“Ender’s Game” Fails to Reach the Stars

Movie studios have been talking about making an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s powerful science fiction novel Ender’s Game for decades. Now, new special effects technology and countless screenplay drafts have finally resulted in a movie. Was the wait worth it?

For the most part, yes. Ender’s Game is an adaptation that stays faithful to the source material while slightly falling short of the story’s full power. In the end, the film’s strengths are the novel’s strength. Those that have enjoyed the written form of the story will appreciate the film version.

For the uninitiated, Ender’s Game takes place in the future, 50 years after an invasion of bug-like aliens threatened to wipe humanity out in a conflict known as “The Formic War.” Now, Earth’s forces are on the offensive and seeking to prevent another invasion from ever happening again. In the midst of this, a young boy named Ender Wiggin is recruited to become a future leader of these intergalactic forces. He must compete with his fellow students to prove himself as a leader, all the while being manipulated by higher-ups who would take advantage of his natural gifts, no matter the toll it takes on Ender. Despite the large backdrop of the story, Ender’s Game is a much more intimate and narrowly-focused story. We follow Ender through many struggles as his genius intellect makes him the perfect candidate for military leadership, but will his abuse at the hands of military intelligentsia cause him to lose his humanity?

The story continually asks the audience to choose a side. Is Ender’s soul worth losing if it means humanity can be saved? Can love overcome our own violent natures? Do we govern our own fears or do they control us? The film adaptation includes these questions and, like the book, gives some pretty definitive answers by the end. But they are worth exploring and make the film better than if they were simply glossed over.

Asa Butterfield (Hugo) plays Ender and gives a multi-layered and tortured performance that shows off real acting talent. While the film’s story may lack certain deeper layers present in the novel, Butterfield’s performance consistently strengthens each scene he is in. Ender is not a simple or easily-relatable protagonist. His intellect and struggle to balance both his empathetic and brutal natures make him conflicted and tormented. He is more of a victim than a hero, with the audience having sympathy for him and hoping that he can overcome the countless challenges ahead of him. But he’s also not weak. Butterfield does good work balancing these many aspects and bringing us deeper into the emotional thrust of the story.

Director Gavin Hood does a fine job portraying the story in a strong and clean manner. Battles are dynamic and the visuals are strong, if not completely original. It’s not exactly a new vision of the future, but that’s not really the point of Ender’s Game. All in all, this is not a repeat of Hood’s previous film, the stupefying X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

There really are no weak performances in the movie, as both adult and child actors put in convincing work as their characters. However, some characters are pared down in favor on putting greater focus on Ender and a few other important people. Harrison Ford gives a strong performance as Colonel Graff, making the character feel lived in and real. However, he is hampered by a script that makes Graff feel rather one dimensional. Despite multiple scenes focusing solely on him and Viola Davis as Major Anderson, the character really only has one purpose, force Ender to become a leader at all costs. There isn’t much more to him and we have no real sympathy or greater understanding of Graff by the end.

Hailee Steinfeld as Petra, Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine, Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, and Aramis Knight as fan-favorite character Bean all bring their characters to life in convincing fashion. However, they are diminished in varying degrees, giving them less of a story arc and less personality as a whole.

While Ender’s Game is a strong story thanks to its characters and the way it examines the loss of innocence, much of its power comes from the twist at the end of the story. However, the information given throughout the film make this twist far easier to guess than the way it is presented in the book. The effect it has on Ender is still there, but the effect on the audience may be lessened. In this case, it is less like the rug being pulled out from under you and more like a sad confirmation of your suspicions.

While the film stays close to the novel and follows its story beats fairly closely, there are a few aspects that are left out that may have lessened the emotional heft. Ender’s older psychotic brother Peter is used as more of an idea than a real person. We understand that Ender is afraid he will have the same inner violence like his brother, but we don’t see who Peter really is. Without spoiling too much, the full truth behind Ender’s violent outbursts is not a part of the film either. This may be due to the filmmakers wanting  to lessen the story’s darkness, but this devastating revelation is an integral part of the story’s final act.

Also, the film plays fast and loose with the story’s end. The novel has a fourth act of sorts, moving past the conclusion of the story to see how the fallout affects the characters. For the most part, this is excluded, but the ending’s focus is kept intact. Fans of the book may be disappointed with this being left out, but its storytelling logistics make sense in the context of making a film.

The movie takes full advantage of current digital effects to showcase major aspects of the story that would have been impossible when Card wrote the book in 1985. The many different simulated battles in the training school’s zero gravity Battle Room are both convincing and thrilling. Additionally, Ender’s giant simulated space battles are in your face, big, and loud. It may not be exactly in the spirit of the novel, but it gives the third act of the film a grander scale.

When all is said and done, Ender’s Game gives long-time fans their wish of seeing a favorite story brought to life. For those who have never delved into Card’s works, it’s a chance to experience a powerful story for the first time.

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2 thoughts on ““Ender’s Game” Fails to Reach the Stars

  1. Good thoughts. I agree, and would give the film an overall B. While the acting and special effects were really quite good, I don't think this is necessarily an A+ stand-alone film.
    The Good: I think they did a great job delivering the story, considering its length. They managed to give us 320 pages in only 2 hours. They hit the major plot points. Asa Butterfield really brought Ender to life, as did Harrison Ford as Graff. The film did a great job of world-building; creating a believable futuristic world design. There were moments where the visuals were pretty awesome. I loved the moment in the last battle when Ender re-orients the screen, pointing all of his ships downwards toward the enemy planet. Very cool stuff.
    The Bad: I don't think that this was the smartest way to serve up the story. I think Ender’s Game suffers the same weaknesses that many book-to-movie translations do. It relies a lot on the richness of the book. Let’s face it – other than the visuals and acting, it's not a very rich movie. The plot is rushed, and rather linear. Not a lot happens in the film. Ender succeeds in battle school, then succeeds in command school. And he’s pretty much the same Ender, start-to-finish. Characterization is shallow, and the plot is rushed. I asked myself after I saw the film: would I like this movie if I hadn’t read the book? And my answer was: Er…Maybe?
    The Alternatives: Here’s what may make this story a better film, should it ever be re-made.
    1. Make it 2 films. Part 1: Battle School, and Part 2: Command School. The story has a nice split when Ender is taken from Battle school back to Earth and it would make sense to divide the story this way. This would let the film-maker build two story arcs: one as Ender manages to succeed in the Battle Room, and another as Ender overcomes his inner demons and mistrust of authority to succeed in the war against the Buggers.
    2. Include a lot more of Ender's Shadow, portraying more of the story through Bean's eyes. Bean is a much more compelling hero than Ender is. Ender is mostly a victim, and he doesn’t have much growth as a character. Bean, on the other hand, experiences a great deal of growth, and is much more in control of his fate. In addition, Bean’s view of Ender changes throughout their relationship. So even though Ender doesn’t actually experience much growth, you could still give him a character arc as Bean’s view of his commander shifts throughout the film.
    3. Reveal the ‘big twist’ to the audience. It gives a bigger emotional pay-off, and creates more suspense. This would require a more active Bean character, however, because it is Bean who figures out 'the big twist'; he knows full well what is going on in the final battle, and what it will do to Ender. I think it would have been much more interesting to let the audience in on the fact that Ender was being manipulated. It ups the emotional stakes for the audience, because they would be painfully aware, along with Bean, that Ender was being conned, and that every ship that fell took with it a real human life. Much more powerful than a weak “gotcha” that we got in this movie.

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  2. Good points, Breanne! I agree, the acting and effects were easily the strongest points. The story really went from point A to point B to point C. It's hard to build up emotional resonance when it's so straightforward.

    I like your alternatives. This might have been actually a good time to split a book into two movies, but the trend makes me wary, there's so many lately!

    Interestingly, I read that there was a draft of the script years ago that had lots of Ender's Shadow stuff, but it was cut out to focus solely on Ender. If Bean had been put in, it would have added more dimensions to the story. I felt that the twist was weak, but I couldn't be quite sure since I read the book and knew what was coming all along. Dramatic irony would have probably been more emotionally resonant.

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