I picked up Ender’s Game when I was about 13 years old in a special only-$3.99 paperback edition on a weekend bookstore trip with my dad, who could only agree to buy me low-priced paperback editions. I devoured it probably overnight, and then quickly devoured the rest of the books in the series too. No one can really tell you why certain books are so special, especially in childhood, but I think a major component for me was that Ender was a young child, but a brilliant one who thought like a full-on real human being – instead of being dumbed down to irrelevance like 99% of children – and his ideas and actions really mattered. A lot.
Author Orson Scott Card has been floating around the idea of a movie version since at least back then. The project at that time would star Jake Lloyd, who was 9 and had just played Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I. In the early days of the internet Orson released a full screenplay he had written that began with Mazer Rackham’s battle in the asteroid belt in full space-opera fashion.
At the time I thought an Ender’s Game movie was a terrible idea. So much of the book just couldn’t work on-screen: the machinations of Ender’s brain, the image of little kids floating around in space as serious war, the relationships between Ender and Valentine and Peter. I was thankful it didn’t happen.
Now, at twice the age I was then and having read (hopefully) twice as many books and watched twice as many movies, I was glad it was finally going down. I understand now that movies don’t have to be transliterations of their source, but should be translations: a new form that will work best in movie form. I reread the book last week in preparation, and this time my only major rubric was that they “not completely cock it up.” As long as they didn’t completely cock it up, I felt any movie version would be welcome. So: did they succeed?
It’s always stuck with me what Orson says at the end of his introduction to Ender’s Game: that the writer and the reader always create a story together. This is echoed out loud in the novel itself, when Ender plays the Mind Game, and then thematically when Ender becomes the author, of Hive Queen & the Hegemon. A written story is special because you and the writer make the story together. A movie isn’t like that.
Because a movie isn’t going to be a private, special conversation where you’ll know and understand things other people don’t know and understand, it will always feel more… normalized. A few socially risky ideas have to be pruned along the way, including a few unsavory childhood deaths and two kids taking over the world with their internet writings – and the Ender’s Game movie wisely shears these. And because of having seen these things on-screen before, other things like classroom bullying and mock battles in spacesuits leave the realm of the unique and intimate and join a recognizable tradition. Necessarily, Ender’s Game the movie becomes a story a lot more like other stories than Ender’s Game the book was.
The aspect I felt lacking most going from novel to movie was the level of fear and torture that Ender endures. A lot of this is due to time constraints and third-person perspective. When I read the novel, I know how alone Ender is and how real the danger to him as a child is because of the violent things that are allowed to happen to him. By the end of the novel, I have felt the years of psychological beating that he has taken. In the 2-hour, streamlined movie, his development feels like a standard plot arc instead. It was always going to be that way – I’m just pointing it out.
The Battle Room is done right. It’s probably mostly the way you imagined it, and works well for its purpose. The Battle Simulator is equally well-done. The Mind Game is happily present and the best you could hope for in a feature film. Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford work competently as Ender and Graff. The rest of the characters, as you’d expect, are somewhat short-shrifted but everyone plays their part admirably. Orson mentioned in an interview within this month’s Wired that he wanted to make Bean central to the whole story and was overruled by director Gavin Hood. Than you, Gavin. It’s better this way. The battles are exciting. The dialogue is tight. The complex and critical themes are present. They didn’t cock it up.
You won’t go wrong watching Ender’s Game, whether you’re a lover of the book or just a moviegoer new to the story. There’s nothing wrong with this movie. For a major feature-length film, it is the best we could have hoped for. No complaints.
Still. I can’t help but look forward to the 6-hour miniseries maybe someday years into the future: the one that will be able to give everything Ender goes through growing up its due, show us the dozens of battles Dragon Army wins in a unique way, let us feel Ender’s weariness over time, explore Ender and Valentine more deeply, and take us with him after the aliens through the League War and the real, caerful discovery of the precious cargo at the end. Maybe if it’s enough decades from now, I’ll be able to beg my way onto production. I’ll keep you guys posted.