Movie thoughts: ENDER’S GAME (spoilers)
Another movie I’ve seen this week is Ender’s Game, borrowed from the library. I reread the book before watching the movie, since I haven’t read it in a long time and I wanted to be able to compare them. I think the movie is a very good adaptation and distillation of the book, quite faithful within the limits of what was feasible for the screen, and a solid SF movie in its own right with good acting and terrific set/technology design. It captured the characters and themes of the book well.
In fact, it drove home for me that Ender’s Game is at its heart a story about empathy, about the importance and advantages of learning to see through others’ eyes. In the book, even the Valentine/Peter subplot is about empathy, because it’s by deliberately choosing to adopt online personas opposite to their own respective beliefs, essentially learning to think like each other, that they’re able to be effective at influencing policy, tempering the extremes they might have gone to otherwise. By embracing the other’s view rather than fanatically clinging to their own, they were able to avert a war, in contrast to the way the IF brought about an unnecessary xenocide because of its unbending us-or-them mentality. But it’s Ender’s empathy for the Other that offers a chance of redemption (even though it’s what the IF exploited to destroy them in the first place).
It’s ironic, of course, that this book is such a powerful statement about empathy and love for the other, given that this is something Orson Scott Card himself seems to have completely forgotten in recent years. That’s why I think the boycotts of this film were missing the point; not only did none of its profits go to Card’s current political causes, but Ender’s Game itself is one of the best counterarguments to the stuff Card spews these days. It shows that he used to know better.
The film naturally makes some changes to make it more filmable, changing the preadolescent leads into teenagers and compressing the time frame from years to months. I think aging the characters up is an improvement, because all the emphasis on supergenius preteens in EG and the Bean spinoffs I read (only the first one or two before I lost interest) got kind of silly. And Asa Butterfield was excellent as Ender, conveying his calculating intellect, his shyness, and his sensitivity quite well. Harrison Ford is also terrific as Col. Graff, though he’s a lot thinner than the novel’s version. The casting of the kids other than Ender didn’t impress me much (although I liked the diverse casting, effectively capturing the diversity in the book and expanding on it), and the attempt to tack on a borderline romance with Petra Arkanian didn’t really fit the story, although fortunately it didn’t go beyond subtext. The actor playing Bonzo was effectively jerky, but it was weird how much shorter he was than Ender, when in the book Ender was supposed to be the small and weak one. I guess that in this version, Bonzo’s attitude was overcompensation.
The film also introduces Bean much earlier in the story, which is a good change because it allows externalizing a lot of Ender’s internal thought process. One of the hardest things about a book-to-screen adaptation like this is translating internal monologue to external dialogue, and this film handled it deftly for the most part, without a lot that seemed awkward or contrived — aside from the opening bit of narration by Ender, which I think would’ve worked better if it had been from a propaganda film, say (but maybe that would’ve seemed derivative of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers). Bean is sort of a junior Ender anyway, so using him as a way to externalize Ender’s reasoning is good.
Battle School is well-handled; the film treats zero-gee physics pretty well, although that realism goes out the window when it gets into the space travel and battles in the final act. I would’ve liked to see more of the book’s clever strategies like using your own frozen legs as a shield, but I guess showing a bunch of kids flying butt-first toward their rivals and shooting between their legs would’ve looked silly. My main issue is that Ender’s learning curve was hugely compressed, not only with the battle room fights but with the computer game and the Giant. That was inevitable in order to fit it to movie length, but it still made some things feel kind of rushed.
Well, no, on second thought, my main issue is with the visuals. The dialogue pays lip service to Ender’s key realization that in free fall, he can choose whatever orientation he wishes, and the catchphrase that “The enemy’s gate is down.” But in all the scenes where this is relevant — from the shuttle to the battle room to the final space battle — the visuals totally fail to reflect this key revelation. There’s a bit in the climactic battle where Bean reminds Ender about their catchphrase and Ender rotates the field of view to put the planet downward, but then that’s forgotten and the rest of the sequence sticks relentlessly with a conventional horizontal orientation, just like the battle room scenes mostly did. That’s the greatest visual failure of what’s otherwise a visually effective film. Well, that and the absurdly cluttered space scenes, but the orientation issue is actually relevant to the story and used in dialogue, so it’s a greater mistake to fail to orient the scenes accordingly.
I also wasn’t happy with the film’s addition of the idea that the Formics came to Earth looking for water so they could colonize. That’s one of the most ridiculous and ill-informed sci-fi cliches, since the amount of water you can find in the comets and asteroids and ice moons of just about any star system would be thousands or millions of times greater than what you could find on Earth. So that doesn’t make any sense as a reason to target Earth itself. But there are two things in the movie that ameliorate it and make it more forgivable than it usually is. One, we were shown a scene of Formic ships harvesting water from a giant planet’s rings, so there was some awareness of the idea that water can be found in places other than Earthlike planets. And two, the Formics were given a rather organic technology based on burrowing and carving, and they also seemed to be very much creatures of ant-colony instinct, so that could justify a compulsion to colonize planets like their own. Still, it was a regrettable echo of a tiresome cliche, and not something that needed to be added to the story.
I was initially uneasy with the change of the Command School location from Eros to a planet in Formic space; the explanation that they had to get within ansible range didn’t make much sense, because ansibles, by their very nature, are not range-dependent. Also it risked giving away the surprise twist. But I could see why it was necessary, so that the finale where Ender found the egg could be done without the need for him to spend years traveling first. And again, the bonding with the Formic queen at the end had to be made more external, more physical, for the movie screen. So it’s a change that works for the most part.
I do regret the diminution of Valentine and Peter’s roles. Of course something had to give to fit the story into movie length, and all that stuff with Locke and Demosthenes wouldn’t have worked well in film (although it impresses me how much Card predicted the age of the Internet, tablet computers, and the like — his net was more regulated than ours, but that makes sense in the somewhat totalitarian society of the book). But it has the effect of making Valentine a weaker character whose only real role is as a supporter for Ender. The film even changes the ending so that Valentine stays behind rather than joining Ender on his journey. Also, her argument at the lake to convince Ender to go back to Battle School doesn’t work as well for me as her reasoning in the book. There’s actually a deleted scene where Graff makes the same argument to her (about trying vs. not trying) that she makes to Ender in the book, so it was in the filmmakers’ minds. So I’m not sure why they changed it.
As for the deleted scenes, I think the filmmakers were mostly right to delete them. Most of them were fairly redundant or were added bits of characterization that only elaborated on what was shown elsewhere. And a couple of Graff’s exchanges with Anderson and Rackham gave away the big twist, so I’m amazed they were scripted at all. The one missing thing that I think should’ve been included was a second dream or game sequence with the Formic queen, just to establish that there was a pattern.
Director Gavin Hood’s commentary on the DVD is pretty interesting at times. As a military veteran who’s been through things similar to Ender’s training, he had some interesting insights into the philosophical and moral questions of training young people to be instruments of war. I think he gets what the story is about and brought some insights of his own to the telling, so he was a good choice to direct — except for that ongoing mistake with the camera orientation in free fall. Well, nobody’s perfect. It’s still a good translation of the book and a pretty good movie.