Why I’m Boycotting the Ender’s Game Movie

enders game

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment

By Yonatan Gordon

Okay, it’s not for the reason that others are now bringing. Much like the boycott itself, my story actually begins long before the movie adaption for the upcoming November 1st film was developed. It dates back to the night after Tisha B’Av 5762 (July 18, 2002), on a rainy night in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I had traveled there seeking something, although I was not sure what. I had been Lubavitch for a year or so already, and was beginning a promising career at Kehot, the publishing house of Chabad-Lubavitch. I had also begun my own publishing house on the side, Dwelling Place Publishing, and was looking forward to developing both into a career around books, authors, and spreading worthwhile Jewish content around the globe. But something still drew me back to Manhattan that night.

I started off by entering the theater I once frequented. Even if I were to find something with relatively “safe” content, it no longer interested me.

Then I went to the Barnes & Noble nearby. Maybe here I would find what I was looking for? As I looked around the entry area, I noticed an entire stand full of an illustrated youth version of Ender’s Game. Before I continue, I need to first rewind another seven years.

My fondness for Ender’s Game began in 10th grade (1994-1995), when it was required reading in my English class (okay, the SciFi fans in the class voted it in over other options). But it quickly became apparent that my liking for the book, was not so much for the story itself, but for the inspirational message it conveyed. Usually we look at the world as big, and ourselves as small. But the message of Ender’s Game was the opposite. One small six-year old kid could really change (or even save) the world. To me, this was the most profound message of the entire series. If Ender could do it, then maybe there’s hope for us all?

Why then do I say that my “boycott” began eleven years ago? When I was at that Barnes & Noble, I flipped through that version of Ender’s Game, and saw something most disturbing. In order to make it more “kid-friendly,” there were illustrations depicting Ender at various points of the story. It was then that I realized that Ender’s Game was also not the answer. Because that too, ultimately, was a fictional account about a fictional character.

Standing on the Outside

I then went to Pizza Cave, to at least partake of a slice before heading back to my apartment. By that time, I was drenched through-and-through, and still as troubled as ever. Upon finishing my meal, I left to head back to the subway. It was then that I met an elderly man collecting tzedakeh (charity). Perhaps because he saw that I was Lubavitch, or maybe also because he saw that I could use a good story, he began to recount the following:

He said that his tzedakeh collecting days were not always this trying. Over the span of several years, he would wait outside 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad, on Sundays to collect tzedakeh. From 1986-1992, thousands of people converged on 770 to receive a dollar and a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In turn, as was the custom, these “dollar recipients” would then give another dollar in place of the original to tzedakeh. As the original dollar from the Rebbe was intended for tzedakeh, these “exchange dollars” allowed the recipients to keep the ones that were physically handed to them by the Rebbe. It was in order to collect these “exchanged” dollars, that this man stood outside 770 every Sunday.

I thanked the man for his story, handed him a $5 bill, and headed to the subway. But considering the relief he had given me, I should have handed over my wallet. Why were his words so reassuring, and what does this have to do with Ender’s Game?

I don’t know if this man ever waited in line to receive an “original” dollar, or if he even saw the Rebbe (since he was standing outside), but what I do know is that it provided him food to eat, and perhaps even new clothing to wear. But what distinguished me today, from him then? I too haven’t seen the Rebbe directly. I too haven’t received a dollar directly from the Rebbe’s hand. It was 2002 and not 1992, already close to eight years since the Rebbe’s passing.

Before meeting that man, I felt like I was lacking something. Countless others were once able to see the Rebbe face-to-face, and here I was, bereft of that experience. But I now realized that this was not the case. I was sitting on a great treasure, a treasure that psychology today calls the “growth mindset.”

Fixed and Growth Mindsets

The main point of this theory (made popular by Carol Dweck), is that children should be educated to have a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. Now the fixed‐mindset type thinks that all success depends on whatever talents, whatever genes I was born with. It is all predetermined in this sense. Whereas the growth mindset type feels that all success depends on hard work (עבודה). If you work hard, you’ll be successful. If you don’t work hard, you won’t be successful (יגעתי ולא מצאתי אל תאמין, etc…).

How does this relate to educating a child? If a child was successful with something, the mother says, “Oh Wonderful. You are so wise and smart.” This is a cue (it is a subconscious trigger) that the mother is giving the child. The observant Jewish mother would say, “You are such a tzadik (righteous).” In the subconscious, what this creates is a fixed mindset, that success depends on how he is, not on how hard he’s worked. But the wise parent says, “Wonderful, you must have worked very hard to achieve this success.” This is a subconscious cue for a growth mindset, that everything depends on your toil.

Boldly Going Forward

What then was the comfort provided me from that man’s story, and what does it have to do with Ender’s Game? That sometimes, to feel oneself on the outside, is the greatest blessing of all. If you feel that you don’t have something, then you are motivated to work that much harder to attain it. So too, if you are standing outside 770, there is no question that this is not the same as being inside. He knew that he was a collector, and this knowledge itself, can become the greatest motivation to grow and graduate from that state.

Why is it wrong to illustrate what Ender may look like, or even to adapt the story into a movie? Because it runs the risk of fostering a fixed mindset, instead of one open and subject to free will. If even calling your child a “tzadik” can be a subconscious trigger to create a fixed mindset, how much more so when we see a particular actor playing the role of a fictional character?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, said to his chassidim: “You should all try to be like me.” Don’t say that I am a tzadik, what kind of a soul I must have. That you have to reach the same level. The nature of a Jew is to be, “a mover among those who are standing.” One who has a fixed mindset, is afraid of failure. But, someone who has a growth mindset is not. He knows that a tzadik falls seven times and gets up. He knows that failure is part of his toil in this world. This is a very important point. As Jews we are meant to move, walk, among those who stand.

This is not to say that I don’t have a view about the subject of the present boycott. But the real answer is that neither those on the right or the left should watch the movie if it fosters a fixed mindset (or watch it at all if it contains immodest or inappropriate content).

While I do think there is a place for movies at times (e.g. I just recently wrote an alternate plot theme for Pacific Rim), I do think it is important to connect oneself with experiences that foster positive growth mindsets.

More than the futuristic technology or costumes presented in these Sci-Fi universes, is the actualization of human potential. This was the message I walked away with that day. That for all the futurism of these stories, the greatest results occurs when we begin actualizing the future version of ourselves.

(Growth Mindset material was adapted from a recent class from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh).

Dedicated in the Memory of Rabbi Dr. Jacob Immanuel Schochet, O.B.M.


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