Late yesterday, we finally got our first look at the long-awaited movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s novel about the child soldiers trained to fight in a war against alien invaders. The movie looks visually impressive, and there’s no denying the appeal of its cast, which includes Asa Butterfield as potential military genius Ender Wiggin, Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff, the administrator of the Battle School in which Ender is enrolled, Haileen Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian, one of Ender’s classmates, Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson, one of Graff’s colleagues, Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine, and Ben Kingsley as Ender’s teacher Mazer Rackham. But the trailer also leaves out five key elements of Card’s novel — and the decision to exclude them in favor of action sequences gives a sense of what kind of movie Summit Entertainment wants us to think Ender’s Game will be:
1. Peter Wiggin: Ender’s sadistic older brother, Peter was the first of three attempts to breed a perfect general from the Wiggin family. Because Peter was too aggressive, and Valentine too empathetic, Ender’s family was allowed to have him as a third child in defiance of the United States’ population laws. Peter viciously bullied Ender while the two of them were growing up, and after went to Battle School, enlisted Valentine in a scheme to gain political power through an early form of blogging. He’s a painful illustration of the price of greatness, and one of the key people through whom Ender’s Game explores international politics in the wake of alien attacks.
2. The Fantasy Game: We see the children in Battle School playing with powerful simulations on computers, but we don’t get a glimpse of one of the novel’s most interesting devices: a video game that’s personally tailored to each student’s experience, and that Battle School uses to monitor their mental health.
3. Alai and Bean: Two of Ender’s best friends at Battle School are Alai, a talented Muslim student, and Bean, a younger boy who comes under Ender’s command as he rises through the ranks of students. Alai, who begins as Ender’s equal, is a reminder of how the drive for excellence can alienate even your closest friends. And Bean is an illustration of how to bring out the excellence in someone else.
4. Bernard: And just as we’re missing Ender’s friends, the trailer doesn’t show us Ender’s greatest human enemy at Battle School, a French student named Bernard. There’s no question that the advertising for Ender’s Game has to outline the main conflict between humans and the Buggers, the pejorative name for the alien invaders. But it’s losing a lot of Card’s point if the movie forgets that the conflicts between humans are just as important as space opera.
5. The Net: Much of Ender’s Game is set at Battle School, but the story back on Earth, where Peter and Valentine become powerful political commentators on the Net, Card’s version of the Internet, is equally important. The Cold War between the United States and its allies and the countries aligned under the Warsaw Pact has an enormous influence on Battle School’s commanders and the way they push Ender and pace his training. And Peter and Valentine’s very different feelings about the influence they accrue offers an important contrast to Ender’s command of his troops far away in space.
Now, I assume most of these elements will appear in the finished film that we’re going to get in November. Peter, Alai, Bean, and Bernard all are in the cast list. Major Anderson is the character who oversees the Fantasy Game. But given that much of the power of Ender’s Game comes from the fact that the war on the Buggers takes a surprising turn, and the question of whether humanity wins or loses it becomes much less important than issues of psychology and ethics. I understand why Summit feels more confident selling audiences who aren’t familiar with Card’s work on a major space war than on a meditation on empathy. But I hope that the film itself stays true to the best, most penetrating aspects of Card’s work, and the trailers are as much of a bait and switch as the one Ender’s subjected to throughout the novel.