Movie Review: Like the Enemy’s Gate, Ender’s Game is DOWN

A Review of Ender’s Game, directed by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game

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. 

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardThe 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.

Ender's Shadow mike careyNote: 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.

ENDER'S GAME

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9 Comments

  1. Nicely said! I enjoyed the movie, but that was largely due to the fact that I was mentally filling in all of the character development they left out. I thought they really needed another hour’s worth of time to tell the story on screen; Ender didn’t have a chance to grow up, or be gradually broken down, as he was in the book. That said — Asa Butterfield did a great job with a difficult role. (But it drove me nuts that Bean was in his launch group.)

    • Thanks, Cassie! Yes, I was mentally filling in character development too, I think. Ah, well . . .

  2. Margalit

     /  November 8, 2013

    I agree that this is a tremendous disappointment, although not surprising. Thanks for the helpful review: I think instead of seeing the movie, I’ll reread the book!

  3. Porkchop

     /  November 6, 2013

    I was disappointed too. I agree that the interiority of the characters is a tremendous challenge in a film adaptation, but I think the biggest problem is that in a GOOD book, the relationship between the medium and the audience is already perfect, so any major change runs a big risk of asking the audience to imagine too much or too little.

    I thought this movie focused too much on the challenge and expense of rendering zero g action and Ender’s video game sequences (which were good), and not enough on pacing or on set ups and payoffs. For example, you could shorten the back story to a title sequence montage, as long as you include Ender with Val and Peter, and then open the first act with Graff setting Ender up as a target on the transport ship (which has a payoff later on when Ender sets up Bean as a target in the battle room). I actually thought this movie looked like it had a 2.5 hour cut out there somewhere (not that that would have made it a good movie).

    In the book, the pace accelerates a lot in the Battle School. The number of pages devoted to Ender’s command of Dragon Army is small. They should have used the same pace in the movie, with montages or something (although this would have made the whole thing tremendously expensive), instead of speeding the action by just having less happen. They also could have had the story take place over a number of years, because Asa Butterfield and Hailey Steinfeld are amazing, and can no doubt act older and younger than their real age.

    • Yeah, I totally agree that they could’ve done the first bit on Earth through the credits.
      I found the collapse of having Bean be a launchie with Ender to be the stupidest one, because it flattened out all of the growth that Ender has from being the picked on one to being the commander. And, like you say, in the book he finds himself repeating what he was taught, but since they cut that part out of the movie, there was no reason to include Graff singling him out in the launch. And that was a mistake the film made over and over: they’d cut one half of something, but leave the other half in, even though it had no function without it’s other half. The Battle School years show over and over that Ender has no one to depend on but himself (every commander treats him badly; Petra ends up mad at him and won’t talk to him anymore, etc.), and that shows us all the *other* characters personalities as well. All of that’s gone, reduced to Harrison Ford telling us in one line, but never showing it again, so by the time they get to Command School, I don’t care about any of the characters at all.
      My real reaction, coming out of the movie, was: “if you take away everything about the characters, what’s the point of even making the movie?”
      Ah, well.

  4. weheartya

     /  November 6, 2013

    Disappointing, but not entirely surprising, we suppose. Glad to hear your thoughts on it, as you’re obviously very invested in the story and characters.

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