It’s a dilemma as old as the novel itself. On the one hand, “Ender’s Game” is a classic work of sci-fi literature, with some very compelling anti-war and anti-authoritarian themes. On the other hand, author Orson Scott Card tends to attract controversy by way of all the socially ignorant bullshit that regularly spews from his mouth.
As such, a generation of sci-fi readers has been forced to decide if reading the book somehow means a tacit approval of Scott Card’s outrageous beliefs. It’s similar to Chick-fil-A, the company that offers high-quality chicken with a side of homophobia.
The film adaptation, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. All year, I’ve heard people say “I want to see Ender’s Game, but Orson Scott Card is such a dick.” And all year, I’d respond “Take comfort with the knowledge that the film adaptation will probably be nothing like the book.” Moreover, Scott Card got all of his royalties up front ten years ago and will not receive a dime of the box office returns.
It took Hollywood nearly three decades to bring this book to screen. The adaptation process was of course very difficult, given the book’s enormous scope, considerable length, and complex themes, to say nothing of the effects involved. Oh, and the story also involves pre-teens killing each other in gory fashion with their bare hands. Also, did I mention that the author is a total nutjob?
(Side note: In hindsight, it occurs to me that “The Hunger Games” might have made prepubescent deathmatches more acceptable to mainstream audiences. So there’s that.)
Before getting to the review proper, it bears mentioning that the final adaptation was written and directed by Gavin Hood. This immediately raised concerns among film geeks, even though 20th Century Fox screwed up X-Men Origins: Wolverine far more than any one filmmaker ever could have done. As far as this film is concerned, the more salient point is that Hood was drafted when he was 17. Naturally, this would give him a lot of things to say about turning children into war machines ready to kill and die for some cause. It’s also easy to forget that as awful as Wolverine was, Hood is still an Oscar-winning filmmaker (Tsotsi, the 2005 winner for Best Foreign Language Film, look it up).
So, for those who haven’t read the book, let’s get to the premise. We begin in the distant future, when Earth was invaded by insectoid aliens called “Formics” (they were nicknamed “Buggers” in the source text, though that label is mercifully unused in the film adaptation). Humanity was nearly destroyed, until a great strategist named Mazer Rackham (played by Ben Kingsley) fought them off. It’s not entirely clear how he fought them off, however, since that information has been classified by the International Fleet.
In the book, there were two Formic invasions. In the film, there appears to be only one. In either case, the governments and military leaders of Earth have decided that they’re not going to wait around for the next invasion. They set up a program to train and breed the next generation of military geniuses. The goal was to find the next Caesar, the next Alexander the Great, or at least the next Patton. And 50 years after the last invasion, they got Andrew “Ender” Wiggin.
Ender (Asa Butterfield) may only be in grade school, but the military strategists of Earth think that he’s humanity’s best bet. So they send Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to recruit Ender into Battle School. Try to imagine a middle school set in geosynchronous orbit, in which the students are not only motivated but encouraged to torment each other, and that’s pretty much what Battle School is like. The satellite is a boot camp, specially designed to strip children of their humanity and turn them into living weapons. Thus we have Ender’s dilemma.
See, Ender proves that he’s a gifted strategist and a brilliant warrior. Indeed, war is the only thing he’s really good at. And he hates that about himself. He doesn’t want to be someone incapable of anything except destruction. What’s more, it bears remembering that he isn’t this way by choice. It was the world’s military leaders who made Ender this way, and Ender despises them for it. Yet Ender still obeys them because the entire world is quite literally at stake.
This is something else that sets the story apart. On the surface, this is another of those archetypal stories in which some crucial turning point of history depends solely on some “Chosen One” with prodigal abilities, a great destiny, and so forth. The difference, however, is that Ender wasn’t chosen by a God or a prophecy or some other infallible authority. Ender was chosen by military generals and bureaucrats. He was chosen by some anonymous committee of flawed and fallible men. They can make mistakes in raising Ender to be the next great general, and they may have made a mistake in choosing him to begin with. And if they’re wrong, then they’ve gambled the entire human race on a failed bet.
All of these moral ambiguities are present in the film adaptation, though considerably weaker than they are in the text. To start with, there’s the matter of Ender’s siblings. For those unfamiliar, Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) were previously denied as Battle School candidates; Valentine turned out to be too charitable, and Peter turned out to be a vindictive psychopath.
These characters do appear in the film, but their screen time is drastically curtailed in favor of showing Ender’s journey. Sure, Valentine gets a few scenes and Ender mentions her enough times to show how important she is to him. Peter, on the other hand, only gets one scene and precious few mentions. Now, as someone who read the book, I know that Ender doesn’t want to be a mindless weapon because he doesn’t want to become a violent sadist like Peter. But that vital motivation is so poorly established in the film that I’m not sure anyone coming in cold would’ve made that connection.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Butterfield himself doesn’t quite have the intensity that the role called for. He can do smart, he can do diplomatic, he can do “stressed beyond all reasoning,” Butterfield can do pretty much every other emotion that the film calls for, but he can’t quite sell the homicidal rage on those times when it’s necessary.
Though to be fair, the film does water down those moments in the book when Ender brings himself to kill someone else. The first time it happens, the film makes it quite clear that Ender’s opponent is brutally injured yet far from dead. The second time, the death seems like more of an accident. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.
Moving on, let’s talk about Ender’s teachers. In the books, Sergeant Dap was the resident “mom.” He was the only one who got paid to be nice (relatively speaking) to the recruits. Dap was only in charge of the newest arrivals, so his role in the book was very limited. Compare that to Dap of the movie (now played by Nonso Anozie), when he gets to be a voice of support for Ender through pretty much the entire movie.
By a similar token, we have Major Anderson. In the book, Anderson was responsible for managing the Games (more on them later) and often tormented Ender on Colonel Graff’s behalf. By comparison, the movie Anderson (now gender-swapped and played by Viola Davis) is more or less the resident psychiatrist of Battle School. Now, her primary responsibility is to remind Graff that these are still mere children being turned into war machines.
I understand why Hood wanted to express the concept that these means may not be justified by the ends. I don’t even mind overhauling Anderson to serve this purpose. But those discussions with Graff should have been kept behind closed doors. When Anderson moves to comfort Ender out in the open, that’s going a step too far. And overhauling Dap to serve the same purpose (though it takes Dap a while to get there) is going way too far. It weakens the idea that Ender is completely isolated, with no one to depend on but himself. Moreover, it’s harder to justify Graff and his underlings as Ender’s enemy when so many of them are trying to show him pity.
On the other hand, Harrison Ford plays his part quite well, though it helps that Ford doesn’t have to pretend being a grizzled old badass. Ford seems to be settling into the “mentor” role quite well at this phase in his career, and good for him. Ben Kingsley also does very nicely while acting against his old Hugo costar, but those tattoos he got stuck with are a nuisance.
I don’t remember any bizarre facial tattoos on Rackham from the books, and it appears that they were entirely an invention for the film. See, Rackham of the movie came from Maori descent (to Hood’s credit, that’s apparently part of the novels’ canon), and the tattoos are his way of speaking for the dead. I understand what Hood was going for, trying to set up a theme that comes later on. Those who’ve read the novels can surely guess what I’m alluding to. But the connection is tenuous in practice, and any benefits are sorely outweighed by the goofiness of those tattoos.
Before I move on to the film’s more positive aspects, I have to address the matter of Ender’s classmates. To start with, there’s Bernard, played by Conor Carroll. In the book, he was one of Ender’s primary antagonists and a consummate bully. In the movie, he’s one of Ender’s closest allies. This change accomplishes precisely nothing. The filmmakers would have done far better to cut Bernard out of the picture entirely.
Then we have Petra, played by Hailee Steinfeld. I get the strong impression that the filmmakers were under a lot of studio pressure to turn Petra into a love interest, though the filmmakers evidently knew enough to resist as best they could. After all, the Battle School students are supposed to be consummate warriors. Though they can be loyal and compassionate to their teammates, there’s no room for love or sexual attraction in the minds of children who only know how to destroy.
The end result is that Petra isn’t really established as a strong love interest, but she’s given far too much screen time to be just another of Ender’s lieutenants. It’s just sort of a wishy-washy compromise that doesn’t accomplish much except give her an unfair amount of development over Alai, Bean, and Dink (all of whom were equally as important to Ender in the book). As for Steinfeld, I’ll grant that she’s clearly doing her best, but she’s stuck playing Petra in a role that the character was never designed to play.
With all of that out of the way, I’d like to steadily transition to what the film got right. First of all, we must address the Games in Battle School and the simulations in Command School. The former might best be described as full-contact laser tag matches in zero gravity. In the latter, Ender commands whole fleets of warships in combat against Formic ships. These fight sequences are spectacular to watch, though they do suffer somewhat in the process of adaptation.
I’ll put it to you this way: The Harry Potter movies — particularly the earlier ones — didn’t have Quidditch matches spread throughout them as the books did. Instead, each movie took all the most important moments of the Quidditch matches from the book and compressed them all into a single game. That’s basically what the Ender’s Game film does as well. Though I’m sure this approach saved on screen time and effects dollars — and the games all look incredible, I think that bears repeating — a lot of classic moments from the book nevertheless failed to make the cut. Perhaps more importantly, because we’re only shown the bare minimum of games, the film does a far worse job of expressing how hard Ender is being pushed. In the book, Ender and his crew were being put through one game after another with increasingly unfair conditions. That’s not as easy to express when the film only shows two or three games.
(Side note: I was rather amused to find that Digital Domain — the prominent visual effects company formerly owned by Michael Bay himself — got its own bumper introduction on this movie, right in between Summit Entertainment and OddLot Entertainment. That’s how vital the CGI is to this picture.)
Then we have the mind fantasy game, a kind of virtual reality game that’s partly formed in real-time by the user’s subconscious. It’s a tricky concept to describe, but the film does a decent job of it. Of course, quite a few of the game’s symbols and nuances were left in translation, but the most important parts are still here. The Giant’s Drink, for example, is more or less completely intact, and the game still does a superb job of setting up that ending. In fact, it may even do a better job than the book, since the film has a slightly modified version of the ending.
Now, before fans of the book start panicking, don’t worry. The moral nuances of the climax and the ending are all passionately depicted, and that twist at the climax remains 100 percent intact. In fact, the climax of the film was vastly improved by way of additional maneuvers and attacks. It makes the proceedings far more exciting while doing more to show off Ender’s tactical prowess. Remarkably done.
In fact, the film showed early on that it was generally very smart about adapting the text. Some rare and brief moments of useless voice-over aside, the film is exceptionally good at using dialogue between characters to build this intergalactic continuity without it coming off as useless exposition. Of course, it helps that the film takes place at a school, so the filmmakers have the excuse of teaching us along with Ender. Even so, the film is loaded with clever little moments that accelerate Ender’s ascension among his peers. My favorite example is a sequence between Ender and Sergeant Dap, in which Ender gets to earn a lot of respect with a subtle show of authority. That’s probably the only time when expanding Dap’s role worked in this movie’s favor.
Similarly, Ender proves himself quite well against Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), a team commander with a gigantic chip on his shoulder. Of course, it helps that Arias does a wonderful job of playing a sociopath with a crippling Napoleon complex. Plus, I remember seeing Arias in The Kings of Summer. This guy has a unique gift for playing batshit crazy, and it shows here.
Getting back to my earlier point, the scale is where this film truly excels. The movie does a stellar job of creating a world that feels lived-in and practical. The future tech on display is all fantastic, but it’s accessible to the audience and explained in a visually compelling way. Of course, it helps that the film doesn’t bog itself down with unnecessary exposition. For example, the film doesn’t bother to explain what an ansible is, because those details ultimately aren’t important. It just throws the word out there, leaving us to figure it out based on the context if we so choose.
Ultimately, weighing out the pros and cons, Ender’s Game earns a pass. A lot of the changes, omissions, and condensings might irk those who know and like the book, but I doubt they would weigh too heavily on those coming in fresh. The changes all make sense to a degree, and they often lead to a stronger film, which is really the goal of an adaptation. Granted, some of the omissions cause some slight damage to the film’s wonderful themes, yet all of the moral nuances are still here in some form or another, and that’s worth a lot. Of course, the spectacular visuals and clever action sequences are crucial factors as well.
The best I can say for the film adaptation is that it earns the right to exist. It may not be nearly as good as the book, but that was never a possibility. Still, if you want to experience the story without the risk of supporting its author, this is your way to go.