I read Orson Scott Card’s science fiction masterpiece Ender’s Game for the first time when I was ten. When the main character Ender Wiggin was ten, he led the most successful army in the history of his “battle school” and then graduated early to become the commander of humanity’s forces in a war against an alien race. By the time Ender was twelve, he’d singlehandedly won the war and become a global icon considered the savior of the human race. As I write this, I’m twenty-two and I’ve never even had a paying job.
For a large chunk of my childhood, I considered Ender’s Game my favorite book—a preference definitely not unique among my peers. And so recently, upon the release of the long awaited film version of Ender’s Game, I decided to read the book for a second time. After twelve years, I could hardly remember anything about it other than the fact that I loved it. I was excited to remind myself why. As soon as I began reading I could tell that my fond memories were going to be justified, and I didn’t put the book down until I was done. Looking at the story from an adult perspective, it is easy to see why my childhood self felt such a close connection with Ender’s Game.
In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Card muses, “fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourselves.” Reading about a character my own age made imagining myself in his shoes easier, and more exciting. My personal connection to Ender was made even stronger because, like him, I am a third child, living in the shadow of two incredibly talented—at least in my estimation—older siblings. I suspect that any kid who reads Ender’s Game wishes they could be chosen to attend Battle School, in the same way kids dream of getting an acceptance letter to Hogwarts on their eleventh birthday. After all, who wants to be a run-of-the-mill student when you can imagine yourself as a prodigy?
In rereading Ender’s Game however I discovered that you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it. Sure this book may be about children, but children in Card’s universe differ from adults only in stature; their thoughts feel just as real, and their emotions just as relatable and complex. I would not say, after rereading Ender’s Game, that it is suddenly my favorite book again. But I will say it was still a deeply moving and highly entertaining experience.
The day after I finished reading, I headed to the movie theater. My expectations were not quite as high as they were for the reread, but I was excited. While many people are immediately biased against film adaptations, as a “buff” I generally reject the notion that it is impossible for a film to be as good as the book. I’ve always thought that any moviegoer, regardless of their relationship with an adaptation’s source material or the vision they have formed of the story through its original medium, should respect the filmmaker as a creator in his or her own right; that our opinion of the film should be based not on its strict fidelity to the book but on its own artistic merit.
Rereading Ender immediately before seeing the movie made sticking to my principles more difficult than usual. It was impossible to fully lose myself in the world of the film with a voice in the back of my head acting like a devilish fact-checker. I was hyperaware of which portions of the plot were cut or consolidated, and which characters had their roles diminished, enlarged, or completely altered.
But despite my inability to disassociate what I had just read from what I was now watching, I still found myself enjoying the show. I did miss certain aspects of the book (like Ender’s more gradual climb up the Battle School rankings, the Demosthenes and Locke storyline), but the film nonetheless felt very true to the story. I agreed with almost all of the choices writer-director Gavin Hood made. There is a consistent logic to the film that pays homage to its literary predecessor, while staying focused on the intentions of the film as its own entity.
There are some things the film actually manages to do better than the book. The battle room and the war simulation room, each vividly described in the novel yet still difficult to visualize exactly, come alive in Hood’s filmic interpretation.The fighting in the battle room is like laser tag on steroids, with bodies flying around in zero gravity, bouncing off obstacles and performing intricate maneuvers in tightly choreographed sequences. The simulation room in which Ender fights the war is also visually stunning, as the image completely envelops Ender and fills the screen in a way that makes the viewer feel engulfed by the action. In one of the best shots in the film, Ender reorients the gravity in the room; with a push of his hands the screen tilts down ninety degrees, forcing the audience to relate to the film space in a whole new way. The special effects in these sections, and in the film overall, are fantastic. But as we are reminded so often in our modern blockbuster culture, all the special effects in existence can’t redeem a film with bad acting or an underdeveloped story.
Finding someone suitable to fill an iconic role like Ender’s can make or break a film, and the casting of Asa Butterfield was an inspired choice. Butterfield plays a very convincing Ender (inhabiting a role I once coveted for myself): I could empathize with him, root for him, and believe in him, especially his ability to overcome every obstacle placed in his path. In the battle room, Butterfield exudes just the right amount of charisma and poise in conveying Ender’s strategic wizardry. In war, he manipulates his forces like a seasoned orchestra conductor.
Butterfield’s Ender is not the only memorable performance in the film. Petra Arkanian, the supporting character whose role the screenplay enhances most, is played by the young actress Hailee Steinfeld, who handles the responsibility of playing Petra with maturity and confidence. And very few actors could play Mazer Rackham—an eccentric war savant with a face tattoo and indistinguishable accent—quite as persuasively as Ben Kingsley.
Harrison Ford on the other hand—a legend of the sci-fi and adventure genres—is surprisingly stiff as Colonel Graff. And Connor Carrol’s performance as Bernard also leaves much to be desired. In the film, Bernard’s transformation from one of Ender’s worst enemies in school to one of his closest friends and most trusted platoon leaders feels uncomfortably forced. It seems wrong to pick on a child actor, but Carrol’s screen presence is consistently awkward. To me he stuck out like a sore thumb.
Where some of the acting may fall short, the screenplay comes through. Hood latches on to the emotional core of the book’s storyline and trims only where it makes the most sense. As drone warfare becomes increasingly prominent, the story of Ender’s Game has become even more topical today than when the book was published in 1985. But as Card intended, and Hood corroborates, the story of a child grappling with the tensions between love and hate, right and wrong, good and evil, “us” and “them,” would truly be topical at any time in history. Ender’s defining trait becomes the driving force behind the film: compassion. And while Card is apparently not the most tolerant person in real life, the lessons his story teaches in compassion, in feeling empathy for others, carry a powerful ethical charge.
In the book, Ender explains his immense skill, and its distressing, paradoxical nature, by telling Valentine, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them . . . I destroy them.” Valentine’s role is greatly reduced in the film—necessarily so—but this speech smartly transfers from page to screen almost word for word. Parts of the speech are actually repeated multiple times, in a somewhat heavy-handed reminder of its importance. But its insistent inclusion in the film helps to amplify and clarify Ender’s complicated relationship with his “enemy,” his brother, and (most importantly) himself.
Admittedly, my issues with Hood’s Ender’s Game are nitpicky. On the whole, I appreciate the film more than most critics do, mainly for its sophisticated special effects, strong screenplay, and high entertainment value. If, like me, you loved Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game back in the day and want to reacquaint yourself with it, but perhaps don’t have time to reread the book, then this movie is a great substitute. If, unlike me, you hated Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game back in the day, then first, what is wrong with you? And second, maybe the film will change your mind. Finally, if completely unlike me, you’ve never read the book and are simply in the mood to see some good science fiction, then I recommend Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game as a very appealing movie in its own right.
Will Pinke is a Senior in the English Department.