This post discusses the plot of both the novel Ender’s Game and the movie adaptation released today in extensive detail.
There’s a moment a third of the way through Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game when Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who’s been separated from his family and taken to a military academy where he’s been isolated from his peers, driven by gruff administrator Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), and abused by his commanders, finally gets to experience joy. In his school’s Battle Room, Ender takes the initiative in a competition between two teams, and flying through zero gravity, shooting down his opponents, smiles in pleasure at his own excellence. It’s a thrilling sequence, but it also gets at the fundamental weakness of Hood’s Ender’s Game. He’s captured the look and feel of space combat, while preserving very little of the complexity of the emotions in Card’s novel.
The basics are there: Ender lives a world that’s been radically reshaped by the invasion of Earth by an alien race called the Formics, an attack that humanity barely repelled. He’s the third child in his family, a rarity in a country where population control limits most families to two children, allowed to be born because his older brother and sister were so close to the formula for a perfect general–humanity’s response to the Formics relies on children who are trained to become soldiers and military commanders because “Raised on war games, their decisions are intuitive, decisive, fearless.” And throughout the course of the movie, Ender rises from Launchy (or trainee) to supreme commander of the human fleet, just as he does in Card’s novel. It’s the details and pacing of that trajectory that are significant, and significantly different.
It’s easy to grouse about the fine points of any adaptation if you take the rigid view that there’s no room for innovation in making the leap from the page to the screen. But many of the changes Hood made to Card’s novel sap the narrative of much of its moral power. The movie begins, as does the novel, with Ender’s fight with a classmate named Stilson. But the movie never makes clear that Ender killed the larger boy. Hood also cuts a fight between Ender and one of his fellow students, Bernard, on the way to Battle School, in which Ender breaks Bernard’s arm. Later, when he fights his old commander Bonzo (Moises Arias who, in an unfortunate bit of casting, is significantly shorter than Asa Butterfield, rendering him ridiculous rather than menacing), Ender kicks Bonzo, sending him flying across the room, where he lands at a bad angle and breaks his neck. Ender sees him undergoing surgery, but once again, the implication is that he lives rather than dies.
Ender may tell Valentine that he doesn’t just beat his opponents, “I destroy them.” But the movie takes away those moments of intent, when Ender shifts from self-defense to a determination to inflict as much violence on his attackers in as unnerving a manner as possible. And because it’s told almost entirely from Ender’s perspective, the movie doesn’t let us see the gap between what we know Ender has done to the boys he hurts, and what he understands that he’s done, a mismatch that provides a great deal of the tension of the novel, and is critical to Graff’s training plan.
The film also makes the decision, which is near-inexplicable given its relatively short running time (The Hunger Games was 28 minutes longer, with a much smaller scope) to almost entirely excise Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Peter has lines in only a single scene, the ugly game of Formics and astronauts he and Ender play after Ender returns home from his fight with Stilson. And while Peter threatens to kill Ender in that scene, the movie’s sense of his sociopathy and genius is limited to Ender’s fretting in letters home to Valentine that he’s acted or thought like Peter. Without a true sense of Peter’s cruelty and the scope of his ambitions–the geopolitical concerns of the novel are entirely absent from the movie–Ender’s diminished too, becoming a child who’s exceptionally good at a game, rather than an astonishingly rare military genius, with adult moral capacity and culpability. And without Peter’s decision to bring out Valentine’s skills as a manipulator, her interactions with Ender are merely that of a loving sister and brother, rather than an adult and deeply shaded moral drama.
Perhaps most deadly to the arc, in the film, Ender knows that he will be leading an invading mission, rather than believing he is training to fight defensive battles, as he does in the book. “If we have them boxed in, why go to war?” Ender asks Graff on his trip to command school. “The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars,” Graff explains. Perhaps Graff’s trying to invoke Ender’s old self-defense situations, but it certainly seems like Ender understands that the Formics are not on their way to Earth to try another invasion. And later, Ender asks his teacher at Command School, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), “They have not yet moved against us?” “No,” Mazer confirms for him bluntly. That Ender knows he’ll be commanding an invading force makes his agonized cry “I will bear the shame of this genocide forever!” (one of the clunkier bits of dialogue in a movie that’s captured very little of the slangy naturalism of the children’s conversations), once he’s told that what he thought was a simulation in which he destroyed the Formic planet was actually a real battle, a great deal less powerful. Would he not have struck such a decisive blow if he knew he was fighting the battles for real, given that he’d already gotten on board with leading an offensive campaign against the Formics?
Even Ender’s realization that the troops he sent into battle to be killed were real, a significant part of his stunned despair in the novel, is muted here by the regular use of drones in the Command School fights. Maybe Hood and company were simply riding out what appeared this summer to be a Hollywood-wide fascination with the use of drones. But given the constellation of other choices the film makes, the use of drones contributes to the diminution of Ender’s culpability.
The film has another significant problem, too, and one that would have been harder to avoid. A movie shooting schedule doesn’t allow for the child actors to age, compressing the action of the novel into a much shorter time period, and eliminating the sense of physical exhaustion and emotional strain that permeates the novel. Ender’s classmates, including Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), Bean (Aramis Knight) and Alai (Suraj Partha) are present, but the compressed timeframe and run time means that their friendships have almost no oxygen to breath in the shifts from peers, to teacher and students, to rivals, and finally to colleagues that’s present in the book. We also don’t get to see him grow as a strategist, and to see the broadening gap between his talents and those of his peers. And Ender discovers the Formic queen in the immediate aftermath of his destruction of her homeworld, a choice driven by the elimination of the colonization plot that also takes away the shifts in public opinion and the World War that rendered Ender an exile.
Hood tries very hard to generate sobriety and scope with dialogue that’s had lead weights attached at the heels, and the performance he generates from his actors, including the mercurial Ford, are uniformly strong. But these workarounds can’t avoid the end result: Hood’s still taken a story that was grand and terrible when it was the size of a fat paperback and made it look much smaller, even on a giant screen.