It’s usually pointless to devote space in a movie review to denigrate how a film differs from the literary source it’s adapted from, but conducting that comparison seems impossible to avoid with Ender’s Game The 1985 Orson Scott Card classic is revered to the point of being worshiped, and, considering how Card himself spent years saying a film adaptation of the novel wouldn’t be allowed unless it was “done right,” it’s tempting to metaphorically (or literally, if you don’t mind coming across as unhinged) wave the book around while simultaneously gesturing at the childish movie poster for the Gavin Hood film, screeching, “This here? This book here in my hand? It’s better than that movie! It’s better! Better!”
While a side-by-side comparison between the book and the film seems like an exercise for a) third-grade writing class or b) psychotic nerds who believe there’s utility in frothing at the mouth while defending an inanimate object from being “ruined” by another inanimate object, there is some merit in doing so in the case of Ender’s Game. What’s important isn’t crafting a litany of every detail that was dropped, altered, or adulterated in the translation from page to screen. The inability, due to both formal constrictions of the medium and sloppy editorial decision making, of the Ender’s Game movie to accurately render the world of the book shouldn’t surprise anyone (all hope of a “faithful” adaptation went out the window when it was announced the Peter and Valentine plot wouldn’t make it to the silver screen), nor should people be disappointed that a two-hour movie simply can’t contain all the “stuff” found in a 400-page book. Yes, the movie tweaks the timeline of the story and takes some liberty with details, but such changes are par for the course and don’t inherently make the movie “bad.”
No, what make’s Ender’s Game a lackluster movie, albeit one that is not flat-out terrible, is that it possess not even a shred of the thematic nuance or gravity of the novel. Who cares if the structure of Command School is inconsistent with its portrayal in the novel if there’s no emotional weight to give the actions conducted in there any meaning? It’s fine if the filmmakers, for the sake of convenience, want to toy with minor aspects of the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the story’s ending, but it’s less excusable to have that ending be deprived of all emotional significance due to a mishandling of the book’s basic, though well-crafted, themes of manipulation and empathy. The Ender’s Game movie has virtually the same ending as the novel, sure, and it hits roughly the same plot points throughout, but only in one of the two forms do the story and characters not feel like cardboard cutouts.
The struggle to imbue that film with any semblance of the gravitas found in the book is evident from the opening thirty minutes, which consist of a mind-numbing amount of expository dialogue. While trying to be a quick and easy method of condensing the world-building opening chapters of the novel, these scenes come across as a flagrant violation of every “show, don’t tell” lesson your bearded English teacher shrilly drilled into your brain in high school. It’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to whisk Ender Wiggin off to Battle School as quickly as possible since that part of the story arc is ostensibly the most exciting, but the problem is that all the first-act exposition amounts to is a barebones structure not solid enough to support the weight of the plot’s later twists and turns. Seeing Peter’s face appear again little over midway through the movie is meaningless to a moviegoer unfamiliar with the book since said moviegoer’s only exposure to Peter is a thirty-second bullying scene and some voiceover work from Harrison Ford explaining his (Peter’s) propensity towards violence. (If the filmmakers really wanted to condense Peter’s personality into a single scene, it would have been more effective to choose the animal-torture scenes from the novel. But that would have torpedoed the film’s desired PG-13 rating.) The film tells you that so-and-so acts in such-and-such ways for these-and-those reasons, but nowhere in the movie do those descriptions transcend being simply stated to actually believable.
The problem, then, isn’t that Ender’s Game, the movie, is a shell of Ender’s Game, the novel. The problem is that it’s a shell of of a movie. All the time devoted to discussions between the adults regarding Ender’s psychological makeup could have been spent fleshing out the Ender character, but perhaps that reliance on exposition is a blessing in disguise considering the one scene where the decision is made by the filmmakers to switch from “let’s talk about Ender becoming a leader” to “let’s show Ender becoming a leader” is a cringe-worthy and trite cafeteria sequence where Ender’s crew leaves the table occupied by the blustery Bernard to sit with the no-long-solitary Ender. (It’s scenes like this one that make me feel Ender’s Shadow, a less-complicated parallel novel to Ender’s Game, would have been easier to transition to film.) So much of the film feels unnecessarily forced and obvious, an exercise is spoon-fed symbolism, which is a shame since the Ender’s Game novel is a children’s book that in no way talks down to children.
All of this isn’t to say, however, that Ender’s Game is utterly irredeemable or lacks any artistic merit. Although not given the best lines to work with dialogue-wise, the child actors all do a serviceable job with the material, and Asa Butterfield, as Ender, deserves credit for exuding emotional nuance beyond simply what’s present in the script. Bringing a beloved and complicated character like Ender Wiggin to life is no easy task, and Butterfield’s performance is strong enough to make you wish the filmmakers had gone with a darker, more faithful adaptation of the story. The battle sequences between the International Fleet and the Formics, less prevalent in the film than the trailers suggest, are delightfully chaotic, and though they run right up to the line of the messy incomprehensibility that seems to plague most space battles in movies, the swarming bedlam is appropriate given the insectile nature of the enemy. And while it would be hyperbolic to call the film visually stunning, the overall aesthetic is perfectly glossy and crisp without feeling like A Futuristic Space Movie With Shiny Things.
So, should you see Ender’s Game? If you’re a hardcore fan of the book — and, really, when it comes to Ender’s Game, that seem to be the only type of fan there is — just know you will be disappointed. Even if you go into the theater with the best of intentions of divorcing your love of the novel from your expectations of the film, the movie’s structural shortcomings will only remind you of how superior the book is to what you’re watching. (But, hey, at least it’s more tolerable than slogging through Children of the Mind.) At the same time, a moviegoer unfamiliar with the source material isn’t much better off because the feeling that something is missing from the film is inescapable. Ender’s Game is a two-hour movie that will leave you wanting more, but that’s because you’ll feel like you’ve been duped out of fulfillment. Ender’s Game isn’t horrible, but it isn’t good, and you should keep your expectations oriented like the position of the enemy’s gate — down.
(Like being told how to feel about art? You do?! Cool, then go check out the review for This is the End and the writeup up of why we’re so accepting of mediocre films and television shows.)