Before I begin, let me touch on this: I won’t be discussing author Orson Scott Card or his odious and hateful opinions. Suffice it to say I disagree with them wholeheartedly. I can recognize and accept that for many, divorcing the art from the artist is impossible and, if you choose to disregard this movie because of Card, I have no problem with you. Ultimately, it is up to each person to decide whether or not to give this movie a chance. No right or wrong position — beyond Card’s. On with the review…
Adapting beloved novels can be a difficult task at the best of times. But adapting a novel that has been in development hell for decades and that has been dubbed unfilmable on multiple occasions has to be a daunting undertaking. Look at Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s works — even when it comes off as well as that does, it also brings in lots of detractors and complaints. You won’t please everyone because every fan of the novel has built in his head the perfect cast and seen the perfect movie, thanks to the novel itself.
The adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s seminal young adult sci-fi novel by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition) does a good job of taking what is a beloved novel and keeping the core of what attracted so many to it while removing interesting side plots that don’t feature the lead character. If I can be honest, I never bought the whole “Peter vs Valentine as neo-demagogues rising to power” story in the book. So to see it absent here did not hurt me one bit. You may disagree and I can respect that. But this is Ender’s Game and, in it, the story revolves around Ender.
In the future, humanity is invaded by a strange alien race that looks like insects dubbed “the Formics.” Humanity was able to beat them back thanks to the sacrifice of a great hero, Mazer Rackham, but the devastation wrought was incredible. Knowing that the Formics may one day return, humanity set aside its differences, pooled its resources and created the Interstellar Fleet. Trying to avoid the mistakes of the past, the IF has decided that it will groom its leaders of the future from youth. Here’s where we find Andrew Wiggin, better known as “Ender” (Asa Butterfield, Hugo). A brilliant boy who struggles with his brilliance, Ender is quickly identified by Colonel Hiram Graff (Harrison Ford) as a potential leader for the IF’s response to the Formic threat. Graff takes it upon himself to ensure Ender becomes the leader humanity needs him to be. Can Ender rise up and embrace his talents without losing a part of himself? Can he deal with all the pressure and loneliness that will follow him for walking down his path to potential greatness?
The movie does a good job in detailing the loneliness brought on by Ender’s complex nature as well as the pressure put upon him by Graff. A lot of that falls on the performance by Butterfield who manages to capture the various facets of Ender’s situation. He’s a shy kid who empathizes with those around him while also being able to coolly and calmly assess how to neutralize them. Let’s just say you don’t want to be bullying Ender Wiggin. It doesn’t end well. He seeks friends even as he grows to realize that his talents will mean he will be alone and Butterfield captures how Ender can be affable and open with his Battle School classmates. It’s a difficult turn to make — make the audience empathize with him while also keeping him distant.
Besides Butterfield, Ford strips of all of his charm and bravado to become the gruff, hard-driving Colonel Graff. There’s none of the traditional Ford twinkle in this performance. Graff is a stone-cold bastard who is charged with ensuring that one of the kids in Battle School rises up to lead humanity and he singles out Ender as that potential savior. To ensure he’s right, he allows Ender to suffer at the hands of classmates, he isolates him and he challenges him to rise through it all. He fights with Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, The Help, Doubt) who is worried for the mental and emotional well-being of Ender. In Graff’s world, it doesn’t matter if Ender is broken by the process as long as he delivers when it matters.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, doesn’t do much but fill their stock roles. There’s the friends Ender makes — Petra (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit), Alai (Suraj Partha, TV’s Glee), Bean (Aramis Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) and Ender’s sister, Val (Abigail Breslin, Zombieland). There’s the kids who bully and torment Ender — Bonzo (Moises Arias, Nacho Libre), Stilson (Caleb Thaggard) and Ender’s brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak, Let Me In). And there’s the adults who are tasked with training the kids or seeing to their well-being — Sgt. Dap (Nonso Anozie, TV’s Game of Thrones) and Adm. Rackham (Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3). They all fill their roles well, but, if I’m honest, they’re background to Ender and Col. Graff’s show. As I said before, a lot of the secondary storylines are excised to create a more streamlined and straightforward movie.
Hood is in far better form here than he was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Whether that’s because he’s matured or because he’s working with better material, I can’t tell. He brings a talented crew behind him that includes editors Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) and Zach Staenberg (The Matrix Trilogy), cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!), composer Steve Jablonsky (Transformers) and art director A. Todd Holland (Minority Report). Hood also uses SFX company Digital Domain to create all the CGI digital effects — in an interesting twist, Digital Domain is one of the partner companies producing the movie. The result of all this talent is a movie that pops off the screen and is shiny and clean.
The movie touches upon a lot of the central themes of the novel: the price of turning affable young men and women into warriors to defend and protect us; the noble loneliness that those tasked with greatness have to walk, the cost of victory. But it does so very briskly. Perhaps it’s because it cuts down a lot of the events that take place at Battle School — the bulk of the novel — and limits it to a few scenes and a few of the battles between the various “armies.” Fans of the novel will feel short-shrifted by this decision, but I think the movie does it in order to avoid dragging the story. We know Ender will rise up to be the great military leader humanity needs. But is a movie that deals with such heady topics a bit too laissez-faire with it all?
And yet, perhaps the more difficult thing to admit is that, while it is a well-done movie, it doesn’t stay with you for long. It’s efficient and it’s pretty to look at, but it lacks the punch that the novel has when those revelations hit you. Perhaps it’s a negative side effect of being such an influential work. By now, it’s been disseminated and refined in other works and other projects — everything from The Matrix to The Hunger Games displays some sort of influence derived from Ender’s Game. Even so, it’s difficult to look at this movie and not think that it might have had a greater impact had it come out 20 years ago or so. The movie hits the high points of the novel, but it’s not the novel.
Looking at it from a distance, Ender’s Game is a very good adaptation of a great novel. The central character is portrayed well and the struggles he goes through are at the core of the story It’s central question of “Is it worth it to win if you lose who you are?” is right in there. That said, I struggled in this review to explain why it’s so well done and yet not as good as it perhaps could have been. Is it a great movie? No. But it’s probably as good an adaptation as can be made. Sometimes that is all you can get.