A few years ago, I went on a spree of reading books that were soon to become movies (along with a few of my coworkers). We began with Hunger Games, followed by The Hobbit, and then finally Ender’s Game.
I was really intrigued by the Ender’s Game book, as it managed to actually create a deep and compelling story about children losing their innocence and it was believable (though yes, there are aliens). Ender’s story was complex, mostly due to his relationship with his siblings Valentine and Peter. There is a lot that happens, in terms of content, so it was obvious that some bits would be omitted due to time. But did the movie cut the right things? And will you enjoy this, if you haven’t read the books?
The gist is that Andrew “Ender” Wiggins (Asa Butterfield) is the third child of the Wiggins, in a world where you’re only allowed to have two children. So there’s an incredible pressure on him, since his parents paid a huge sum of money to have a third child. His older brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) is a psychopath and his older sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) is compassionate and sympathetic. In this Earth’s history, there was an attack from an insect-like species known as the Formics, that left Earth crippled. To prepare for the inevitable return, Earth now recruits young children to train and become skilled tacticians. Where Peter is too violent and Valentine too compassionate, Ender might have that fine balance that will make him a born leader.
Ender is recruited to an orbiting space station with the purpose of training these children. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) wants to isolate Ender so that he learns to only trust himself, while Major Anderson (Viola Davis) wants to nurture Ender and make sure his mind is left intact after these trials and tribulations.
In general, this film is enjoyable, especially to those that have never read the book(s). Asa Butterfield works as Ender, though they’ve ramped up his age considerably and condensed the amount of time he spends in the battle training. We’ll talk about this later.
Harrison Ford and Viola Davis are both perfect, playing well off each other. Their scenes are likely the highlights of the movie for me, as they both care about Ender, but to different ends. You can sense Ford’s desperation and his intensity becomes more and more apparent as the movie continues. Davis counters this perfectly, though slightly defeatist as she knows she can’t beat Graff’s determination.
The majority of the book took place in the battle room and while these scenes look cool, I feel like it missed a major opportunity. More on that later.
What didn’t work?
The cornerstone of this book was Ender trying to not becoming like his brother Peter. Walking the fine line between violence and compassion. But in the movie, Peter only gets one scene and it just looks like normal brother fighting, nothing “ultra violent.” Valentine and Peter had more much substance in the book and I feel like by cutting Peter especially, it weakened Ender’s character arc. Somewhat connected, they lessened a few of the violent moments in the movie and again lessened Ender’s story by making these moments matter less.
Most of the book takes place in the battle school. The chronology is a total of six years from when Ender begins the battle school to the climax of the movie. However, it doesn’t feel like six years. It’s supposed to feel like they’re sleep-deprived, they’re anxious, they’re running on fumes. Instead, the movie’s pacing is so fast that it doesn’t feel like there’s any weight to it.
And the actual battles that take place at the battle school. The books were able to create much more strategy, where the scenes in the movie seemed so chaotic that it was hard to even tell what was happening and most victories looked like blind luck as opposed to strategy. The tagline of “The enemy’s gate is down” meant something in the books but it lacked meaning in the movie (even though they did use the line). I was excited to see these battles play out and it just didn’t do it for me.
Without spoiling anything, the ending is also likely confusing for non-readers of the book. Everything after the final battle is a little foggy and I’d be curious to hear from people who saw the movie but didn’t read the books, if they understood what was happening. With the de-emphasized violence, it didn’t mean as much for me.
I feel like I’m biased because of my fondness of the book, so I’m going to rate the movie a little higher than my initial inclination. I wish I had an image that was “Was it good? Yes.” Without the exclamation point. It’s good. Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, and Viola Davis give great performances but I feel like the story was crippled because of choices they made in the writing room. But without reading the books, you likely wouldn’t notice. Ender’s Game is a cool science-fiction movie with some complicated questions being raised and some intriguing ideas, though it lacked the punch that made its novel counterpart a timeless classic.