paperback list for the last 54 weeks. Perhaps it was because even the studio that made the film sent a message to audiences that their story’s creator was someone to be ashamed of not celebrated.
Waiting for Uncle Orson
Most people know Orson Scott Card as a science fiction writer, the author of the Hugo- and Nebula-prize winning 1985 novel, Ender’s Game. But in fact Card is something of a polymath.
He writes historical novels—more than a dozen of them so far—based on characters from the Bible. A devout Mormon, he writes liturgical music and dramas. For years he wrote a column under the pen name “Uncle Orson” for The Rhinoceros Times, an alternative newspaper in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. His columns were cranky, libertarian-leaning, and wickedly funny.
But Card is not a visionary artist to homosexual groups like Geeks OUT for his stand for traditional marriage. From 2009 until the summer of 2013 Card served on the board of directors for the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative group made up of Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals.
Geeks OUT organized “Skip Ender’s Game” events in eight U.S. cities. Earlier this year, the LGBT activist organization AllOut.org protested DC Comics’ hiring of Card to provide the script for a Superman storyline. A Wired editorial described Card as a “noted homophobe.”
When I met Card nearly five years ago, these controversies were in the future, and his multitude of fans knew him first as the visionary artist. He was warm, open, and cordial. What was supposed to be a 10-minute interview turned into a two-hour visit. I asked him why Ender hadn’t yet been made into a movie, and he said, “Lots of reasons. We haven’t been able to get the script right, and we haven’t been able to find an actor young enough to play Ender [in the book he’s five years old] who has the acting ability necessary for the role.” He also explained his disciplined writing process. When he finishes a book, he pays trusted readers to give him detailed feedback. “If they stop reading for any reason, even to go to sleep or go to the bathroom,” Card told me, “I want to know where they stopped. I want to know where reading the book stops being the most compelling thing they’re doing.”
Card has called the attacks against him “savage,” “lying,” and “deceptive”—and they have made him understandably media-shy. Earlier this year, when the DC Comics story broke, I emailed him to ask for a follow-up interview. His wife Kristine was not enthusiastic: “Scott is busy at work on a novel, and is trying not to let all the hoopla distract him. So, for the moment, we’ll have to turn you down.”
Given the way the media have treated him, I can’t say I blame him.