“Ender’s Game” Review
Ender’s Game is an unfilmable novel as it stands. Firstly it follows a six year old boy genius as he is warped into a military leader by unethical teachers. Secondly the novel takes place as much in the eponymous Ender’s head as it does outside of it. None of this exactly screams ‘cinematic’. Well…it does include several zero-gravity simulated battles of child warfare – maybe we can make this work.
Ender’s Game was published as a novel in 1985 (previously it had been a short story). In the book author Orson Scot Card meditates on children soldiers, fear of the unknown, the pain of isolation, and the use of empathy as a weapon. Like most classic science fiction Ender’s Game is less interested in the action of space battles than it is interested in their consequences and what it takes to be a military genius without hubris, or what it takes to give up love and family for a perceived greater good. Unlike most YA novels published today, Ender’s Game does not read like it is tailor made for the screen. It has moments of intensity and action, but they are brief (albeit memorable) and are outweighed by Card’s sparse but contemplative prose. Whereas books like The Hunger Games and Divergent read like screenplay treatments (they’re written in the present tense for crying out loud) Ender’s Game reads like a damn book.
We’ve reached the point in the article where I reveal what I’m getting at.
Ender’s Game the movie is a totally ok, good, decent sci-fi flick if you understand that it operates with a loose grasp on the novel’s intent.
Writer-director Gavin Hood has an interesting career to date. His film Tsotsi was awarded the Oscar for best foreign film in 2005. He then followed up with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Which – well I’ll let you make the call on that one. Suffice to say he seemed an odd choice for Ender’s Game.
If Ender’s Game does anything well it is the design and execution of the world that it purports to take place in. Its displays of futuristic technology never feel indulgent, but instead casual. Characters don’t marvel at what is commonplace in their world, they don’t blink at the propaganda videos or wonder how the zero-g battle room works. Things just are, which lends the world a tangible, fleshed out feel.
If the film does another thing right it is the fact that it pulls a surprisingly engaged performance out of Harrison Ford as Colonel Hyrum Graff. Seriously, he is vibrant throughout. Never does he phone it in. It’s almost like he gave a damn.
Asa Butterfield plays the boy genius, and he mostly does a good job. He physically fits the shape of Ender, as he is scrawny and looks uncomfortable in his frame. However it is his mentality that is more important to properly portray Ender. Without access to his internal thoughts he has a difficult task of selling us on the idea that he’s brilliant. I can’t say I was ever totally convinced, but neither was I ever distracted by his performance.
Film adaptations of novels need not be point for point retellings. In fact they almost never should be. By narrative law what may function on the page is not guaranteed to function on the screen. I almost want to say that I would prefer it if filmmakers were brave enough to deviate from the source material in an effort to tell the story in a better and more cinematic way. Being beholden to source material can be a shackle as much as a jumping off point. But in order to do this properly one must first completely understand the story at hand.
Inside and out. Total comprehension.
The second a film deviates from the intent of its source material it undercuts its effectiveness as narrative.
Gavin Hood’s grip on Ender’s Game is good enough to get by, but not tight enough for me to accept it as a worthy companion to the novel.
Perhaps it is the studio’s need for CGI space battles, but the film never quite gets to Ender’s heart. It flirts with its underlying complex themes, but these moments breeze by as we’re brought to the next expository conversation or simulated space battle.
In perhaps the novel’s most potent section Ender is given furlough on Earth and allowed to see his sister Valentine again. Valentine is the only person Ender truly loved and misses while he is at battle school. As they drift on a raft they discuss Ender’s fear, that he is turning into Peter, their sadistic and cruel elder brother. The conversation is tragic and beautiful all at once. Valentine struggles to come to terms with a brother she doesn’t recognize and to reconcile her love for someone who is being transformed into a killer. In the film this scene felt like it only existed as an obligatory tribute to the novel. Hood treats the sequence as Col. Graff does, as an inconvenience, a distraction, a necessary step in getting Ender back into space. The whole point of Card’s story exists in this one sequence and the film blows it off. No good.
However there are still several instances where Hood demonstrates comprehension of Card’s intent. In these moments the film sings, but they’re infrequent and they are not enough to balance out the missteps. Ender’s Game is a mixed bag. Solid design at odds with an average script born of a loose understanding of the source material. By the end it works just fine, but it could have been so much more.