Published in 1985, Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game has been hailed as a modern classic of science-fiction writing, a reputation originally cemented by its winning both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1985 and 1986 respectively. The book has never been out of print, and such is its reputation even beyond genre circles that this year’s film adaptation seems a long time coming, although Card himself once dubbed the novel “unfilmable“. A story of child soldiers, alien invasions and the moral ambiguity of warfare, Ender’s Game is a thrilling, if occasionally gruelling read, and the film, starring Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley and due to be released at the end of this month, is sure to be quite a spectacle. But distributor Lionsgate’s pre-release promotional blitz for the film has been marred by calls for a boycott from activist group Geeks Out, who want movie-goers to, in their words, “Skip Ender’s Game“. Their reason for advocating this drastic course of action is Orson Scott Card’s well-publicised opposition to gay marriage, a position which has been gaining him notoriety in geek circles for several decades. Far from being just a minor inconvenience to the studio, Geeks Out’s campaign appears to have enough potential to affect the film’s box office for Lionsgate to start actively distancing the production from Card himself. They’ve even gone so far as to get Harrison Ford to explicitly emphasise this distance at promotional events.
So what’s the rationale behind Geeks Out’s call for a boycott of Ender’s Game and its associated merchandise? Boycotting a person, corporation or industry whose views or actions we find morally reprehensible is a time-honoured form of protest, one that aims to either force a change in policy or behaviour, or draw attention to the inherent ‘moral taint’ of anything produced by that person, corporation or industry. It’s unrealistic to think that a boycott of Ender’s Game – however widespread – would result in the film being pulled from cinemas, so we must consider the moral perspective of such an action. The book (and thus the film) could be said to carry a ‘moral taint’ of sorts because of the views of its author, even though the story itself features no homophobic material whatsoever*, and this perceived taint, rather than simply being a fanciful abstraction, has been real enough to inspire Lionsgate’s slightly panicked response to the attempted boycott. But the situation is more complicated than if the book (or film) were mere produce, because it is a work of art, and thus a carrier of meaning.
In his landmark 1967 essay The Death of the Author, literary theorist Roland Barthes argued that authors do not have a monopoly over the meaning of any work of art they have created. Once that work is out in the public sphere, people will begin experiencing it and forming their own myriad interpretations of it, none of which, according to Barthes, is any less legitimate than the author’s intended interpretation. Another way of articulating this idea is to say that, once it is completed, a work of art exists independently from its creator. It is for this reason that music fans can enjoy the work of Richard Wagner without sympathising with his noted antisemitic tendencies, and movie-goers can appreciate the latest Roman Polanski film without condoning his sexual assault of a 13 year-old girl. Therefore, if one finds Orson Scott Card’s views on gay marriage reprehensible, one can still go to see a film adaptation of his work without feeling that they have somehow tacitly supported those views. We find our own meanings in films, books, music and other forms of art, and unless unambiguously stated as part of a piece, any controversial opinions their creators might hold are – for the purposes of appreciating the work itself – utterly irrelevant.
There remains, however, one important way in which works of art can stay tied to their creators, underpinned by the institution of copyright. Provided that the author is still alive, and still owns their copyright, they will receive financial remuneration for any public exhibitions and sales of the work in question. What this means is that, as author of the film’s source material, Orson Scott Card will receive royalties from the box office takings and home video sales of Ender’s Game. This is in fact one of Geeks Out’s key arguments, as demonstrated by their “Don’t Give the Bigot a Buck” petition; they do not want to, in effect, give money to someone whose political and moral opinions they find offensive. This is a different argument from the concern about ‘moral taint’, because it is about the direct financial benefit of the work’s creator. Likewise, it is distinct from the argument about meaning; although a work of art exists independently of its author in an artistic sense, it remains tied to them by the flow of money represented by royalties. Those who find Card’s views repugnant but still want to see Ender’s Game will have to reconcile themselves to the fact that they will effectively be giving him their money. This is literally the price one has to pay if one wishes to (legally) experience a piece of art which is still under copyright.
While Ender’s Game (both book and film)as a work of art exists independently of Orson Scott Card, a man whose views many find unpleasant, he will nonetheless earn money from cinema screenings and DVD/Blu-ray sales of the adaptation of his work. It would be a shame to miss out on seeing a movie because you don’t want to give money to one of its creators, but what can the morally conscious movie-goer do? Either we deem it not too great a crime to give money to a man whose views are anathema to our own sensibilities, or we find a way to see the movie without buying a ticket or paying for a DVD, a choice which will punish others involved in the making of the film beyond just Card himself. Ender’s Game, it seems, is free of ‘moral taint’, but a boycott of the film could still be justified.
*It could be argued that Card’s use of the term “buggers” to describe Ender’s alien adversaries is homophobic, but since the aliens in question are actually insectoid in appearance (and the word is in fact British slang, rather than American), I’m going to let this one slide.
Ender’s Game will be released in the UK on 25th October.