Despite the protests of Public Enemy, sometimes it is okay to believe the hype. Our pop culture universe would crumble without the cycle of anticipation, projection, hyperbole, and prediction. We need hype to sustain ourselves, to create debate, to give meaning and purpose to those horrible months of the year when there’s no football on TV. Hype is addictive; it requires more passion than analysis, meaning that anyone with two cents and a blog that earns three cents can jump into the fray, immediately becoming an important contributor to the hype machine (and everyone likes to feel important, right?). Hype is a bit nonsensical, sure, but it is undeniably fun.
The autumn of 2013 will present us with two great (and coincidentally named) case studies in hype: Andrew Wiggins and Ender Wiggin. The former is a basketball player heading to Kansas in the fall, a guy who is already being called the Canadian Jordan even though few people in the United States have seen him play. The latter is the titular hero of Ender’s Game, a movie by Gavin Hood based on the Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel by Orson Scott Card. Right now both the Wiggins are the recipients of astronomical hype from message boards across the Internet, with basketball nerds salivating over Andrew’s skill-set and book geeks eagerly anticipating the film adaptation of one of the most revered novels in science fiction.
While it is impossible at this juncture to say which of two will end up “earning” their hype, it is entirely possible to throw your proverbial hat into one ring instead to the other. Me? While I’m pretty sold on Andrew Wiggins’ game, I feel resolute in saying the hype surrounding Ender’s Game is completely misinformed and foolish, something akin to what happened before the 1998 NFL Draft with Ryan Leaf (or, if it is more fitting, something similar to all the hoopla that preceded the unbearably disappointing Watchmen movie).
(Quick tangent: The Ender’s Game novel was published in 1985. It is therefore ancient enough to dispense with the whole “spoiler alert” handwringing normally found across the Internet. I won’t go out of my way to reveal anything super critical, but keep in mind that you’ve had decades to read the book. While the twists haven’t reached the Bruce-Willis-in-The-Sixth-Sense level of general knowledge, the story isn’t exactly a mystery at this point. If you’re unnecessarily concerned that I’m going to somehow ruin the movie for you, go out and buy the book. Seriously, you can read it in a day or two.)
We’ll begin with basketball. What’s fascinating about the Andrew Wiggins hype is how little evidence it is based off of, yet how compelling and convincing that evidence is. This isn’t a situation like when LeBron James was a senior and his school played Oak Hill Academy on national television; most people outside of recruiters haven’t seen a complete game that Wiggins has played. The most popular highlight video showcasing his talents seems like something cobbled together from And-1 scrimmages, both in terms of the electrifying movies displayed by Wiggins and the utter lack of quality and competency displayed by his competition. Wiggins appears dominant, sure, but it is fair to say that he isn’t exactly taking on the crème de la crème of prep talent. Seriously, some of those guys he’s crossing up and dunking on look so geeky and white and un-athletic that I had to ask my parents if I had any long-lost siblings. I’m sure I could pull off moves like Wiggins if I was playing in a similarly diminished talent pool, which in my case would consist of me backing down seventh graders in the post like a lankier version of Z-Bo with less of a vertical.
That said, the video evidence is undeniably exciting. Wiggins appears to be a prototype for the future of the NBA; he’s a 6’8” wing player that can handle the ball like a guard and jump like House of Pain. Some of the things he can do with the ball fall into the fabled “you just can’t teach that” category. He has the type of “length”, “motor”, and “athleticism” that makes Jay Bilas weep with pure joy. He’s projected to dominate at Kansas next season, and I don’t see any reason why he won’t (although I am beyond excited to see him go up against Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart). His first major test as a player will be on November 12th versus Duke (thankfully not on an aircraft carrier), and frankly I’m already pretty pumped.
However, it isn’t like Wiggins is the first prep prospect to be showered in hype. Anybody remember Jonathan Bender, the guy who set the record for most points scored in the McDonald’s All-American Game, surpassing some guy named Michael Jordan? Yeah, he was a bust. I recall being thrilled as a Blazers fan when the team drafted NYC phenom Sebastian Telfair in 2004, and he’s so irrelevant by now I had to look up the spelling of his name (I’m also a terrible speller). There’s Dejuan Wagner and his remarkable 100-point game, and he disappeared faster than Tom Cruise’s A-list credibility. High school accomplishments and accolades don’t directly translate to next-level success, which is why college freshmen freak out when they realize they can’t simply skim the reading and still receive good grades anymore (unless they’re really good at skimming)
In the case of Wiggins, though, I think the hype is appropriate. All reports indicate he has a good head on his shoulders, which is inaccurate because heads are attached to necks but that’s beside the point. Supernatural athletic gifts don’t really mean squat if you can’t focus or work hard, and so far there’s been nothing but praise for Wiggins’ attitude. Will he be the next Michael Jordan as some people are claiming? No, because Jordan was a once-in-a-lifetime
psychopath talent. The highlights are spectacular enough to raise the comparison, though, and it is certainly justified that folks in Kansas are excited to have him next year. I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager to say the hype around Wiggins well end up being accurate.
On the other hand you have Ender’s Game, a film that I have zero confidence will live up to all its expectations or even be better than Bender’s Game. Like with Andrew Wiggins and his highlight mix, Ender Wiggin has little more to his name than a short trailer. What it shows, however, is not nearly as promising. The trailer is all excitement and explosions, CGI and gloss. The movie appears to be screaming, “Hey, isn’t space cool! Look, kids are blowing things up! I bet they’re having fun!” This would be an acceptable tone save for the fact that the book is about as far removed from glorifying the thrill of space combat as you can imagine. There are few “kid” novels as dark, evil, and psychologically horrifying as Ender’s Game. It is a book about emotional manipulation. It is a story where adults use lies and deceit to force children into committing acts of unspeakable violence. There is absolutely no sense of that psychological torment in the trailer; it looks like someone threw together discarded fight scenes from The Phantom Menace and made a fun little action film.
Of course, trailers aren’t always indicative of a film’s actual quality, but it is hard to give Ender’s Game the benefit of the doubt here. It’s a little disconcerting how the trailer makes sure you know EVERYONE has Academy Awards clout. It comes across as an insecure and ham-fisted attempt at establishing ethos, as if somehow the fact Abigail Breslin was nominated for an Oscar for the terrible Little Miss Sunshine inherently means Ender’s Game will be spectacular. I don’t buy it. As the Los Angeles Lakers hilariously proved this past basketball season, you can’t just throw together “star power” and create a quality product. When the studio focuses more on securing big names than remaining true to the spirit of the source material, it is hard to have faith that the finished product will be anything besides disappointing.
Orson Scott Card always pledged that he wouldn’t approve of an Ender’s Game adaptation unless he felt the filmmakers would capture the essence of his novel, which would be reassuring if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a crazy person. This is purely conjecture, but it seems a little suspicious to me that an Ender’s Game movie is finally coming out (it’s been rumored and discussed for over a decade) on the heels of Card’s plummet in popularity. Sci-fi fans used to revere Card despite his flaws as an author, mainly his inability to write series that don’t tale-spin into ridiculous messes of convoluted plot-threads and pointless new characters. His recent experiments with inexcusable bigotry, however, have alienated a contingent of his supporters, which certainly can’t be a boon for his bank account. It is perhaps cynical (and perhaps entirely incorrect) to see this movie as a “cash grab” on Card’s part, but there’s enough semi-evidence for me to want to fasten on my tinfoil hat.
This brings me to my biggest misgiving about the Ender’s Game movie: the decision to axe some of the most critical parts of the book in favor of telling a more action-packed story, while at the same time avoiding sincere depictions of said action and its consequences. Even with Card’s approval, I know the movie will drop the ball here. Though it involves aliens and spaceships and bombs and death, the Ender’s Game book isn’t wall-to-wall action. Almost half the book consists of Valentine and Peter, Ender’s respectively caring and sadistic siblings, machinating about ways to influence global politics via what are essentially blog entries. It doesn’t sound fascinating when described like that, but it is a critical component of the story. It appears the Peter and Valentine plot has been cut almost completely, ergo eliminating a huge emotional facet of the narrative.
While the decision to axe that arc makes some amount of sense on a purely entertainment-value level (people would rather watch crap blow up than teens wheedle their way into politics), the choice to focus on the “action” elements of the novel is guaranteed to be disingenuous to the original violence of the book. Simply put, the lack of an R rating is a travesty. Yes, R-rated movies don’t earn nearly as much as their PG-13 brethren, but that’s not the point. Kids are brutally killed in long, detailed, horrific ways in the Ender’s Game novel. The deaths are an essential part of the story. If the movie studio wants to showcase an action-packed movie, it is irresponsible to do so without demonstrating the unbearable psychological trauma that inflicting violence on others causes. Without the scenes of appalling child-on-child violence, or with sanitized versions of those scenes, the movie loses all credibility as a story about the dark underside to the lauded concepts of “heroes” and “war” and “sacrifice.” It’s okay if the movie doesn’t want to go to those uncomfortable places, but then it shouldn’t be called Ender’s Game.
In the end, though, only time and results will determine if my opinions regarding the respective Wiggins’ hype are correct. Perhaps Andrew Wiggins will be a bust, becoming another player more remembered for his highlight reels than his actual performance. I doubt it, though. And perhaps I’ll leave the theater on November 1st without wanting to bemoan how Hollywood has mauled my childhood, but I doubt that, too. Yet my doubts are nothing more than pieces of the hype machine, ways for me to engage with pop culture events that haven’t occurred yet. Without hype we’d be stuck discussing only current events from the sports and film worlds, which isn’t exactly desirable; it is still too early in the baseball season for things to matter and nobody cares about After Earth. Sorry, hype is just more enjoyable.