1 hour, 54 minutes
Many a science fiction novel has been considered unfilmable, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying. Heck, there’ve been three versions of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” a book so dense it has its own glossary. Orson Scott Card’s Hugo award winning classic “Ender’s Game,” which started life as a short story in 1977, would not, on the face of it, seem to be that difficult to film. A fairly straightforward story about a boy who goes through military school and becomes the fleet commander in a futuristic war against insectile aliens sounds like a mash up of a half a dozen sci-fi films over the last few decades.
However, “Ender” has stubbornly resisted adaptation for almost forty years. Why? Because, though there is a lot of action on the surface of the story, most of the film, as Card himself has stated, “exists in Ender’s head.” In other words, there is a lot of subtext. So, despite the book’s popularity, there’s been no film version. Until now. Gavin Hood, who’s last major film was the debacle “Origins: Wolverine” from 2009, has taken on the task, hiring Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield to help, and has done just about as good a job as could be expected, though far less than I had hoped.
Ender Wiggen is a child. In the book he’s supposed to be around six at the start of the story — here, with time constraints and the need to compress much of the narrative, Ender looks to be twelve or thirteen. Regardless, he’s young, and that’s exactly what the fleet is looking for. It has been determined that children, with a higher perception of complex spatial relationships and faster reaction time, would be better suited to lead Earth’s armies against their terrifying foe, the Formics (or “buggers” in the novel, a word which actually means something, but would probably sound extra goofy coming out of Harrison Ford’s mouth).
Ender, who’s been a candidate for Battle School since he was born, has been under observation. When Col. Graff, played gruffly by Ford, witnesses Ender decimate a bully so completely that he can’t get up off the ground, he knows he’s found the right boy. Whisked off to the school, a floating war games simulator orbiting the Earth, Ender realizes immediately he’s being groomed and that the other children resent him for it. Will Ender have it takes to survive his training and take on the mantle that’s been set aside for him, or will he crumble under the pressure?
Without considering the novel on which it is based, “Ender’s Game” is a solid, if slightly blah, science fiction film. The special effects are very good, as are the performances by Ford and Butterfield, who you probably know from “Hugo.” However, as an adaptation, the film leaves a little to be desired. I understand sacrifices must be made, storylines shortened or excised all together, and the timeline compressed. I can handle changes like that, but where it gets problematic is in the heart of the film. So much of the depth of the story comes from the difficult, sometimes terrible decisions Ender is forced to make, and the clever way Graff forces him into scenarios that seem increasingly unwinnable.
By the time we get to the climax of the novel, Ender is completely spent, emotionally drained, and on the raw edge, and it’s this condition that drives his decision making process. He’s spent years getting to this point and has existed in a near constant state of stress. In the film, however, I never felt that same level of fatigue in Ender. He’s seems irritated, little more. As a result, the emotional impact of the climax was seriously lessened. Through the whole of the film, scene after scene feels rushed. It’s hard to know whether this was just my perception based on knowing the source material, but I have a feeling there’s more to it. Hood obviously wants to get as much of the story in, but without the extra time and contemplative nature of the narrative, much of the heart of the story is lost.
Much of the film rests on the young shoulders of Asa Butterfield. He plays a good Ender, balancing the fragility of youth with a steely calculating nature. I wish the film had been a little better or perhaps longer, allowing him more room to breath as a performer. Maybe this would have been better as a mini-series. Regardless, and despite Butterfield’s laudable performance, one of the main problems with this film for me is that I feel I have gained nothing by watching it. The best adaptations offer something new to the story - some unique element that can’t be had by simply reading the book. “The Hunger Games” for example. The film is good, but the stellar job by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen offers something special in addition to the story. This can not be said for “Ender’s Game.” Fans of the book will, I feel, greet the film with enthusiasm, but will find that the novelty of seeing the Battle Room, for example, wears off pretty quickly. The sequel to “Ender’s Game” a dense eco-political/spiritual mystery called “Speaker For the Dead,” is far more unfilmable than “Ender” so I fear that I will never get to see its on-screen adaptation. Then again, maybe that’s a good thing.
“Ender’s Game” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, mature themes, and a few scary images.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.