Ender's Game is the quintessential classic military sci-fi book. It ranks near the top of virtually every list of good sci-fi novels. When Hollywood decided to finally go forward with a movie adaptation, the initial reaction from most fans was one of skepticism. (After all, we saw what they did to I, Robot.) But there was reason to hope, as well, because Ender's Game is more action-friendly than many sci-fi stories, and the filmmakers had a big budget with which to make it. The movie was finally released last week; read on for our review. In short: the film tries too hard to straddle the line between assuming viewers are familiar with the details and bringing new viewers up to speed. The cuts to the story were both too much and not enough. It left us with only brief glimpses at too many characters, and introduced themes without fleshing them out enough to be interesting.
Note: in the lead-up to this film's release, a boycott was organized in response to Orson Scott Card's efforts as an anti-gay-marriage activist. If you find your desire to see one of your favorite stories clashing with a desire not to support Card's political views, an organization called the Equality Initiative has offered an alternative. They suggest going to see the movie, if you want, and then simply donating the ticket price to any of several related charities.
First, let's get the obvious out of the way: they cut a lot from the novel. Really, quite a lot. As a book, Ender's Game is not terribly long, and it's a very quick read. That makes it sound ideal for a movie interpretation at first blush. But part of the reason it's such a quick read is that it's dense with plot, character development, and internal narratives. The movie is dense as well, but mostly with events. What makes the book great is not so much what the characters do, but why they do it and how. So while the movie conveys the majority of what happened in the book, it fails to convey the reasons behind the facts. I don't know that they could have done any better within a two-hour time limit, but it leaves us with a question: is this film for people who have read the book, or for people who haven't?
Since the book has been out since 1985, I'm going to assume most of you are familiar with the story. I won't reveal the major plot twists, but minor and intermediate spoilers may follow. If you aren't familiar with it, then here's the bottom line: go read the book! It's good.
Right from the beginning we see how deep the cuts go. Central to Ender's time at home is the whirlwind of conflicting emotions running through him about his monitor, his family, and his status as a Third. The film rushes through these, hitting each only briefly enough to show the viewer that there exists something deeper. Ender mentions being a Third, but doesn't explain what a Third is, or why it's a point of shame and embarrassment. They introduce Peter, but fail to show that their relationship is more complex than your typical sibling rivalry. In the book, Peter is brilliant, sadistic, intuitive, and a hell of an actor when adults are around. In the movie, he's just a jerk for a few seconds before Ender rockets off toward the plot.
Even Ender's early fight with Stilson loses much of its impact. In the book, it really isn't much of a fight; Ender immediately has Stilson at his mercy. The point of the scene was to show Ender's deliberate use of brutality and intimidation to secure safety from the larger group of enemies. He's reluctant, but not hesitant. In the movie, this is distilled down to a command for Stilson to "stay down" before the fight has concluded and a shaky warning to the others.
So, even just 10 minutes into the film, we see the film is not taking the time to illustrate these characters to a new audience. That trend continues: most of the minor characters are cardboard cutouts of their literary counterparts. Bean is somehow in the same initial launch group as Ender, and simply serves as an ally. Peter and Valentine just serve as occasional spurs for Ender's development. (Yes, that means the entire secondary plot was scrapped. I'm not too sad about that; there's no way they could have given it enough time to do it justice. And it was always the least believable thing, for me, in a novel about space battles and insectoid aliens.) Alai makes mention of peace, but he doesn't have a role as a peacemaker. The contrast between his connection with Ender and the constant violence surrounding them is lost. Petra has more interaction with Ender than most, but it has some bizarre romantic overtones.
Well, then, what about the scenery? If the movie is for fans of the book, it should at least be awesome to see expensive CGI of the scenes we imagined in our heads when reading it, right? And it is.. sometimes. The space battle sequences are impressive, and seeing the students fly around in zero-g was neat. But it was also jarring, at times. Take the Battleroom at the school, for example. In my head, it was an approximation of space, with a dark background interrupted only by the simple "stars" and the gates. In the movie, there's an awful lot going on, visually. The walls are windows dominated by a view of Earth. Everything's polished and shiny. The light pistols shoot bright, Star-Wars-like laser bolts that flash dramatically when they hit something. All the ships in the battlefleet look fancy and brand new, instead of hastily constructed and out of date. Ender's interface in command school is far more graphical and pretty than is sensible. It's cool to see, and I suspect viewers who are unfamiliar with the book won't think twice about it. But it's clear that this interpretation is not straining to be as faithful to the book as possible, which is mildly disappointing.
The movie's acting was decent. There won't be any Oscar nominations, but they didn't have a whole lot to work with. As I mentioned earlier, most characters had their subtleties stripped away. Asa Butterfield does a respectable job with Ender, using glances and body language to supplement some of the situations where the story was simplified from an internal narrative. The casting director definitely made the right decision going with kids in their early teens rather than the much-younger ages from the book. Harrison Ford played Graff well enough, but it'd be more accurate to say he played Harrison Ford. If you tend to like his characters, you'll enjoy the role. If not, you might like Viola Davis, who played a surprisingly good Major Anderson. Those two characters were tweaked a bit in order to separate out their conflicting emotions about training Ender, and they pull it off. Ben Kingsley does a fine job in his abbreviated role as Ender's adversarial mentor.
A few other random notes:
- They gave up the biggest plot twist ahead of time; there were at least two obvious references to what was going to happen. Ender is kept in the dark, but the audience is not, which is too bad for new viewers.
- The fantasy game was represented pretty well. Like most other plot elements, it was stripped down to its essentials, but I was surprised by how well they integrated it into the story. I was expecting it to be cut altogether.
- Due to the trimming and simplifying of the story, the movie's dialogue was largely original. It mostly paraphrased the book. However, they occasionally threw in direct quotes from some of the more stylized lines. It happened infrequently enough that it broke immersion.
It's inevitable that a successful book won't fit within the confines of a movie script. We knew this going in. Nevertheless, some adaptations have succeeded by being as faithful as possible to the ideas behind the book. Ender's Game doesn't manage this. Other adaptations have been successful by reimagining the work for a new medium, thus drawing in new fans. Ender's Game doesn't quite manage this, either. It straddles the line, and in doing so, leaves us with a sequence of events that seems entirely arbitrary, when it should instead seem inevitable. If you're thrilled about the possibility of seeing expensive CGI for one of your favorite stories, go see it. Otherwise, give it a pass.