I was not particularly looking forward to Ender’s Game, the recent movie. I thought it’d be a challenging work to translate without sacrificing the potentially “unfilmable” (as some would say) psychological story and focusing merely on glitzy space battles. The advanced trailer didn’t necessarily give me a positive buzz either. But I was introduced to the book by Orson Scott Card not long ago, and enjoyed it quite a bit. More than that, I have found reading its sequels (of which I have read two so far – Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) to be extremely compelling and emotionally churning experiences. Then a friend gave me a positive report, so off to the theaters I went this evening with my wife.
(Incidentally, this is the same friend who introduced me to the books – though he himself had not read them. He gave them to me as a gift after hearing about them from another friend – someone who was shocked and almost offended that he’d never read what he considered to be a seminal work of science fiction. Now my friend is reading my books, borrowing them from me after I finish them. This friend of mind, incidentally, seems to get referenced on this blog a fair bit).
All that to say, Ender’s Game is a pretty good movie! (There are some vague spoilers here).
The story, of course, is compressed. And the psychology is streamlined. And that whole subplot about Peter and Valentine’s activities on earth, reshaping its political landscape through their subversive writing, is left out all together. But the core story of young Andrew Wiggin being taken from his home and placed in emotional isolation in order to turn him into the military savior of earth is intact, and seeing how he does this while still finding his own purpose in it all is well played. Asa Butterfield, who also starred in Hugo a couple of years back, does a good job bringing to life the deeply conflicted young boy, and Harrison Ford is solid in the anchoring role of Colonel Graff, making him hard-nosed and committed to the cause, yet someone whose motives are easy to connect to. The brief conflict that erupts between the two toward the end clearly expresses the differences between them. It’s one of the moments that shows that movie has kept to an appropriate pitch – serious science fiction where the most interesting concepts are to do with the way people think and relate, rather than anything to do space battles or laser guns.
That said, the movie would have benefited from having perhaps a bit more about space battles and laser guns. This was particularly felt during the middle section of the movie, as Ender is being trained in Battle School. This is really where the bulk of Ender’s story is told – his development from the scared prodigy that he arrive as into the quick-thinking tactician, improviser, and leader. Those qualities are present, but would have benefited from further development – maybe one more battle exercise shown in detail before his big victory, or a bit more of how he drew people to him while serving under the cruel Bonzo Madrid. Basically, it wouldn’t have hurt to make the movie a bit longer.
But there is a lot to appreciate about what is included. The biggest surprise was the inclusion of Ender’s video game. It’s an essential element in the book but one could easily imagine it being removed all together for a film adaptation (like how the virtual reality religious experience was removed when they made Blade Runner). It doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but enough to establish the key point of the real nature of the enemy Ender is training to fight.
I also appreciated the fact that the ending is basically in place as I was hoping. Again, it’s streamlined, compressed, and even glitzed up a bit, but the movie ends with Ender being essentially in the same emotional position and with the same newfound purpose that the book does. Even if there is never a sequel made, I can watch this movie feeling like this is the Ender I am familiar with and that he is on his way to growing up into the man that I have spent some enjoyable hours reading about.
The conclusion? Ender’s Game, a potentially “unfilmable” book has been turned into a visually impressive (in glorious 2D!) and enjoyable movie that manages to capture it’s essential qualities.
Now, if only someone would have a crack at doing the same for Speaker for the Dead, than I’d be really impressed.