I loved Ender’s Game, the novel. I loved it some much that I also read Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, Ender’s Shadow, and Shadow of the Hegemon (Currently, there are an unbelievable 14 novels in the “Enderverse,” so I’m clearly not the biggest fan since I have only read six.) even though there were only fleeting moments of being interesting anywhere in any of those novels. So, I went into this film with some major trepidation, knowing how difficult it would be to adapt.
Why would it be difficult? Well, first of all, it’s a story about genius children—Ender goes to battle school at six and defeats the aliens at 12, and the other characters are never more than a few years older than he is. (The film does what it should to get around that problem, simply making the kids older and never mentioning it.) Second, it’s a very, very violent story, especially for one that is mostly about 6-12-year-old children. Third, it’s a very complex, multi-stage plot. Fourth and most important, the truth is that the heart of the story is what happens inside its main character, not the sci-fi gloss around it.
In spite of the interesting science fiction elements and the relatively intricate plot, Ender’s Game is, at heart, the story of how nerdy child Ender Wiggin is destroyed by those around him. The bullying and torment of his brother and seemingly everyone else turns him into a violent, revenge-driven young man who kills his way through battle and command school, a revenge fantasy that surely strikes a chord with a great many fans. Meanwhile, the adults around him push a driven genius of a child into giving up on their goals repeatedly, though his attempts to give up constantly end up in him emerging accidentally victorious.[i] It’s pretty deep psychology for a movie that also needs to establish the setting and basic plot of the novel. Along the way, there is a lot of fun to be had in Ender’s tactical genius that’s born of his willingness to use whatever is at his disposal regardless of what conventional wisdom says and the continuation of his seeking vengeance, but it’s really the destruction of this child that forms the heart of this story.
Gavin Hood’s response to this problem was to excise everything about Ender’s internal story and even everything about how and why he is such a tactical genius and instead present a much simpler story: A smart kid gets recruited by a futuristic military to save humanity from an alien menace. The military trains him into a great leader using some painful techniques.
The problem is that Hood’s story now has no apparent point. While there are clear political points being made at various times (Colonel Graff has become President George W. Bush, whose father had not yet even been elected when the novel was written.), the film doesn’t focus on them and indeed seems confused about what its own message in that area is. The ending suggests that what Hood wanted was for the point to be the value of life, but it’s difficult to square that interpretation with much of what precedes it. Without a central point, the film plays as a simple story of military training set in a futuristic environment. Even for making a film of the basic story, Hood fails by removing most things that are interesting—he reduces the military’s tactics in training Ender to just, “Keep him isolated so he has to figure things out for himself,” he gives numerous very obvious hints that the final battle with the Formics (which he thankfully avoids calling “Buggers” the way the novel does repeatedly) is coming far too soon for Ender to finish his training before it, he jumps through everything far too quickly for us to have any real feeling that we are going through Ender’s journey with him, and he tries to take the edge off of Ender’s violence.[ii] He even manages to mess up the ending, first by telegraphing that the final “simulation” is real (Which was an incredible, shocking discovery in the novel—truly one of the most dynamite dramatic moments I have ever read.) and then by including the final chapter’s material, material which was included in the novel only to set up the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.[iii]
Visually, Hood and cinematographer Donald McAlpine are really trapped with a difficult story that requires them to be at the mercy of special effects technology, and they actually manage to pull off the effects relatively successfully. However, when faced with moments that require little-to-no such technology, they fall flat, using CGI when it’s not needed and showing absolutely no visual imagination otherwise. It’s a shame, but they are able to handle technical hurdles and not artistic ones, leaving the film quite visually uninteresting.
Acting-wise, the film surprisingly turns out well. Asa Butterfield, fresh off of a strong performance leading Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA 2011), plays Ender with a depth and intelligence that does not appear in the script, showing us complex emotions and even some real subtlety. Even Harrison Ford shows some restraint and plays his role as Colonel Graff, a much larger character here than in the novel, well. Hailee Steinfeld also stands out as a very natural performance, even if it’s a simple role as Petra Arkanian.
Steve Jabslonsky’s score deserves a note for just how conventional it is. It’s so conventional that you could mentally fill in a score on your own beforehand and end up right on. It’s not really bad, but it’s still uninteresting.
Overall, this is a bad film. It’s well-acted and there are still hints of an interesting story here, but everything that made the novel interesting has been removed, leaving a dull husk. Adapting Ender’s Game is a nigh-impossible task, but Gavin Hood was not up to it.
[i] He beats the two armies by deciding that he has no way to actually win and so if he goes through the victory procedure that may technically count as a win and even if it doesn’t will definitely end an unfair game. The film undoes that entire plot point by having Dap claim that getting through the gate is the goal of the game. He beats the giant in the Mind Game by becoming frustrated enough that he just wants to avoid the game itself and so attacks the guy in charge of it. He destroys the alien homeworld because he decides that if he sends his strongest weapon at the planet at the center of everything, it will be over one way or the other. In each case, he’s giving up and ends up winning by accident.
[ii] Admittedly, it has been quite a few years since I last read the novel, but I’ve read it five times, so I believe I’m right that he kills Stilson at the beginning. I’m certain he also kills Bonzo Madrid, his carcass sitting on the ship that he and Graff take back to earth. Hood instead has him just beat up Stilson and put Madrid (rather accidentally) into a coma. Ender thus loses much of the violent edge the book gives him.
[iii] I should note that the material at the end does actually fit with the story of Ender’s Game if you see it, as I do, as being focused on Ender’s internal struggles. It’s Ender trying to pick up the pieces of his own shattered psyche, and being far more successful in doing so than anyone would guess after what’s been done to him throughout this novel. That doesn’t change the fact that, narratively, it was only in place in order to set up Card’s next novel, which he oddly insists is far more interesting.