Directed by Gavin Hood
Two opinions from Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard.
MM: I think this is about as good of a movie as we could probably expect. I liked it, didn’t love it, but thought it was solid and entertaining. Some of the main criticisms of the movie so far—that its humorless and overly serious—basically mean it was faithful the book. My main problem with it was that it compressed the book’s timeline to an absurd and unnecessary extreme (more on that later).
TS: I had a similar reaction. The story first appeared in short form and I don’t even recall whether I read it before or after publication as a actual book – but I remember being a nerdy kid, loving the story and eagerly awaiting sequels. It’s also worth noting that once published as a novel, “Ender’s Game” won the two most prestigious awards for science fiction writing.
That passage of time is interesting for other reasons: There are many elements of the story and concept that don’t seem especially noteworthy now. I’ve corresponded with people who have read the book relatively recently who wonder what all the fuss was about.
MM: It was also interesting to see a book from 1985 come out as a film a full 28 years later. It appeared during one jittery time—the late Cold War Reagan years—and reemerged in another. It generated new fans on an ongoing basis since—including now being read in some high schools. Advances in computer graphics technology certainly made it much easier to film.
TS: That passage of time is interesting for other reasons: There are many elements of the story and concept that don’t seem especially noteworthy now. I’ve corresponded with people who have read the book relatively recently who wonder what all the fuss was about. But the ideas were far more groundbreaking in the late 70’s – mid 80’s when the story and book first appeared in print. It’s easy now to point back 30 years to a film such as “The Last Starfighter,” which used a video game as the entry test for a distant, inter-galactic starfighter academy – and which introduced us to the exclusive use of on screen, computer generated space warfare. But even that came years after “Ender’s Game” first appeared as a short story.
MM: But this also feels a little too cerebral to be a big hit, even though the theme and plot were dramatically simplified, mainly by necessity, compared to the book. It is a complex book, with heaping amounts of fascism and child abuse. A future Earth, badly hurt by an alien invasion a generation earlier, has been scouring Earth’s children to find a military leader who can protect them for the long term. What emerges is a set of schools that form a ritualized system where children often brutalize each other due to the rivalries set up by the adult officers—who then stay out of the way when it happens.
He’s not the kind of hero who has a catchphrase. The impossibly-thin Asa Butterfield was able to get all this across in a performance that, like the movie, was solid but not spectacular.
TS: It’s also a book with a whole parallel story about Earth politics, largely involving Ender’s older brother Peter (which also influences the ending of the book but which can’t really influence the ending of the film due to its absence from the plot). In the film, Peter is present simply as a comparison point, or influence on Ender’s character and behavior. Ender’s two siblings, Peter and Valentine, were prior enlistees who were found to be too violent and too compassionate, respectively, with Ender struggling to balance those qualities.
MM: Ender is special not because he is the biggest or strongest, but because of this particular combination of intelligence and ruthlessness. He has compassion, but he’ll also beat someone who threatens him to the edge of death during a first fight so he’ll never have to have another. It’s as if he’s repeatedly forced into brutality by the rational system he has set up to allow himself to survive. On top of that, he already shows signs of PTSD. He’s not the kind of hero who has a catchphrase. The impossibly-thin Asa Butterfield was able to get all this across in a performance that, like the movie, was solid but not spectacular.
TS: In a story like “Lord of the Flies,” we’re shown what happens when kids are left to their own devices without adult supervision. There are moments in “Ender’s Game” when the adult supervision that’s actually present seems to want to find those same outcomes in order to find the natural leaders. It’s also interesting to note one aspect that will concern the most strict purists, in terms of the adaptation from page to screen: Ender is younger in the book. But, to the film’s credit, they’ve tried to stick with kids who still seem reasonably young – this isn’t suddenly a film about wise-cracking twenty-somethings in boot camp.
MM: The book is ultimately a thought experiment, a meditation on violence and when it is necessary, with a lot about the psychology of leadership and groups thrown in. These elements may seem a little more troubling to some coming from author Orson Scott Card, who has emerged as outspokenly anti-gay right winger in recent years. This has led some to boycott the movie, though Card was paid out on the original movie deal years ago and stands to make almost nothing from this film.
These aren’t children being used to sweep Victorian chimneys or stitch Western clothing in Eastern sweatshops, these are children being utilized in warfare, away from the battlefront, because of relative differences in younger and older mental agilities.
TS: It’s hard to divorce oneself entirely from that observation. Enjoying “Ender’s Game” is a little like secretly, guiltily, enjoying a Chik-fil-A sandwich. But the conflict is also there – just as there are restaurant franchisees who are supportive of local gay cause and groups, in opposition to the chain’s owner, there are also a great many people who have worked on this film who don’t mirror Card’s thoughts at all. While I’d be happier if Card made no money from this production, and didn’t potentially stand to gain from any future adaptations of the various sequels and other books related to this storyline, I’m happy to see the others involved being rewarded for their work.
MM: Ultimately, they made the choice to not really try to go too deep. The movie makes quick work of Battle School, Ender’s siblings and the game in his computer—the three elements that dominate the book and its moral complexity. The film skips Ender’s early years that made up much of the book. He was ruthless six-year-old—and a more daring, less sanitized movie would have tried to show that.
TS: Agreed. As I mentioned earlier, this is really an adaptation of only part of the book – but it’s probably the part most commercially appealing to audiences. And there’s sufficient content here to still make the film seem complete to viewers unfamiliar with the source material. That said, there’s also some good content for a stimulating dinner conversation about child labor laws and child soldiers: These aren’t children being used to sweep Victorian chimneys or stitch Western clothing in Eastern sweatshops, these are children being utilized in warfare, away from the battlefront, because of relative differences in younger and older mental agilities. We often applaud young inventors and science fair winners, and many historical advances in fields like mathematics have come from the relatively young. So it’s not a question without some basis in fact.
MM: The long climax that turns the movie into more of a straight-up space adventure is a tiny part of the book. It also makes the whole idea of training children like this seem kind of silly—a problem the book gets around in several ways the movie doesn’t. “Ender’s Game” probably would have worked better as a cable drama season like “Game of Thrones.” It will be interesting to see if they go for a sequel—because I’ve read “Speaker for the Dead” and know it would be harder to film, for a number of reasons.
TS: Card wrote multiple books stemming from the beginnings in “Ender’s Game,” some of which follow the events of the first book and some of which, for example, view them from the perspective of other characters. While “Speaker for the Dead” was the next book written, Card later wrote another book that fits between then, “Ender in Exile,” and so it’s not immediately obvious which direction a film sequel might take. Assuming of course that “Ender’s Game” is successful enough to even spawn additional titles on screen.
Ed’s Note: Tony Sheppard and Malcolm Maclachlan are regular contributors to Capitol Weekly.