'Ender's Game' Review: Humanity Does Not Ask Us To Be Happy
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 www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.