Ender’s Game is a prime example of why I never read the book before watching the film adaptation.
I have many friends who do, and I’ve never understood the appeal. Being an aspiring screenwriter, it’s always seemed like setting oneself up for disappointment. The film can never encapsulate the entire novel with the natural limitations of production, run-time and audience attention spans. And it always seemed downright arduous to spend 90-120 minutes nitpitcking an otherwise decent standalone film.
After reading Ender’s Game for the first time, I later spent approximately 114 minutes in the local movie theater doing precisely that just a couple weeks after the film’s less-than-stellar release.
With an all-star cast featuring Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and title star Asa Butterfield, one’s expectations might be fairly high for the adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. After all, half of the cast has been up for Academy Awards at some point in their careers (including 16-year-old Steinfeld), and the book earned Orson Scott Card several awards and critical acclaim after its initial release in 1985. Since then, Ender’s Game has been a staple of children’s literature and top science fiction reading lists.
But, again, there are so many limitations that go into even above-average film adaptations. And while everyone involved likely meant well, they probably should have heeded Card’s warning that the story was “unfilmable.”
An example of a similarly ill-advised adaptation attempt was the Wachowski siblings’ take on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with their own star-studded cast. That particular independently-financed project cost a reported $102 million to produce, and just barely broke even with $130 million, thanks to international box office revenue. It was a colossal flop in the United States.
Ender’s Game is not quite in the same category as Cloud Atlas, as far as box office failure is concerned. But it’s blockbuster budget hasn’t yet been reconciled by moviegoers, either. Still, having earned $27 million in its opening weekend, Ender’s Game has a shot at pulling its own weight at Summit Entertainment.
A Bit of Background
For those unfamiliar with Ender’s Game, the ultra-futuristic story follows Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a brilliant, young outcast, from the age of six to 13, and later into adulthood. Born as a “Third” in a society where childbearing restrictions are heavily enforced, he must prove his worth by also being the third in his family to try testing into the International Fleet (I.F.), an elite organization formed by global powers in the fight against the alien Formic race — or “buggers,” as they’re derogatorily referred to in the novel.
It becomes clear, from the way Ender thinks and speaks, that he’s not your average six-year-old. In fact, his siblings aren’t your average kids, either. Valentine, the middle child, is sweet, observant and far too sympathetic for Battle School. Peter, the eldest, is vicious, calculating, and ultimately too heartless. Both washed out of initial I.F. testing. But something’s a bit too advanced, a bit too adult about these Wiggin kids. And that’s exactly what made them all perfect candidates for the intergalactic army that will fend off the next bugger attack.
As far as Ender and the rest of the world knows, the enemy Formic soldiers were only first destroyed decades ago by a mysterious, yet heroic, Hail Mary attempt by the famous war veteran Mazer Rackham. Though the intimate details of how Rackham beat the Formics are unclear, the I.F. and all world leaders hope for a repeat performance by the next great genius.
That genius is, naturally, Ender Wiggin. Or at least they hope he will be.
From Book to Script to Screen
The producers seemed to go to great lengths to make Card’s quietly introspective and brutal children’s story more palatable and digestible for mainstream film audiences. (Here’s where all aspiring producers go, “Duh.”) The film downplayed the abject violence that was illustrated in the novel, and barely skimmed the surface of Ender’s innate ability to enter a darker realm, despite his compassion and fears.
It’s Ender’s tactical skills under pressure, his ability to see the whole picture, that eventually lead I.F. Colonel Graff (played by Ford) and Major Anderson (Davis) to his doorstep. In a twist of fate, contrary to the Wiggins’ beliefs, Ender isn’t being passed up for the I.F.’s Battle School after all. They want him, and they want him now.
Except Graff and Anderson aren’t nearly as coldly aloof and borderline laissez-faire about their blatant misuse of a six-year-old boy in the film like they are in the novel. Instead, Ender (Butterfield) is aged to at least 12 years old from the beginning of the film, and Graff and Anderson are portrayed as far more reluctant, more humane… It takes away the complicated three dimensions of Graff that were developed in the novel, while simultaneously providing Anderson with more heart and spine.
Either way, as film-goers we’re clearly not meant to dislike Graff and Anderson as much as it seemed we were meant to dislike them in the book. Ah, the concessions that come with making a four-quadrant movie. Unfortunately, it looks like a few more concessions were made along the way, too.
Ender’s Truncated Quest
In the book, we follow Ender through several years of his childhood, where he encounters intense loneliness, left only to his silent, penetrating intellect and observations of the world around him. As Card said in his initial denouncement of the screenplay adaptation, “everything takes place in [Ender’s] head.” As readers, we’re merely along for the sad, isolated ride. For it’s through Ender’s isolation, Graff asserts, that the young boy will meet his true potential.
The problem with the film (“Duh” #2), is that the trials of these years had to be condensed into 45 minutes. Ender didn’t really have to prove his greatness to his peers or to his puppeteers in the film. In the novel, Ender had to scratch and claw for every bit of respect and friendship he earned, all while being undermined and exploited by adults who claimed to care for him, but whose loyalties ultimately remained with the preservation of humankind.
On screen, those trials and tribulations weren’t nearly as developed as in the book. In fact, they were woefully underdeveloped, even with the understanding of basic filmmaking limitations. A montage of Ender’s practices in the zero gravity battle room and his team’s competitions would have established his insanely high rankings and performance opposite established students, cementing his place as a leader among his peers.
It would’ve explained why his nemesis, Bonzo, hated him so so much, as it justified in the book. And, most importantly, it would have explained why the I.F. was jonesing so badly for Ender’s soul.
It’s understandable that very real production limitations might have prevented more scenes in the battle room, particularly since the special effects were so well-done. (The film cost $110 million for a reason.) But the development of Ender’s skills, as a fighter and as a leader, needed more material in the movie. If anything should have been preserved from the original work, that aspect of Ender’s character should’ve been.
Another aspect of Ender’s character that played into one of the book’s themes was his dark side. In the book, at six, he takes on a bully and puts him in the hospital. (The logic of doing so earns him a spot at Battle School.) At 11 or so, he takes on an older, more vicious bully, and the young man is allegedly sent home, health status unknown. There’s a level of ambiguity surrounding these boys’ injuries that seems to stem from the film’s unwillingness to take the plunge that the book ultimately did. But, honestly, you can’t blame the producers for skirting the issue.
NOVEL SPOILER ALERT: Ender later finds out that he didn’t simply injure both boys; he killed them. He finished them.
Throughout the novel and, to a lesser extent, the film, Ender’s greatest fear is that he will become his older brother Peter, a murderous monster. The ability to kill efficiently and effectively courses through Ender’s veins, but he fights it with the compassion of his older sister Valentine and the fear of a truly innocent and decent boy. As observant as he is about the world around him, he’s equally introspective. Ender knows his limitations and weaknesses, but he also knows his strengths.
It’s impossible for any movie to properly delve into the depths of this tortured boy’s mind, and unfortunately, the film barely reached beyond a very superficial level when it came to Ender’s darkness. It should also be noted that the traits Ender had in the novel, characteristics that make him a likeable film character, are his strength, integrity and selflessness. Seeing both sides of that coin in the novel helped make Ender’s heroic nature that much more admirable.
The Evolution of Ender’s Squad
In the novel, Ender comes across many different characters, both friends and foes. It’s not surprising that Ender’s pint-sized foil Bean was introduced right from the beginning of the film. Bean was a pivotal player in both the film and book, though he came into the original picture after Ender had become jaded. Ender and Bean later form a bond in the novel that’s instantly established in the film.
In addition to Bean, the film kept sharpshooter/token girl Petra (Steinfeld), loyal Alai and Dink, Ender’s aforementioned nemesis Bonzo, and, of all characters, beta-bully Bernard, who goes through a very Disney Channel-esque transformation into a trusted ally toward the end of the movie. There’s also a bit of blink-and-you-miss-it puppy love between Ender and Petra as they practiced in the battle room, a dynamic that wasn’t quite played up in the book. Thankfully, that wasn’t developed further in the movie, either.
The secondary characters are the ones we follow from Ender’s admission to the school to his graduation to Command School. In the novel, they are initially distant and eventually loyal, whereas Ender earns their loyalty in the film with relative ease. Again, everything in the story is accelerated in the film, so the complexities of his relationships, particularly with Alai and Dink, are pretty much lost in the adaptation.
Sibling Un-Rivalry and Going to Fairyland
It’s no surprise that the entire Peter/Valentine political shenanigans subplot was dropped. While, as a reader, one could see how that may play into later installments of the Ender Quartet, there was simply no room for it in the film. No question about that.
Though it’s really fun to note that, just as Card predicted the creation of the tablet with his characters’ portable “desks” (so cool), Card also did a spectacular job predicting the pervasive power of the Internet, and the social interactivity of message boards (and, now, social media), including how political and societal constructs could be shaped on a broad scale by the persistent, calculated voices of a faceless few.
The impressive nature of Card’s take on the future from his vantage point in 1985 would likely be lost on film audiences today. It’s one reason why this film may have performed better and resonated deeper with audiences had it been produced in the late 1990s, before the very literal hyper-speed advancement of technology and communication as we now know them — and before the concept of war in the minds of contemporary audiences was forever shifted.
While I wasn’t surprised that Valentine and Peter took a total backseat in the film, I was very surprised that Ender’s “Fairyland/End of the World” video game remained intact. Though the film is clearly geared towards teens and young adults, Ender’s video game, as illustrated in the book, was beyond trippy. Bizarre and a bit of a mind-f*ck don’t even begin to describe it.
Yet everything in it was clearly symbolic, from the ravenous wolf-children, to the snake, and the mirror that reflected Peter’s image back at Ender. I’m inclined to believe that the giant and two cups of poison likely had some deeper meaning, too. And most of that nightmarish game, including an added bonus of the eerie Formic Queen, were shown in the film. A bold move, since viewers who hadn’t read the book were probably lost.
Novel vs. Film: Veering Off Course
Naturally, the video game did not merely serve as Ender’s haunting, convicting vehicle for introspection in the film. Really, the video game was primarily used to explain the filmmakers’ decision to stray from the book’s ending in key ways, by planting the seed that Ender was always mentally and spiritually attached to the Formic race, even before he graduated from Battle School to Command School.
That’s where the film took a turn. To be fair, I found the intended shocker in the novel to feel strangely anticlimactic. It was not surprising at all that the same jerks who’d been messing with Ender all this time continued to mess with him until they got what they wanted: victory and the complete destruction of their enemies. After all of Ender’s suffering, that he unknowingly annihilated the Formic race in his so-called Graduation Test made complete and utter sense.
In the film, there were far more clues given that this test, this “game,” was indeed the real deal leading up to the final battle. However, one thing the film did well was strike a chord of true shock and devastation in Ender and his classmates as they realized the truth behind their actions. They were never playing a game. They killed real, living creatures and their own fellow humans for the sake of their race’s survival. Worse still, there was no indication that the Formics were ever going to attack again. They were decimated from their home planet without provocation. For the first time in the film, Ender and his friends were absolutely, unquestionably, betrayed.
Again, perhaps this concept is lost on today’s audiences. In the age of Grand Theft Auto 5, Halo and a number of other popular urban and military warfare games, don’t most young people regularly “kill” other beings without any reason or logic? (This is not an argument that video games breed violent behavior, merely ambivalence and desensitization, as perhaps Card suggests in his book.)
“I will bear the shame of this genocide forever,” Ender declared in the movie — a line that cut to the heart of Ender’s destiny. He then said, “The way we win matters.” Both were powerful lines, well-delivered by Butterfield, that didn’t originate from the book, and hit so very close to what I believe is the overall theme of Card’s story: What makes us human, and how far must we go, how much must we destroy, in the name of our own survival?
Ender’s Ending and Beginning
In the film, after Ender’s last stand with Graff and all of I.F.’s military leaders, Ender didn’t simply fade away into the obscurity reserved for famed war heroes. Unlike the novel, he didn’t go the way of Mazer Rackham, his final teacher/manipulator. Ender also never spoke for the dead by quietly publishing work under a pseudonym that would subversively question mankind’s involvement in the Formics’ demise. Box office performance aside, this seemed to close the door on any other film adaptations of Card’s series.
Instead, Ender discovered his destiny mere moments after his falling out with Graff & Co. Rather than the Formics connecting to Ender’s mind through the “ansible” device, as was established in the novel, it’s suggested that Ender was inexplicably connected to the surviving, well-meaning, Formic hive queen all along.
Was it intergalactic clairvoyance? A form of collective unconscious that would have even Carl Jung scratching his head? That part is a bit unclear.
Nevertheless, Ender’s secret, empathic connection to the Formic race was maintained in the film, with all of the spiritual ambiguity that was initiated in the book.
The novel concluded in a way where, especially knowing there are three sequels, you absolutely want more of Ender’s adventures. However, the film wrapped up Ender’s storyline so that his quest for peace and, ultimately, forgiveness was satisfactory.
Ender had been through enough, and had long since earned his right to “fly away and live forever.”