Coming to a firm and conclusive opinion on the Hollywood adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic science fiction novel is an elusive and challenging prospect. Helmed by Gavin Hood, Ender’s Game presents a dilemma often found in judging film versions of literature. As a film alone, Ender’s Game is a worthy and satisfactory entry into modern day science fiction. But when judged on how well the film conveys the written story it falls short, afraid to step out and take the artistic risks required to surmount the challenges that the source material presents.
Before addressing the movie for those who wonder how faithfully it adapts the beloved book, I will first examine the film for the vast majority of you, those who simply wonder “is the movie any good?” The answer is easily yes. Ender’s Game is a thrilling, exciting and engrossing science fiction film that is certainly more impactful than your average blockbuster. One of the greatest strengths of the film is its phenomenal cast. Asa Butterfield is appropriately chilling as Ender Wiggin, but also sympathetic, his performance straddling the fine divide between the child and adult worlds. Hailee Steinfield is perfectly cast as Ender’s friend Petra, her tenderness and kindness balanced wonderfully with confidence and ability. Harrison Ford, though, steals the show as the hardened Colonel Graff: hard, complex and morally challenging. This does not even touch on the other great performances by a cast including the likes of Ben Kingsley and Abigail Breslin.
Effects-wise and conceptually, Ender’s Game is a resounding success. The battle school is rendered magnificently, instilling the sense of wonder and excitement, tinged with fear and discomfort, that the children at the heart of the story feel. The cinematography is another strong point, drawing the audience in, continually dwarfing Ender, bringing attention to how small yet vital he is in the larger tale. Story-wise, the film contains a strong and thought-provoking commentary on the ethics and morality of war. Even if the original story loses some of its power in the transition to the screen, as we shall see below, it still remains a timely and thoughtful story to tell. As a motion picture, particularly one friendly to a younger audience, Ender’s Game will excite fans of the science fiction genre and general movie goers.
But Ender’s Game is not simply a film, it is an adaptation of one of the most revered science fiction literary works of all time, and thus it can be held to a different literary standard as well as evaluated from a purely cinematic standpoint. Unfortunately the film, for the sake of appealing to a broad younger audience base, cuts out much of the darker and bleaker elements of the story, thus deadening the overall impact of the story and muting some of the deeper meaning. Without going into too much detail (to protect those who may not have read the book yet), the pacing is the most glaring flaw. One of the book’s best characteristics was how much time was spent unfolding and exploring Ender as a character. The film, afraid to lose audience’s attention-spans by venturing over the two hour threshold, hurries through key scenes and plot points. One glaring omission is made all the more frustrating by the film’s embracing of a line/principle that is derived from a battle school scene that is absent: “the enemy’s gate is down”. The brilliance of Card’s novel is how it, through delving into the intricacies of Ender’s life for extended periods of time, immerses the reader into the emotional and psychological state of Ender himself. When the film shortens and cuts that out, much of that effect is lost.
Ender’s Game also suffers from its own attempt to perhaps soften the story for a young adult audience. The issue is that the story itself was never intended specifically for a child audience. Rather, it was a story about children, not necessarily for children. When the filmmakers decided to push the younger target audience, it seems they also decided to lessen the severity of the darkest parts of the story, providing Ender with clearer triumphs and sympathy along the way to temper the oppressive bleakness of his journey. Though understandable, this move undercuts one of the central themes of the book: Ender’s utter loneliness and isolation. When this loneliness is tempered by hope inserted where it did not originally belong, the poignancy of Ender’s psychological suffering as a child is lessened, and the audience is cheated of the full power of Ender’s statement that “when I truly understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, in that moment I think I also love him.”
Ender’s Game, then, will either satisfy or disappoint you depending on what you are looking for. If you desire a well-acted, conceptually sound and thought-provoking science fiction film, Ender’s Game is certainly worth your time and money. If, however, you are among those longing for a truly faithful rendition of Card’s story as written, you may be better served by simply re-reading the book. It is a shame the filmmakers were not willing to take a true risk in today’s cinematic world and give the film the extra half hour to forty-five minutes it needed to fully flesh out this moving story. Either way, I would wager this adaptation will inspire many filmgoers young and old alike to pick up and read this classic work for themselves, and in that sense, the film can truly be judged a success.