A Review of Ender’s Game, directed by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card
by REBECCA, November 6, 2013
WARNING: this review contains spoilers for Ender’s Game but does not give away the end.
Ever since I heard Ender’s Game was getting the Hollywood treatment, I’ve vacillated between thinking “no way can such an interior novel make a good movie” and thinking, “it’s a pretty straightforward book to adapt.” Turns out I was right on both counts. Ender’s Game has its compelling moments: the battle scenes are cool, as is the tech, and Asa Butterfield has a face well-suited to expressing Ender’s constant calculation. But, as a whole, it fell very, very flat.
The biggest problem I had with it is that I fundamentally disagree with what writer/director Gavin Hood’s version sees as the heart of the story. For me, Ender’s time at Battle School is where all the most interesting character development and world revelation occur. The time period when Ender’s in Battle School takes up just under 2/3 of Card’s novel, and it encompasses Ender’s four-year journey all the way from being a launchie and learning the battle room, through several different armies, to leading his own army and competing against the whole school. In short, it’s where we learn that Ender is anything special.
In Hood’s version, though, Ender’s time at Battle School is an abbreviated stop along the way to Command School. This means several things:
1. Ender and the rest of the kids stay the same age throughout, because the timeline is scrunched, so we get no sense that Ender is growing up in this new world or learning anything.
2. Ender is the greatest military mind the world has ever known. Or so Harrison Ford keeps telling me. But, because we don’t see his growth, or that there is any difference between Ender’s strategy and those of the other kids in Battle School, we have to take his word for it. The most difficult element to communicate in any adaptation from novel to film is the interiority of characters, and this is doubly true in the case of Ender’s Game because Hood takes away all of Ender’s decisions and strategizing in Battle School that would have communicated that interiority to us.
3. Since we never see that Ender starts as a launchie with no skills and goes on to win battle after impossible battle with never before seen modes of fighting, we aren’t rooting for him. When he finally gets to Command School, I don’t even feel like I know him well enough to care about his success. Which meant I was caring about the success of his strategy in his final exam . . . which is one of many ways (the POSTER being another) in which I think the film both gives away and undercuts the drama of its own ending.
Note: when you leave the film yearning for more Battle School, check out the two graphic novels that treat the Battle School years, Ender’s Game Volume 1: Battle School, which is from Ender’s POV, and Ender’s Shadow: Battle School, which is from Bean’s POV (following Card’s primary and shadow series).
I am always willing to see a film adaptation as its own piece, which is usually all that allows me to avoid a knee-jerk (and unflattering) comparison to the book. In the case of Ender’s Game, however, the fact that I adore the book is the only thing that gave the movie any life for me at all, as my poor brain was automatically scribbling in bits from the book to round the movie out.
The bottom line, however, is that as a standalone film, Ender’s Game has nothing to differentiate it from any of the other kids + war games films out there. The extraordinary psychological character-building that Card’s novel achieves is completely flattened into a film with a main character whose only distinctions seem to be emotional maturity and good hand-eye coordination. Asa Butterfield isn’t miscast as Ender, certainly, but the way the role is written leaves him nothing to do but sweat and cry with blue-eyed conviction.
What frustrates me so much about Hood’s excision of much of Ender’s character development through the write-out of most of Battle School is that there was plenty of room for it. Ender’s Game already clocked in under two hours and contained at least twenty minutes of fat that could’ve been trimmed. That leaves (by my taste for 2 1/2 hour movies) nearly an hour that could’ve been added back into the film. It’s rare that my complaints about an adaptation are so easily traced back to what I see to be a simple flaw in structure, but for me, you cut most of Battle School, you lose the heart of the whole story, which means the end also falls flat.
Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books; usually, if a film adaptation of a book I love flops, then I’m pissed because its images sneak into my vision of the story. I’m happy to say that this won’t be a problem with Ender’s Game—there was so little to it that I don’t think it’ll stick at all. Now all that’s left is to donate $8.25 to my favorite pro-equality charity in order to offset any pennies sneaking into producer Card’s pockets, and forget the whole thing ever happened. Which won’t be hard. Yup, there, it’s gone.