Humanity Does Not Ask Us To Be happy: 'Ender's Game'
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'Ender's Game' Review: Humanity Does Not Ask Us To Be Happy

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | November 2, 2013 | Comments ()


I’m not going to talk about Orson Scott Card here, I’ve done that elsewhere at length, and so in this space I want to talk about the film Ender’s Game.

It’s difficult to write about as just a film, in much the same way that Lord of the Rings wasn’t just a film, it was a story that millions of people already knew. It was almost impossible for anyone to write a review of The Lord of the Rings as if they hadn’t read the books, and the same is the case here. The problem with them is that they aren’t just some books that you’ve read. It’s perfectly possible to have read The Hunt for Red October and then watch the movie as a separate entity, not bring your baggage with the book into the movie theater.

But Ender’s Game is more like Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter for that matter. These are books that get inside you, that you read and reread over the course of your life. They are stories with deep emotional resonance, not just clever plots that someone thinks will make a good movie. And so it’s simply not possible to divorce them from their source material.

And it also makes Ender’s Game very difficult to review in a vacuum. I cannot tell you how good or bad this film is independently from the book because at every point in the story I already knew what was going to happen, and hell, have half the dialogue floating around in the back my mind somewhere. Honestly, I have a suspicion that someone who goes into this movie having not read the book will be mostly lost.

It has gorgeous visuals, good acting, and a story that is definitely a complete departure from most science fiction put out in film. It is a film about empathy, and a story about how the things that make us great are the same things that make us suffer, sometimes with a terrible irony. If you go along with a friend who has read the book, they should be mostly happy. I say mostly happy, but could at length delineate exactly what they are going to complain about. But the core of the story, the point of the novel, is retained and respected, despite the middle of the film in which a solid half of the novel is compressed down into a hasty thirty or forty minutes that I can’t imagine is going to feel any less rushed if you haven’t read the book.

So let me stop you right at this point. The rest of this article has spoilers as to details of the book. There are two reasons for this. First, most readers of this site have read the book, and the deliverable, so to speak, that they want out of this review is wholly intertwined with that knowledge of the book. Discussing how they will enjoy the film is an entirely different conversation than that with someone who hasn’t. Second, go read the book before you see it. If you’re that person, you should change that part of who you are. Really, your life choices are bad, and you should feel bad.

Are they gone? Okay. See, here’s the thing. Gavin Hood does a monumentally good job in capturing the spirit of the novel and its main plot. As I was watching, for about the first half hour I was gradually more and more excited, because the movie was taking its time, getting it right setting up the pieces, and staying dead true to the novel. There were small departures, but nothing that wasn’t reasonable in the conversion from one to another.

But after the shuttle docks at Battle School is when the problems started to manifest themselves. There’s a fantastic monologue by Graff, one of my favorite bits of dialogue, in which he lays out his mission, that the story of civilization is the story of genius, and his job is to find one here. That monologue is cut to a sentence cut short by a joke. My god, you hired Harrison Ford for a reason, give him that speech to chew the scenery with. And later, after the climax, again the final monologue is cut out, the one with the heartbreaking rationalization of everything they’ve done, culminating in the shaking line “and it had to be a child”. When a novel hands you speeches in this mold, the sort that people who’ve read the novel have emblazoned in their minds, you give them to the damned actors verbatim.

But those cuts happened because the movie is just too short. It clocks in at right at 100 minutes from start to finish, with only about half an hour actually in Battle School, which forms the bulk of the novel. A novel of children fighting in zero-g armies has essentially all of those parts of the novel cut out. There are only two battles actually shown. Ender’s first in Salamander Army and his last in Dragon Army. That’s it. The in between stuff isn’t even shown in montage. Literally, Ender is put in command of Dragon after one day with Salamander. It’s just nonsensical.

Orson Scott Card’s prose was brilliant at taking complex three-dimensional battles and rendering them such that they were perfectly clear in your mind. You can see the strategies playing out in your head. But because they were so rushed, these battles makes no sense visually in the movie. It is completely unable to convey what it is that Ender is really doing in that final battle at Battle School. And so to someone who hasn’t read the novel, it looks like his strategy is bloody obvious, with no hint that he’s exploiting a loophole that no one considered might exist. And I have no idea what the hell happened in the first battle other than Petra taught him how to shoot in forty seconds and then the next day he was a marksman and won the whole battle by charging the enemy by himself. Um, yeah, real strategic nuance there.

The story hinges on Ender’s ability to understand and thus beat his opponents, which destroys him personally because the reason he is able to is because he empathizes so well with even those who hate him. And so his strategies make sense to the reader, because they aren’t just tactical, they’re personal. But with no time to devote to such things, we merely are told over and over that Ender is a good commander, without the demonstration of why, or more importantly why it was critical that he was that. Ender was never their first choice because he was tactically brilliant, though he was. He was chosen because he was that in addition to being so empathetic that he could lead as seamlessly and organically as the coordinated hordes he was facing. “It had to be a child…” it’s the twist of the knife after the ending’s first gut punch.

It’s terribly frustrating because as I said, Gavin Hood clearly gets what makes the story great, he just doesn’t have enough minutes of film to get it across right. And that causes real slippage in the story too. So little room for events means that it honestly feels like the story is supposed to have taken place over like two weeks of time rather than years, which again renders the exercise essentially nonsensical.

A few notes on the details of the adaptation. Peter and Valentine’s storyline was completely cut, which is to be expected and I didn’t really want to see a movie butcher that whole thing. Though it does mean that Peter is in only one scene and thus just comes across as a thug. They did keep the mind game, which surprised me, though it was quite well done given how little time could be devoted to it. And what surprised me the most was the keeping of the ending in which Ender finds the queen and sets out to find her a home. I was fully prepared with a new version of my old “Peter Jackson does not understand the point of this story because he left out the Scouring of the Shire”, so there you go.

I could go on at some length about quibbles. I didn’t like that Graff was more black and white than shades of grey. I didn’t like that the humans were clearly the aggressors of the film, while the novel’s two invasions had made it clear that there was a mountain of grey area there, and thus prevented the film from having the wonderful reveal of “we’re the Third Invasion”. I wish they’d kept the idea of the invasion fleet having launched over a period of decades at distant targets first so that they’d all arrive almost simultaneously in a hundred different systems, but with the drawback that the final battle’s fleet would be the smallest and most primitive. I hated the way the Little Doctor was explained, in such a hamhanded manner that it made it obvious to use it against the planet. I was not happy that Ender won the final battle in a spirit of triumph as opposed to the novel’s act of spite, that if he committed this atrocity then no one would ever trust him to command real troops and he could go home.

But mostly these are the details, the big problem comes back to simply not having enough time to tell the story. In the end, is this a great film? Certainly not. But it’s a valiant attempt that I had assumed going in I would utterly loathe.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Ben

    honestly until the movie got announced I'd never even heard of Enders Games. Is it some American thing? Cause I really don't know anyone that's actually read it and me and all my sisters are pretty big readers?

  • Berry

    I heard about it as recently as couple of years ago from an American internet friend, who's a fan, and my husband, who read all the science fiction as a teen, wasn't familiar with it either. So you might be on to something.

  • ed newman

    If you aren't into science fiction then it would probably be easy enough to have missed it.. But it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, as did its sequel, so I'd imagine even outside America it should be well known to followers of the genre.

  • Paul Hoogeveen

    I'm with Ben. Read a good amount of sci-fi in the 70's and 80's (although I only ever bought a few issue of Analog in the 70's) but totally missed/passed on OSC. I was and remain fairly choosy about my reading; it may have been that the synopsis of the story didn't appeal to me at the time. Still, what I know of OSC now leaves me loathe to support his work.

  • AmberFU

    I can definintely understand your reluctance to put money in OSC's pocket, but his novels really ARE wonderful, and any fan of sci-fi can't afford to miss them. I'd suggest secondhand bookstores or Amazon purchases from the 'used' section. Truly, I can't overstate how great his books are.

  • Paul Hoogeveen

    I remember what happened now, after looking at a list of sci-fi novels from that time. After finishing The Lazarus Effect (Frank Herbert), I abruptly stopped reading sci-fi for the most part and ended up losing myself in Eastern metaphysics for several years.

  • Paul Hoogeveen

    I'll check my local library. They have a good supply of vintage sci-fi.

  • Ben

    I read heaps of sci-fi /fantasy growing up, And hung around with lots of people strongly into sci fi books and movies and tv and yeah, still never heard of it.

  • AlabasterSalamander

    I thought it was generally damn good. I haven't read the book in nearly ten years, and specifically avoided doing so in order to absorb the movie for itself as much as possible. I thought it looked amazing, which was good and bad (more on that later). The kids generally killed it in the acting dept, and I didn't remember Indiana Solo was in it, so that was a pleasant surprise, as was Viola Davis. I feel like they shifted a lot of the subtext onto Ford and Davis, in terms of the stress the kids were going under, in the form of expository dialogue between the two. Showing a grind of boot camp just doesn't translate well to film; in the book, you got to savor the descriptions and the progressions. Film wise it would have just been establishing shot after establishing shot. Or a montage, which I think Team America ruined for me forever.
    The biggest problem for me was the twist gut punch at the end, but I think it was unavoidable. The book describes the sim in very 1985 terms; Card basically described it as if it were a more expansive Galaga, graphically. For me, that was interesting but so dramatically detached from what they were actually doing, made the reveal all the more shocking. The movie sim was VERY real, however, so it was easier to imagine that they were actually fighting the war, so much so that I kept casting about for bits of dialogue to assure me they hadn't left the twist out.
    See it on IMAX.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I loved the book. Loved loved loved loved.

    I liked the movie.

    I needed more time, more battle school, more mind game, slower development, just more. This thing should never have been under 2 hours and it's a shame it was. They were so, so close to nailing it.

    I saw Gravity two weeks ago and I feel compelled to say that the kid who played Ender brought so much more weight and emotion to his role than Sandy did hers...insomuch as this was a battle of space battles she got served. by a kid.

  • Munkymack

    Did anyone else find it weird that NOT ONCE did the word "Buggers" get used?

  • bellaloma

    YES! Noticed that too.
    My guess: "Bugger" is UK derogatory slang for anal sex and/or a person who has it, and because the movie tried VERY hard to distance itself from Scott Card's homophobia, it stuck to "Formics" to avoid controversy.

    (I don't personally think that Card intended the term "Buggers" to serve as a double entendre for gay men, but I can see some producer saying "Absolutely not" to calling the enemy by that name.)

  • Munkymack

    It did make me want to go back and re-read (and re-read Ender's Shadow as well)

  • Saw it last night. I think it's a good adaptation of the novel and what gets excised is done for the sake of not beating the audience over the head with examples of Ender's brilliance -- which everyone is quick to recognize and Harrison Ford spends the entire movie proclaiming. Butterfield is a great Ender, who captures the complexities of the character. The gut punch at the climax still works. I'll take it.

  • APOCooter

    I have never read Ender's Game (which, given how much I read as a teenager, this fact astounds me). I enjoyed the movie; I didn't feel mostly lost, but I did feel rushed. I think was able to get some of the emotional resonance because I was able to say, "Well, there's supposed to be something there. Okay, I'll go with it."

    I do plan on reading the book, now, though.

  • Kris

    Okay, fellow readers, get your judgement hats on. I've left my nerd card on the dresser, ready to be confiscated. I honestly don't think that every reader is going to like every book; there are always going to be one or two classics of this or that favorite genre that just aren't going to click. For me, "Ender's Game" was that book. I tried it several times, and I just couldn't get into it. Because of that, and not the controversy, I've already decided not to bother with the movie.

  • The Kilted Yaksman

    I read it, once, a long time ago. It didn't make enough of an impression on me to want to read again, or read any of the sequels.

  • Nunchucko

    No judgement here. I like to consider myself well-read but I have a hard time with Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King novels (though I do tend to enjoy the movies based off those novels). Different strokes for different folks.

  • BWeaves

    "I have a suspicion that someone who goes into this movie having not read the book will be mostly lost."

    Thank you.

  • firedmyass

    I haven't and I wasn't. At all.

  • bellaloma

    Sad to hear that Peter's mostly cut out. Ender's love and hatred for Peter is the entire precedent for his ability to love - and defeat - the Buggers.

  • Enarra

    Well that is in there, just Peter himself is only in one scene.

  • chanohack

    Though I would have loved an excellent Ender's Game movie, you've made me feel a lot better about waiting to see this one until I can check it out from the library. Thanks for the review.

  • Enarra

    Great review. I went to see it last night, and I was reloading Pajiba frequently before we left for the theatre so I could read this review... but it didn't show up. I was a little frustrated, Ender's Game is a big movie, where was the review. But, after coming home I saw the review, read it, and was pleased that I hadn't seen the review before I went as I think it may have peppered my view of the movie. Which as a multiple time read of the book was sufficiently biased already.

    Basically I felt the same as Steven towards it. Far too rushed, it needed more time in Battle School.

    Some smaller things I noticed:
    - I though the portrayel of Ender's father was oddly harsh.
    - I didn't like the explanation of Mazer's face tattoo as being a sign that he was "Speaker for the Dead" are they really setting up a second movie (please no), or was just a clumsy nod to the more hard core fans who have read further in the series?
    - The battle room itself, though not true to the books was pretty awesome to see. And filmed very well - it made me dizzy and I'm not prone to that.
    - The final battle did what I wanted it too, it was again not true to the books but visually stunning and I was crying so it was great.
    - I don't think, in the time used, there was enough time to show the wear and tear on these children's minds and bodies at the extreme stress that they were put under by Graff and the schools. In one voice over Ender says they were at the Battle School for weeks and months.. but it never felt like it even remotely.
    - Bean wasn't used well enough.
    - All the kids where too old, but I loved Bonzo's stature, that was great casting.

  • I just wanted to give a little explanation on review timing, because it's something that comes up now and then with our reviews. And I definitely understand, because when another writer is assigned a movie I care about, I do the same thing you do, hitting refresh over and over again because I want to know.

    Pajiba as a policy does not go to advance screenings, or accept any of the other little press goodies that we feel cut into the purpose of independent journalism. This means that we cannot see the movies we review until you can, which makes the reviews later than other sites, which can be frustrating for people going to opening day on the east coast. And we do take a hit for it. That review being up earlier would get more traffic and thus buy us all more cash burritos.

    We prefer it when we can get a midnight showing Thursday night, because then we can get a review up during the day Friday, which will be before most people are going to the movies. In this case, the earliest showing in my part of the country was 1:30pm EST on Friday. The movie was finished and I was in front of a keyboard at 4:30pm. The review was published at 6:52pm. A 1600 word article in 142 minutes is about as fast as my brain engine goes, though sometimes it takes less depending on the movie (Getaway took like half that as point of comparison).

    My point isn't to be defensive here, and if I'm coming across that way, I apologize. I just wanted to give a little insight into why the reviews go up when they do.

    (and thank you for the rest of your wonderful comment, which I have not replied to in the least, but adds intelligently to the conversation about the movie, which is the best part of our comment threads)

  • Enarra

    I do live on the East coast! (... though depressingly far from any water wider than a river...) Thank you for the explanation, and like I said, in hindsight I was happier to have read the review after viewing. Though I did cheat a little bit and checked the Rotten Tomatoes' score: 69% (on Friday afternoon, now sliding to 64%) which tempered my expectations adequately. But yeah, I had non-refundable tickets, I was going to see the movie regardless!

  • ed newman

    Great review that expressed my thoughts exactly. In addition to what SLW wrote I'd add that although I recognize the impossibility of filming using age appropriate children, it nevertheless bothered me that the kids were too old. The lack of running time also prevented the director from giving any of Enders lieutenants and sort of distinctive personalities or backstories.

    But the visuals were fantastic (the simulator and its operation was a marvel), and the kids did very passable acting jobs.

  • Lauralyn

    I don't think everyone who hasn't read the book would be lost in the movie. I went to see it with my husband who hadn't read Ender's Game (I had, although it was when I was thirteen) and he understood all of the major plot points.

  • Dominic

    he could understand it because it was so easily compressed and laid out for digestion . i REALLY think Hood needed 1:54 OF MOVIE time , and 26 mins of previews and credits ( what u actually get in a 2;20 movie ) , in order to flesh out the reasons for the behaviors of Ender and ALL the troops . .. There's a desperation about most of the movie , coming from Ender and Graff mostly but the other students too , that makes it enjoyable to watch COLD . But if u know the story u leave feeling rushed and compressed into behavior without background . i mean it's 200 PAGES before he gets to Command School . ..
    Also keeping the relationship of Ender and Val connected throughout the movie( as it is NOT in the book ) , using his emails to direct the narrative , actually betrays the point of distancing Ender (and he purposely distancing himself from family ) from EVERYONE who might help him . Taking the sister to meet him does not have the impact here that it does in the book . Doesn't feel like a last resort . Granted that the dialogue is ALMOST the same ( Ender says "once I know them I love them " not Val ) . But having to be told this cheapens it , vs coming to understand yourself on your own ..
    . I wouldn't pay for IMAX , as the movie isn't good enough to pay the extra 6-10$ to see slightly better visuals . I can't downturn it totally But I think u can wait for OnDemand ...

  • I've never read the book, and this review has kind of convinced me that I don't really want to bother with the movie either. Then again, I didn't read the 'Lord of the Rings' books until after I had seen the movies(and I thought -the movies- were bloated, good Lord)and I liked them alright so I'll maybe I'll give it a chance.

  • bblackmoor

    I thought it was really good, but I really don't expect films to be scene-by-scene portrayals of novels.

  • I DO.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    Then I hope you do "rest in peace" as you are unlikely to in life. Unless, of course, you never see the film or read the source material. That might work, but since you are here I am guessing the latter is not the case.

  • DarthCorleone

    It's a funny thing that Pajiba. I leave here today feeling discouraged from bothering with Ender's Game and encouraged to give Last Vegas a try sometime.

    Great review for readers of the book - thanks for the insight.

  • lowercase_ryan

    no, go see it. It IS frustrating, but it's worth it. IMO

  • Matt Townsend

    *slight spoilers ahead

    My major issue is that throughout the movie Ender wins. He wins in the most complete fashion he can. Yet at the very end he claims that how we win is as/more important. If he had won out of spite then that rant could have made sense.

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