The construct known as the Battle Room in Ender’s Game is a lot like the film itself. It’s got lots of elements that–when the viewer understands the action taking place–seems totally instinctive, but when the viewer may be an uninitiated member of the Enderverse, can seem awkward and at times, incoherent. Ender’s Game is a film adaptation of a novel of the same title, written in 1985 by Nebula Award-Winner Orson Scott Card. For decades, Card’s novel has been hailed as an outstanding piece of children’s literature, enjoyed by young and old alike, and spanning an entire series of excellent sequels and parallel novels, novellas, and short stories set in the same universe. According to an interview with Card by Wired, this film is the sixth attempt to put Ender’s Game on the big screen, and the only one that came to fruition.
Fifty years ago, the Formics (also known as “buggers” in the books) attacked Earth, looking to colonize our planet. We fought them off at the cost of millions of lives under the leadership of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), but we always knew they would return. The International Fleet (IF) instituted a program where the best and brightest children were sent to a special Battle School in orbit around Earth to train and become Earth’s next great commander against the Formics. Ender’s Game is the story of a young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who is thought to be just the commander Earth needs by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford).
It’s always tough to review a film of which you’re such an ardent fan of the book series it’s based on, and Ender’s Game is no exception. Additionally, it’s also unfair to judge the film solely based on its faithfulness to the book because, while the book is a sci-fi classic released 28 years ago, it’s still incredibly likely that audiences may not be familiar with the work at all. A film based on the book needs to be able to stand by itself.
That said, I had a few issues with the film itself. My first big qualm is the pacing. For such a short book (~350 pages, depending on your version, and even fewer when you discover that the film entirely cuts out the Peter/Valentine subplot, which I won’t discuss here–read the book!), the film moves way too fast, glossing over points that are important, and bringing up important pieces of backstory that easily could leave the uninitiated with a feeling of confusion. A great example of this is the fact that Ender is a Third. Families on earth are only allowed to have two children, and so it’s a big deal that the IF allows the Wiggin family to have a third child. This isn’t really touched on, other than in a flippant comment made by Ender himself. Throwing out multiple terms used in this world and then not defining them is a surefire way for audiences to begin with some confusion. In addition to bringing up terms related to the series and not explaining them, Ender’s Game allows itself to really just blow past every scene in the film. The entire film is a study in the sense of urgency felt by Colonel Graff and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), but this opportunity to create tension in the plot, the film feels like it’s in a race to the finish to get each scene over with as quickly as possible, with some relationships between Ender and his friends feeling glossed-over and robotic, all in the service of getting it over with. Lastly, I had a real problem with Butterfield’s acting in a handful of scenes. Ender is frequently frustrated in the film, and when getting worked up, Butterfield has a tendency to stop acting with any inflection or emotion in his voice and simply say his line. A handful of other characters are guilty of this, but it’s most glaringly evident in the main character. Despite that flaw in a couple shots, the vast majority of the film’s cast delivered believable performances, notably Harrison Ford as Graff, a man for whom the ends will always justify the means. He comes frequently at odds with Major Anderson on how much pressure to put on Ender, and the two of them have an obvious screen chemistry. Their arguments are a joy to watch.
As I said above, it’s unfair to knock a movie for doing things differently than in the book. That being said, there’s a few minor points in the novel that were overlooked in the film, and I feel that they warrant some attention. First off comes a technique that Ender used in the Battle Room. He has his army fold their knees up to their chest and freeze their own legs, using their lower body as a shield from which to fire between their legs with, and presenting a smaller target to the enemy. This is a critical part of the book, because it–coupled with a battle against two armies and the strategy used there–helped to foreshadow tactics used later in the film. It’s also a great example of how Ender uses the odds he faces to his advantage and creating unconventional ways to win. Secondly, Major Anderson is a man in the book. I don’t have a huge qualm with this for the simple fact that Viola Davis did a fantastic job as Anderson. Anderson is in charge of the Game at the Battle School, and also a child psychologist. Davis brings to the role a stronger sense of compassion than was portrayed in the novel, often arguing that Graff needs to give the kid a break. Finally, the setting of the film’s climax was just flat-out incorrect. There were characters not present that should have been, and the aforementioned Valentine/Peter subplot comes to a close at this time, as well. It’s a touching moment in the book, and I think the movie really missed an opportunity to show Ender’s more compassionate side.
Ender’s Game has some breathtaking visuals and a strong cast to back it up. Aside from a handful of hiccups in plot and acting, it’s a worthy film and the first of what will hopefully be several forays into the Enderverse of Orson Scott Card’s award-winning series. No book-based film ever lives up in comparison to its source material, however Ender’s Game has always been described by the author as a really challenging book to bring to the big screen because much of the driving force behind the plot happens within Ender’s mind. Orson Scott Card was happy with the way this film dealt with that challenge, and so was I.