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Warning: This editorial contains MAJOR spoilers for the book Ender’s Game.

In the twenty or so years since I first read Ender’s Game, I’ve probably read the book around four additional times. Each time, I found myself marveling at the story and loving the way it was written, how it progressed, and what happened to the characters. It’s always remained a favorite of mine as the years went by. Yet the one thing in the entire book that’s never really sat well with me was what happened to Stilson.

Caleb Thaggard

Caleb Thaggard

The bully that torments Ender in the first chapter and eventually pays the ultimate price is very likely to be in the film. Stilson was first going to be played by the young actor Brendan Meyer. He even reported to the set in New Orleans and hung out with the cast.

At the last minute, a scheduling conflict required him to step down from the role and in his place came Caleb Thaggard, an actor who bore an odd resemblance to actor Jimmy Jax Pinchak (Peter Wiggin), another tormentor of Ender. Once Thaggard stepped in, I began to wonder if they’d decided to change the script slightly because Thaggard looked decidedly bigger than Meyer and with Asa Butterfield looking so slender, was it even going to be believable that Stilson was dead?

Which leads me to the big question. Does Stilson really have to die in the film adaptation? I posed this question to the EnderWiggin.net fans on Facebook and 100% of the answers came back with a resounding YES. Everyone who answered felt that Stilson’s death was completely necessary for Ender’s character building to become the leader he did and eventually led him to wipe out the Formics.

But I’m still not convinced of this. We never learn about Stilson’s death until the end of the book during Graff’s trial and it’s safe to say that Ender never learns it until then either. So how does Stilson’s death play at all into Ender’s leadership building up until his final battle? It doesn’t, really. It was enough that Ender knew he’d beaten Stilson to a bloody pulp for him to feel deep remorse about it and this was when he was six years old. It’s likely that due to both his heightened intelligence and the actions of his brother Peter, Ender developed a moral compass much earlier than most children and the incident with Stilson was enough to strengthen his character.

Some people argued that Stilson’s death played a huge role in the sequels, haunting Ender for the rest of his days. This is something I completely agree with, but the thing about that is we’re not really sure they’ll make Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind movies right after Ender’s Game. In fact, I think it’s highly unlikely they will because those books would require a completely new cast and frankly are a bit too politically and morally centric to fit in with a franchise starting with the more action-filled and young adult-targeted Ender’s Game. I do feel they could eventually be made, but other movies keeping the young cast would be likely to come first and in the process, a lot more weight could be added to Ender’s load of guilt in so many other ways that would make up for a change in the fate of Stilson.

One of the biggest reasons I thought Orson Scott Card and Ender shouldn’t have killed Stilson was because Ender was six at the time. I can see why he withheld that bit of information until the end because the thought of Ender being a murderer at age six is a pretty repulsive thing. Reveal that at the start and people would have had a hard time falling in love with the character.

The same can go for movie Ender. Given their difference in stature, is Ender going to take a 2×4 to Stilson’s head in the movie? Or has he taken self defense classes on Earth and is already a deadly weapon? In this case, how will Gavin Hood prevent people from recoiling from the main character if he goes so far with Stilson at the start? Sure, we all had a laugh when Peter Parker punched Flash down the hallway and got food spilled onto his face, but Peter Parker never killed his bully to make a point.

Which brings me to another concern. With the influence of media on today’s youth, is it even wise to have Ender kill his tormentor from school? School bullying is an increasingly large problem in schools and I’m sure it’s at least part of the conversation that the studio could end up sending the wrong message about how to go about solving one’s problems with a bully in school.

The Dark Knight Rises theater shooting was horrific and cast a huge cloud of gloom onto the movie. We all looked in horror at what he’d done and probably thought to ourselves, “How could he do that? It’s just a movie!” To the vast majority of us, it is just a movie. But to that one kid out there who’s just been pushed a little bit too far, watching something like this in a movie could be enough to push them over the edge. And it only really takes one real life incident influenced by a movie for it to be too much.

One point someone brought up was that killing was simply what he did, thus the name Ender. But Ender never intended to kill Stilson, which means he was convinced that a beating would do the trick. So why is a death necessary if Ender himself doesn’t think it is? In a way, the death of Stilson in the book became essential to cement the notion that Ender was a monster, looked upon by the world the way they should have looked at Peter, which is why it’s always stood out to me that this was an author’s technique and not entirely flowing with the natural story.

In short, I feel a beating with a little blood and Stilson in the hospital with broken bones could have the desired effect to convince moviegoers that this incident and Ender’s answers are why Graff has chosen Ender for Battle School and at the same time wouldn’t carry all the baggage that a Stilson death could potentially bring into our real world outside the movie. If they wanted to, they could always follow the book and say near the end that Stilson died of complications in the hospital, but at that point I think the rest of the movie would have caused people to almost forget about Stilson completely, much like how I had when I first read the novel.

It’ll be interesting to see which way they chose to take this on. Stilson plays such a small part of the story, but lays the groundwork for Ender’s journey and is therefore very important. Until the movie in November 2013 or until someone’s counter argument can convince me otherwise, I maintain that Stilson’s death in the film isn’t necessary for a successful movie adaptation.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/elraver Eric Altman

    You had me at least considering your point of view until you wrote: “…the studio could end up sending the wrong message about how to go about solving one’s problems with a bully in school.”

    Personally, I find this kind of self-censorship to be dangerous to art. Do not change what you create because it might offend, castigate, inspire, praise or damn. Art must remain pure from political correctness and censorship to be relevant and contain power.

    Now, the question if Stilson needs to die? I feel that it can be done either way, not because his death is unnecessary or dangerous to viewers, but because storytellers can be brilliant with changes to their material when they need to be.

    It is more though, that this event is telling to the audience who Ender is, and what he is capable of. Remember, Han shot first. Otherwise, he isn’t Han. It doesn’t affect Han, that he pulled the trigger in preemptive defense, but that was simply indicative of his character.

    Without the death of Stilson from the beginning, the Battle School might see him as too much Valentine and not enough Peter. Ender has compassion, we know… but he had to be willing to “End this fight and every fight after it.” This is the Ender that could pull the trigger on the Doctor against a planet.

    Though, perhaps without the death of Stilson (and the results of the fight in the shower room later), the ending can be more of a surprise to the audience. A shock that Ender is capable of doing what he did.

    Again, I think this is in the hands of the writers and can be done brilliantly either way. It just needs to be embraced fully, whichever way they choose to go.

    • Valentine

      I do agree that self-censorship is dangerous to art and a really sad and pathetic by-product of our modern era, but I think it sadly has become a reality that studios have to face due to legal and ethical ramifications. I mean you look at the controversy that Zero Dark Thirty is kicking up. That’s just a movie too and it’s been really surprising to me that a film is causing such a ruckus in the real world.

      I’m actually very confident that Gavin Hood and the writers put together a really good scene around Stilson, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what they ended up going with.

      • http://www.facebook.com/elraver Eric Altman

        I haven’t seen ZDT, nor really heard much about it. Had to just look it up to see what it was about. I’m sure there is some controversy attached to it, based on the real world subject matter… but still, and I’m not Lars Von Trier here, but if something in a film makes the audience feel true real horror about the condition of humanity, then perhaps that is a good thing.

        It’s one thing to make public comments about a tragedy that make light of it when it is in fact very serious and damning… but when those comments are simply trying to discuss the world we exist in, in honest tones, they have the right to be spoken, if anyone is willing to listen to them or not.

        Similarly, within the context of a film, I think it is a matter of context, attitude, and emotional intelligence. Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”, for example, I found to be a very self-aggrandizing exploitation. Not because of the subject material, but because of the script, directing, acting, and meandering pace of the story. Vadim Perelman’s “The Life Before Her Eyes” on the other hand, was brilliant, well written, fantastically portrayed, had a point and could really make you think without insulting your intelligence.

        The point being, neither of these films can be held to qualifications of legal implications even with their similarity to real life tragedies that were a big no no to talk about in the public arena for quite some time. Some still balk away from discussing the more difficult aspects of Columbine. That is a question of personal ethics. Ender’s Game is a Sci-Fi Epic that has ethical mirrors to hold up to the real world that still exist now, though the book was written long ago.

        I think these mirrors deserve, and need, to be looked at.

        • Valentine

          See but my way of looking at it is that a lot of kids today are not properly mentally equipped to process what they see in pop culture or mass media in an intellectual and logical way. So with that kind of young adult landscape out there, is it worth it for the sake of art in what is, when you get right down to it, JUST a movie, to put it out there to test the mental limits of someone who may already be considering a harsh form of revenge? In a perfect world, we’d all watch Stilson get brutally beat to death by Ender and then talk about what a fascinating dynamic it added to his character, but to me that risk that someone will take it the wrong way IS there and if it’s not VITAL to Ender’s character in the movie, then why take that chance at all?

          • http://www.facebook.com/elraver Eric Altman

            Unfortunately, I believe that this kind of attempt to divert from discussion difficult for some minds to handle leads to prolonged issues for the culture.

            We have to face everything down, unflinchingly and take responsibility for our handling of what he had experienced.

            For example, I do NOT actually recommend anyone see A Serbian Film. I had little idea of what I was in for when I saw it. I am… not happy to have seen it, but I feel it was an experience worth existing through. Not recommending it for children, of course, but adults who make the choice to see such horrors committed on screen can draw something of a personal message about the condition of Serbian life, exaggerated as it may be, from the film.

            Ender’s Game is hopefully going to show something hard to explain, and for that I thank it. Easy is going to turn society into what we see in Idiocracy. Difficult will help expand us, in all directions. As long as we embrace change, expansion of thought, and are willing to help our children, with logic and curiousity, make their way through as well.

          • Valentine

            I guess the difference between us is that I already see our youthful generations far down the Idiocracy path and for that, I think that’s why movies need to tread lightly.

          • http://www.facebook.com/elraver Eric Altman

            Replying here because I can’t seem to below. This is in response to: “I guess the difference between us is that I already see our youthful generations far down the Idiocracy path and for that, I think that’s why movies need to tread lightly.”

            Yes, I see that too. Which is why I think movies have been treading too lightly already.

            I feel it is time for bold and challenging writing to inspire people to think and question and feel. It’s still within us to do so now, and this aspect of our lives needs to be nurtured and embraced before we go ahead and shun it entirely.

            Step one in equipping your child to be mentally and emotionally intelligent, is to challenge them and their notions. This is my bias speaking, but if you keep buying songs for your kids, where most of the lyrics are just ‘Baby’ sang over and over again by Justin Beiber? Well, you’re part of the problem. That is what will be called art. It is safe, soulless, meaningless, and puerile. Challenge them with something that speaks with purpose.

            I haven’t given up. I don’t think it is too late.

    • http://twitter.com/kodrand Juan Albor

      Well I get your initial NO self-censored art is good and gets damaged, but until we see the movie we cannot know if it is art or just a 100% commercial product. The same way not every text (like our comments here) is literature, not every movie is art (and for some purists, movies are still not art because of certain spatial and time-usage issues). So we cannot say it is art.

      Also, being responsible is a big issue here (and a very grey one). One cannot promote killing and say “it’s art, let me be” (yes I exaggerated your point to an absurd and I know YOU didn’t mean that, but where YOU and I can think in a mature way about this, your initial point could be used as an excuse to people causing REALLY bad consequences to others.

      The TOP exaggeration of this thing could be: Remember, Hitler did nothing illegal at his time.

      My point is, either way, the movie will get criticized and acclaimed by some or others, and the same words and arguments could be used by some to do good and some others to do wrong so maybe it would be better for Stilson not to die in the movie and kee the book for the harder fans.

      • http://www.facebook.com/elraver Eric Altman

        First of all, nice Godwin. Though I find it unrelated to the issue at hand.

        Second, Ender’s Game can not, if portrayed as it is existed in the book, promote killing. If anything, Ender’s sorrow, quest for redemption, and battle with personal demons due to his darker side lends an air of regret and shame to the act of causing death even to an enemy that could potentially wipe out your entire species.

        As for what constitutes art, that is in the hand of the artist and the eye of the beholder. Frankly, it’s art because either the creator or the viewer say it is. Purists, like hipsters and George Lucas, need to back away from defining the lens of existence in the perceptions of other’s lives.

        Responsibility lies in the artist to be honest, if they wish to claim their work as art since by my earlier statement I will take them at their word when they do so. To dilute the work through the efforts of protecting your viewer, cheapens you, your work, and insults the viewer.

        I have more faith in the human condition. I do not need to paint over harsh imagery with stark morality lessons that don’t allow the viewer to feel the discomfort that leads to change. I don’t remember the one I’m quoting, but it’s a favorite of mine, though I’m sure I butcher it: Pain is your body’s way of trying to stop you from continuing, because it knows if you do… you will change.

        Sometimes, we need pain to become more.

        As to not leave it on a metaphoric note, I’ll be clear. We live in a world where atrocities are committed and people try to forget them as soon as possible unless it fits their agenda to speak of them. To un-politicize tragedy, we must be willing to show real tragic possibilities in our art, but confer their meaning honestly through the intention of the artist in the world of the character. Ender must experience things that will cause the viewer to feel and be challenged to think… either agree or disagree, and in the best possible outcome, question themselves.

        Otherwise, we just go on and slip further down into the puppetry of mass media. We accept what we are told without these questions. We remain on our ‘side’ no matter what. I propose that Stilson’s death is one of those things that shows a dynamic nature within Ender, that leads to just the right kinds of questions in the viewer’s mind. Right or wrong, it is important.

        And it is art.

        • Valentine

          I think it’s clear we have to agree to disagree on the real life implications issue, so taking that aside for a moment, do you still feel that Stilson needs to die in the movie? It’s art imitating art, but it’s still a movie adaptation and therefore must be allowed some differences from the novel. I guess for me, I liked an ascension of Ender’s killer instincts rather than a natural born one and it never really felt realistic to me in the book in the first place. Like it seemed to me that OSC was like, oh but wait, maybe I should have Stilson die to lend weight to the reason why Ender will never return to Earth and he threw it in for good measure. He could have had Stilson live and testify to the horrors that Ender put him through for the rest of his life with his injuries, but he went with death, which speaks volumes on its own and is quick and easy.

          • first_fanette

            To answer this since Eric didn’t: I don’t think it’s necessary. It wasn’t necessary for the book (hence, it wasn’t made clear until very late), so I don’t think it is here. I’d say Bonzo maybe is – and here you have the progression that you hope for. But in both cases, I think if they go with death, it needs to be revealed only later. In the book, Ender isn’t jaded until the very end. If he had known about the deaths he might have suspected something in the end. Similarly, if we had known as readers, we might have as well. Whether or not they keep the secret on the final battle for the audience or not, I think they should keep the secret on Bonzo and Stilson until late, if only to allow us as much time as possible to fall in love with Ender.

            Btw, I really liked your comment on Ender’s killer instinct and how it should be a development rather than genetic. The whole genetic disposition thing is one of the few things that really irk me in Ender’s Game. I don’t believe in the tabula rasa principle, but I do think that things like the willingness to kill or at least use maximum violence is something that is installed in us by society/our surroundings.

    • williamunknown

      another point to stillson, as with bonzo, that was made by osc was that ender (through graff) was being charged with these crimes but wasnt being charged with xenocide. the irony of being charged with 2 deaths while being responsible for so many more and being lauded for them. id imagine its like americans colonization period/british, french empires where you could get in trouble for killing one of your color but killing an indian or african, etc wasnt a crime.

  • Robin Coots

    I actually read Enders’ Shadow first, and in that, Bean KNOWS Stilson died. He lived on the streets. He’d seen death. I saw Battle School for the first time through his eyes. So when I read Ender’s Game the first time, I knew he was dead, and it changed how I read the book. I don’t think I would have liked the book, just for its tone, if I’d discovered it first. Still love both, but there’s an air of desperation to Ender that I hope they don’t lose in the movie. And for that to be there, Stilson needs to die.

    • first_fanette

      But how does Stilson dying give Ender desparation if Ender doesn’t know about it until much much later? Ender’s desparation may have to do with his fear of being like Peter, and for that he needs to beat up Stilson, but in the book, he is desparate without knowing that he killed Stilson. So how is it necessary for the movie to change that? How can people say it’s important for Ender’s character development in battle school if Ender doesn’t even know about it?

      I say they should go with the book and leave this information either out or give it only very late. We don’t need to see his heart stop early on because Ender doesn’t see it and we do follow his perspective in the book, don’t we?

      • Robin Coots

        I’d forgotten when I made my first comment that it was Bonzo who died in Battle School. Stilson was the final test they gave Ender in relation to his classmates once they took the the monitor off. They were, in all cases, looking for a ruthlessness in him (Ender) that made him not only defend himself, but make sure that whoever was attacking him would never try it again. In the case of Stilson, he ended up killing him. It’s the same thing that happened later with Bonzo. Whether he needs to know it or not (and i don’t think in the book he ever actaully gets told) I think that key choice, right there at the start, needs to happen. The book is, frankly, brutal in its treatment of children as they are shaped into the saviors of Earth. I hope the that movie doesn’t sugar coat the turmoil Ender goes through, from killing Stilson to Bonzo to the Giant’s Drink, right up to biting his hand bloody on Eros.

        • first_fanette

          I agree with that. But I am with Crystal in saying that a child beating another child to a bloody pulp shows that ruthlessness. The kid ends up in hospital, for heaven’s sake! In the real world, any kid who does that will probably be taken to a psychiatrist for examination. For me, that’s brutality enough. Not because I fear to see it, but because I think it will suffice and help with the rating. It might even make his fight with Bonzo more significant in that it is an escalation of his already violent tendencies. I do think that the IF not only look for a potential killer, they try to train an actual killer. Beating up Stilson and ultimately killing Bonzo shows a progression, and it will help this effect we all hope for, where we end up saying “Look what they did to him!” (as opposed to: “Look! That kid is a natural born killer, just like Peter.”)

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