Children’s Games

I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me, but it makes a certain amount of sense that a movie adaptation of The Hunger Games might be the thing that knocks free the long-stalled development of an Ender’s Game. Superficially, of course, the stories are similar, tales of children forced to do brutal things by their governments, only to surprise the people who have cultivated them so carefully. But Ender’s Game has endured in a way I suspect The Hunger Games will not because it’s much more politically sophisticated, and in its own way, much more brutal.

The great failing of The Hunger Games is that it’s a didactic story: the Capitol is the bad end of a gradient, and District 12 is its opposite pole. Ender’s Game starts out with one set of assumptions, that humans are good, and the buggers are bad. But within the subset of humans, goodness and badness are essentially replaced by efficacy: Peter Wiggin’s sociopathy is bred into him, and worse when he can’t find a way to be useful. Ender Wiggin is a good boy, but he’s better for humanity as he becomes less sweet, more a killer. And the book builds gradual and powerful moral reversals that The Hunger Games never quite manage to achieve: people are essentially who they first seem to be. A Gamemaker might turn out to be an architect of rebellion, but the spirit of whimsy and manipulation are the same, no matter what end they’re applied to.

And Ender’s Game treats children as if they’re morally responsible in a way that The Hunger Games never really does. Both Ender and Katniss are tools who make shocking final decisions, but Ender is constantly cognizant of what he’s doing, while Katniss is often obtuse or willfully ignorant. There are no equivalent characters to Valentine and Peter in The Hunger Games, children who understand compromise, strategy, and tactics in the manner of adults who have been through disappointment, not of people young enough to expect moral clarity, the way Katniss does. Katniss’s purity and little rebellions are comforting, they’re familiar, but Peter and Valentine’s calculations are unsettling. A smart Ender’s Game adaptation will be rooted in that sense of discomfort if it wants to be a great movie, not just a successful one.