Ender's Game
Orson Scott Card and Gavin Hood, 2013

This post is about the movie.  My writeup of the book is here.  It's one of the better articles on this site, so check it out.  Actually, let me amend that — I say that this post is about the movie, but it's actually about how the movie differs from the book, and assumes a familiarity with the latter.  So mind the sled.

So, first of all, this shouldn't have been a movie.  Not that it shouldn't have been filmed — it's just that adapting even a short novel into a two-hour feature is rarely a good idea.  Not only does the time limit mean cutting a lot of the substance of the novel, but not enough real-world time passes for the passage of story time to really be felt.  For Ender's Game, something on the order of twenty half-hour episodes feels about right to me.  The two-hour version loses several key elements from the book:

Peter and Valentine.  None of the Demosthenes and Locke stuff is in the movie, which is an obvious cut and a very welcome one.  But, for better or for worse, a huge theme of the story is the extent to which Ender is or isn't like Peter, and the movie tries to run with it, but it can't really land when Peter has sixty seconds of screen time.  The movie also touches on the notion that the government commissioned Ender's birth in the hopes that he would blend the most useful traits of Peter and Valentine — a fact so central to Ender's self-image that in one of the book's sequels, Ender is horrified to discover that when his soul gets to create a new body for itself, it doesn't make a younger Ender but instead makes teenage versions of his siblings.  But briefly touching on this is all the movie does.  Not that the book does much better: it tells and hints, rather than shows.  This is why I'd be inclined to order up twenty episodes instead of just ten or twelve: we need to see Peter and Valentine ice out of Battle School, and we should also see more scenes fleshing out the relationship between each pair of siblings, plus the group dynamic.  Ender worships Valentine; she is the sole reason he even cares about saving the earth from the buggers.  And this doesn't land either.

The supporting cast.  Again, it's not like the book is full of rich character studies.  But there are half a dozen characters who at least get to share a scene with Ender for a page or two and come away with some sort of distinguishing feature.  In the movie there's Petra and then there's a bunch of randoms who happen to have the names of Ender's Game characters written on the fronts of their shirts.  If only there were some kind of "episodic" format that made it natural to focus on different supporting characters for a set amount of time!  (Actually, in doing some poking around online while working on this article I discovered that apparently Card has spent the past couple of decades doing that backfill.  I'd thought there were four books in the series; according to Wikipedia, there are now twenty.) 

Most of the battles.  Yes, in my article on the book I pointed out that the battle descriptions are basically stratego-babble.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that the organizing principle of this story is that Ender gets presented with tougher and tougher challenges in the battle room and comes up with a clever solution to each one.  I can see how a filmmaker in 1977, or even 1985, might not have known what to make of that and might therefore have been inclined to cut most of the battles as redundant, but by 2013, multiple generations had been raised on video games, immersed in this type of narrative structure.  And while ten battle scenes in a row might not make for a very good second act of a movie, as the centerpieces of ten episodes of a show with 167½-hour breaks in between them, they'd be fine.  Better than fine: they'd be the dots that connect up to constitute the narrative arc of the series.

Ender's actual motivation.  Keeping in more of the battles is important for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is that you need them to set up why Ender does what he does.  The movie does include the three key tentpoles, but mishandles one and mangles two:

  • The Giant's Drink.  The book doesn't do a particularly good job with this one either.  Ender's playing a video game in which he plays a mouse whom a giant is forcing to choose between two beverages — different liquids in shot glasses in the book, identical ones in goblets in the movie.  In the book, we're told (but do not see) that Ender has played this game countless times, and discovered that he dies no matter which drink he chooses, with a different gruesome death each time.  Eventually, he runs out of patience.  "I hate this game. It isn't fair. It's stupid. It's rotten."  And out of frustration, and in an attempt to break the rigged game by making a choice it can't deal with, he burrows into the giant's eye and is surprised when that turns out to take him to the next level.  In the movie, he only dies twice before going the "out, vile jelly" route, and does so as a conscious strategy, telling Alai that he's learned that Battle School rewards violence.  As you can probably guess, I think we should actually see six or eight attempts, sprinkled throughout one of the episodes, so that the frustration really comes across and Ender's mouse burrowing into the giant's eye pays off the entire half hour instead of a one-minute scene.

  • Two armies, no waiting.  In the book, after he's become commander of his own army, Ender finds that the administration is breaking more and more of its own conventions to stack the deck against him: assigning him battles on consecutive days, then multiple battles on the same day, and ultimately, two battles at the same time — and not only does his Dragon Army have to fight Griffin Army and Tiger Army simultaneously, he discovers that they're already deployed before his army even reaches the battle room.  "Everything they can do to beat me, thought Ender. Everything they can think of, change all the rules, they don't care, just so they beat me. Well, I'm sick of the game. […] Ice me, send me home, I don't want to play anymore."  And as with the Giant's Drink, he decides that if the higher-ups aren't going to play fair, neither will he — a decision made out of frustration, out of defiance, to see what will happen, and to get kicked out and be allowed to go home to Valentine.  The object of the game has always been to flash-freeze all the opposing soldiers, after which the winning army goes through the enemy gate as a victory ritual; Ender's middle finger to the top brass is to go through the gate without defeating the rival armies first, as if that were the real goal.  "I didn't think it would work, but I didn't care. I just wanted to go out in style." But it does work.  All of this is lost in the movie.  In the movie, Sergeant Dap spells out right from the beginning that "if either side gets one cadet through their enemy's gate unharmed, that army will win, regardless of points already scored".  And so, half an hour later, when Dragon Army gets the two-on-one game as its first battle, or at least the first one we see, and Ender (who has calmly accepted the scenario as a simulation of anarchic nature of real combat) pulls a similar trick to the one in the book, he's just being smart rather than a smartass.

  • THE TOTAL DESTRUCTION OF A PLANET.  Same deal.  In the movie, Ender destroys the bugger homeworld because "if we destroy the planet, we destroy the queens. Game over."  That is, he's trying to win the game so he can become a real commander.  In the book, he's trying to break the game.  When he sees the size of the homeworld fleet, he's not resolute, or even shocked — he's explicitly said to be in despair.  "All that I've been through, and they never meant to let me pass at all," he thinks.  And once again he decides: "I don't care if I don't pass your test, I don't care if I don't follow the rules. If you can cheat, so can I. I won't let you beat me unfairly — I'll beat you unfairly first."  When he comes up with the idea to aim the molecular disruptor at the planet itself, it's not to "destroy the queens" and become a commander — it's because "If I break this rule, they'll never let me be a commander. It would be too dangerous. I'll never have to play a game again. And that is victory."  You can decide for yourself whether that motivation is more interesting than the one in the movie, but clearly it is very different.

I will give the movie this, though — when the planet does get the big zap, the sequence that shows the result is amazing.  I mean, I've seen videos very much like it before: Youtube has at least a couple of "what if the earth got hit by an asteroid" clips up and the site's tracking algorithm correctly guessed that they would be relevant to my interests.  But even before rivulets of lava become the landscape's dominant feature, looking at an alien planet is awesome.  I mean, obviously the history of cinema is littered with films full of characters wandering around Tunisia or Utah and saying, "So, here we are on an alien planet!", but now that we can generate convincing exoplanetary environments, wowza.

Also the movie doesn't end by having Valentine give an "oh, they were just injuns" speech so that's a win too.

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