Originally written as a short story published in the August 1977 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, author’s Orson Scott Card‘s story of a complicated boy who is humanity’s best chance at survival took another eight years before it was released as the full novel Ender’s Game. I first read the novel more than two decades ago. It’s held-up remarkably well, although given its subject matter I doubted would ever be made into a movie.
Adapted and directed by Gavin Hood the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t an easy one to pull off, especially in under two hours. Although the timeline is heavily condensed, and the subplots involving Ender’s siblings is largely ignored, the movie gets far more right than I expected.
A lonely child with a good heart but a special talent for measured brutality, Ender Wiggin isn’t the easiest of protagonists to put on screen. The best choice Hood makes is to cast Asa Butterfield in the complex role that requires us to feel for the situation the young man finds himself in but also be a little taken aback by the methods he uses.
In the not-too-distant future Earth has been attacked by an alien race known as the Formics (although I still prefer the book’s colloquial term Buggers which sadly isn’t included here). Years after the aliens almost wiped out humanity, various Earth nations have come together to find the world’s brightest children and train them to be the military leaders needed to take the fight back to the Formics and end the war once and for all.
The third child in a world where parents are usually allowed only two, Ender has the empathy of his older sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and the ability for brutality (but not the psychotic nature) of his older brother Peter (Jimmy ‘Jax’ Pinchak). This mix, along with his keen intellect comes to the attention of Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) who handpicks the young man for Battle School (a training facility in space where children are taught to be soldiers). After a brief example of what Ender does to bullies, the movie wastes little time in getting Ender into Battle School and letting his training begin.
The training Ender and the other children are put through is both physically and emotionally challenging. With little time, and the need to find the next great military mind to lead their fleet, Graff has no choice but to push the kids past their limits to see who breaks under the strain. Here, as with many aspects of the book film, the characters spend nearly all their time in a morally ambiguous gray area where the ends nearly always justify the means.
Fans of the book will be happy to see many (although certainly not all) of Ender’s Battle School mates making their way to the big screen. Although I was disappointed that Alai‘s (Suraj Partha) role as Ender’s first real friend in Battle School was condensed, Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) gets plenty of time on-screen as an older student who takes Ender under her wing. Also on hand are Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), Dink (Khylin Rhambo), Bean (Aramis Knight), and Bernard (Conor Carroll) all get varying levels of screentime (although their individual stories are largely pushed aside to allow the film to concentrate on Ender’s journey).
I was pleasantly surprised that the movie stayed with the ending of the book. Although I have serious doubts that we’d ever see anyone even attempt to try and make Speaker for the Dead into a feature film, the message of the epilogue about who Ender really is and what he’s capable of is an important one given what happens to the character over the course of the movie.
The look of the film may not have matched that of my childhood imaginings, but I have to say I was very impressed with the design of Battle School and the Battle Room where the various weightless battles of the child armies take place (which I would have liked to have seen more of). And although the movie doesn’t spend a lot of time with the Mind Game, what we see is well-presented (especially the reactions of those to Ender’s method of defeating the unwinnable “Giant’s Drink“).
Butterfield leads a team of talented young actors in a film that demands the best of its young cast. Ben Kingsley may not have done much for me as Mazer Rachkam (mostly because the movie has no real time to spend developing his relationship with Ender), but I was impressed with Ford who has to balance Graff’s inner struggle with his faith and need to push Ender far more than any other candidate he’s seen. Without use of narration, the film relies solely on the performances to showcase the internal struggle so many of the film’s characters battle.
It may not be a perfect film, and I sure wouldn’t mind a Peter Jackson-sized extended edition to delve more into the various friendships and armies of Battle School, but Hood does an exceptional job at delivering the film’s major themes and Ender’s full character arc all in under two hours. I saw the film in IMAX which I would certainly recommend for the Battle Room scenes, although the story should work well on any sized screen. I’ve seen better movies this year, but Ender’s Game is one of the few that I want to see a second time in the theater, partly to see if I still feel pieces of the story are rushed and partly to get lost once again in Ender’s journey.