Source Material: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Set in Earth’s future, young Ender Wiggin is trained and groomed to become the leader of Earth’s military attack against the alien “Buggers.” Ender is put through a series of tests that include several intense battles in zero gravity rooms. Ender’s final test is to display his tactical genius in a simulation against the Buggers, but is it really just a game? Writer’s note: Ender’s Game has been published in several different editions with more covers than I can count. The picture above is the version of the cover of the Ender’s Game book that I read.
Ender’s Game is the only book I’ve read more than twice. It’s been my favorite book since the first time I read it in junior high.
The book is a perfect blend of sci-fi action, political philosophy, and coming-of-age tale. Ender Wiggin is the third child in his family. He’s unassuming and awkward, which makes his enrollment in the International Fleet’s (IF) Battle School all the more unlikely. Ender’s older brother, Peter, failed out of the program on account of his proclivity for violence, his sister failed for being too sympathetic. Ender’s goldilocks-like blend of personality traits, paired with his genius and tactical acumen actually make him the perfect candidate to lead an army against an invasion. We learn this early on through Ender’s actions and Hyrum Graff’s, the Colonel of IF who is studying Ender, conversations with another person watching Ender. These conversations serve as exposition and analysis.
I love Ender’s Game from the get-go. The technique of using Graff to give us insight into why we should buy into Ender is brilliant in that it’s really only set up for the actions and real character development that Card writes for Ender. Early in the book, Ender is attacked by Stilson, a bully, and wins by pinning the bully to the floor and kicking him in the chest repeatedly. When asked why Ender continued to kick Stilson even after he won, Ender offers one of my favorite lines of the book: “I wanted to win all the next [fights] too.” In a not-too-subtle reveal of character, Ender cries after realizing what he’d done.
This example is truly a microcosm for the book. It works, and stands the test of time because Ender is, at the same time, dominant and compassionate. He’s the type of hero young boys don’t often wish they could be. Bullied kids want to escape their torment and exact revenge. Ender is the perfect role model. He wins, but feels remorse and earns our respect along with his classmates.
Bullying is a heavy theme in the book, but Card deals with it in a way that several books about young heroes don’t. Ender is wise beyond his years, and not just according to his test scores.
The juxtaposition of a book where the greatest action pieces are focused on war and a book that employs a heavy consequences-of-war theme is unheard of in young adult fiction.
Speaking of action pieces, the strength of the book lays in the zero G battle scenes. Card describes them in a way that, despite the fierceness of the battles, readers can’t help but imagine themselves floating and dancing around the arena. I often dreamed of enlisting in battle school after reading the book for the first time.
Ender’s Game is widely considered a modern classic, and rightfully so.
How I’d Adapt It
The trouble with adapting Ender’s Game into a motion picture is that in the book Ender ages from 6 to 12. It would be nearly impossible to find a child actor who could successfully portray this change and growth. Adults can be made to look older or younger, but the physical differences in children aged 6 and 12 are massive. This creates a major problem, because to believe that Ender matures into the tactical genius he is when he takes his final test, we must see that he has gone through 6 years of training. A movie simply can’t do this, and to neglect the time would remove some of the innocence from Ender in the early chapters.
So let’s say I found a set of three brothers who look almost identical, are aged 6, 9 and 12, and can act.
I’d make sure to spend as much time as possible in the second act where we see Ender and his crew (“jeesh” is the term the book uses) rising up in the battle room game rankings. The title “Ender’s Game” has multiple meanings, but at the surface, this is the game to which is refers. The scenes would be perfect sci-fi eye candy, and heavy on special effects. This part of the movie would be fun to watch and exciting as opposed to great tension and theme in the second half.
In my movie, the main players in Ender’s jeesh would get significant screen time. Ender’s interactions with these other kids are almost as integral to Ender’s evolution as the games themselves. We need to believe that these warrior children would follow Ender into battle.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the depiction of Ender’s siblings, Peter and Valentine, and their time spent back on Earth. It seems reasonable to cut these scenes from the movie for time, but if I wanted to establish characters for sequels and a franchise, their inclusion is crucial. My Ender’s Game is starting to look like two movies…
In the second movie (or second half of a loooong movie) Ender would meet the legendary Mazer Rackham and start his Command School training. I’d focus on the exhaustion that Ender suffers at the hands of the adults using him for war. This second part is where the theme of the consequences of war and using children for war would hit hardest. The virtual war game scenes would be action packed, but the focus would be on Ender’s reaction to them rather than the action itself, all setting up for the finale which I won’t spoil here.
How They Adapted It: Ender’s Game by Gavin Hood
Ender’s Game directed by Gavin Hood sticks as close to the source material as you might imagine for an adaptation of a beloved classic.
Asa Butterfield is pretty good as Ender, but right away, the innocence I mentioned earlier is gone. We meet an Ender who is already at least 10 years old (and probably already 12.) We see that Ender is brilliant, like he is early in the book, but gone is the bright eyed wonder for the world around him, and when he defeats the bully in one of the early scenes we don’t cheer as much because Ender seems too calm and calculated. Butterfield is already a young man, and so is this celluloid Ender.
Harrison Ford as Hyrum Graff seems miscast, which sounds sacrilegious coming from a Star Wars fan, but Ford takes the role too seriously. In the book, Graff tells Ender that he is not the boy’s friend, yet we clearly see that one day he will be, and that he indeed intends to protect Ender. The movie shows us a Graff whose plans are perhaps more sinister. He rushes Ender along not simply to test Ender, but to ensure that his own agenda is fulfilled. Graff, by the end of the movie, seems almost villainous, where in the book he is really only the embodiment of a world army and its misguided aggression, despite his sincere care for Ender.
The rest of the kids in Ender’s jeesh range from serviceable to impressive. A personal favorite of mine from the books was Bean. We see a few nods to Bean’s intellect and military acumen, but as a fan of the Ender’s Shadow series, I would have liked to have seen more. Bean was played by newcomer Aramis Knight. I was impressed with what he accomplished with the little he had to do.
Severely underused was Abigail Breslin as Ender’s older sister Valentine. In fact, aside from a few bookend scenes we don’t see her at all. In the book, she is the personification of Ender’s compassionate side. We get spurts of that in the few scenes she and Ender have together, but overall we don’t get to see her influence throughout the rest of the movie. Same goes with Jax Pinchak as Ender’s brother Peter. The embodiment of the evil-side of Ender is seen only in a brief bullying scene early on.
All that said, the movie looked and felt fantastic. The zero-g battle scenes, albeit few in number, we’re as fun to watch as any action set piece this year. The battles during the movie’s climax were compelling and hauntingly emotional. I thought the tone of the entire movie was perfect. For a movie about kids, I appreciate that Hood was brave enough to never get cute. This seems to be a trend in young adult movies as of late, and I appreciate it.
The book is truly a cornucopia of themes, so it makes sense that the filmmakers would choose only a few on which to hone. For fans of the book, losing so many important themes can be a tough pill to swallow. I’ve read several lukewarm reviews of Ender’s Game. One might think, given my complaints, I’d be against the movie, but I really quite enjoyed it. Perhaps my love for the books allowed me to fill in some of the blanks for the movie’s sake. Maybe the negative reviews are a reaction to the incorrect assumption that Ender’s Game is a children’s movie. It’s not. I think those expectations hurt it. (This is a conversation for another time.)
I thought Ender’s Game was a fun movie. The special effects were dazzling, and the tone of the movie was spot-on accurate adaptation. Despite the movie’s shortcomings, we can come away with certainty that Asa Butterfield is a star in the making, and fans of the book can rest assured that Gavin Hood and co. gave Ender’s Game their best shot.
– Matt (The Obsessive Viewer)]