The movie Ender’s Game, written and directed by Gavin Hood, is two completely different movies – depending on whether you have or have not read the book by Orson Scott Card on which it is based. Unfortunately, neither of these movies is as good as it could be.
In case you have never read the book, Ender’s Game is an action sci-fi story about a boy hero who is sent to military school to fight battles against an alien enemy. It has some spectacular visual scenes, such as the zero-gravity “battle room” where the children train in mock skirmishes against each other, the “mind game” which is essentially an immersive video game that Ender controls with his thoughts, and the scenes of battles in space.
Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley played their roles as well as they were able, and deserve to be praised for their performances. However, thanks to the script and the pacing of the movie, they came across as shallow and stereotyped. Their emotional struggles are never truly explored, and as a result they seem flat.
We are told about Ender’s struggle with his own killer instinct in a few lines here and there, but we never feel that struggle or see it played out effectively on screen. At one point he threatens to quit battle school, but we never quite connect with the frustration and burnout that the character tells us that he feels.
Even in the final triumphant scene of the movie, when he makes a discovery that is supposed to give him emotional whiplash, transforming his rebellious pride into enormous guilt, we never quite connect with the way that he is feeling. How could we, when we never had a chance to explore his emotional development up to that point?
The book, by contrast, is a story of emotional struggle disguised as a story about war. It is primarily about a boy coming to terms with his own inner “killer”, and the way he is manipulated by the adults around him. It is a story about the complex relationship between empathy, love and destruction, set against a background of wartime politics.
Because the movie script cuts out this material, the story is transformed into a zero-G action, wartime adventure with special effects. That makes it little more than a decent sci-fi war movie.
My recommendation for people who have not read the book: read the book. And then come back here. From this point on, this review is primarily for fans of the book, and so contains spoilers and details that only fans of the book will care about.
Fans will appreciate that the basic sequence of events is respected in the movie, especially at the beginning, although scenes and timelines become highly compressed toward the end. Many of the key lines from favourite characters are there, especially in the first few scenes.
Some casting choices will seem a little bit off to those who have come to know and love the characters through the novel: isn’t Peter Wiggen supposed to have dark hair? Isn’t Bonzo supposed to be taller than Ender? But none of these discrepancies is critical to the plot.
Bean appears in Ender’s launch class, which is jarring until you realise the movie simply doesn’t have time to go through the many years of training, and multiple launch classes, described in the book. In the interest of time, many of the key battles in the battle room are either conflated or left out. Ender’s membership in Rat Army is skipped over entirely.
The entire political storyline concerning Valentine and Peter Wiggen back on Earth has been excised, partially simply in the interest of time, but also probably because the politics could make the story seem dated. The book was written during the Cold War, after all, and much of the political storyline reflects that fact.
Another sacrifice made to the movie gods was the fight scenes. Ender’s fights with both Stilson and Bonzo are shown, but neither is as graphic as described in the book. In the novel, both of Ender’s opponents die during the fight. In the fight with Bonzo, Bonzo is grabbing Ender from behind, and Ender lunges upward and back, using the back of his head to drive Bonzo’s nose back into his skull.
Bonzo is dead on the spot, with blood coming out of his eyes. These scenes would almost certainly have earned the movie an R rating – a 15 certificate in the UK – if they were faithfully portrayed.
All of these edits could be forgivable, in the interest of making a reasonable-length box-office film. Unfortunately this means that almost all of the emotional complexity and detailed evolution of Ender’s character, not to mention the political struggles and commentary about wartime power structures, are left out entirely.
As a fan of the book, you can love this movie for its special effects. You can be treated to spectacular visualisations of the mind game and the zero-gravity battle room. You can “fill in the gaps” from your memory of the details in the book, and by combining those details with the visual effects of the movie you can create a generally good experience of the Ender’s Game story.
Those who have not read the book before seeing the movie, however, are not so fortunate.