Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is a landmark in modern science fiction. The writer crafted a dystopian vision of young children being recruited into military school, put through a series of mental and physical regimens, and most frighteningly, robbed of all contact from their families. It is labeled a young adult book, but is also very graphic, capturing the violence in its characters, the disturbing way adults can twist their minds and manipulate them for their own purposes. It had a profound influence on me back in Middle School, and its film counterpart captures a great many of its most poignant themes.
An alien invasion of Formics, unseen to the public’s eyes, has devastated Earth’s cities and led to the military to begin looking for special children in their new initiative against the enemy. 14-year-old Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is picked out by military bigwigs Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) for his ability to not just end a conflict, but keep it from happening again. Ender fears himself and his abilities; he embodies both the traits of his empathetic sister Violet (Abigail Breslin) and his violent brother (Jimmy Pinchak). Graff pushes Ender into joining battle school, where the young fighter is immediately framed as a prodigy, much to the chagrin of the other students. He’s pushed harder and harder up through the ranks, training and making friends like Bean (Aramis Knight) and Petra (Hailee Steinfeld). But the training soon grows deadly serious, and Ender finds himself center stage in the most important game of his young life.
Hats off to Card for not only spawning the modern adult novel in Ender’s Game, but sticking with the film adaptation through every step of its nearly 20-year development. Oscar-winning Tsotsi director Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Card’s work, one of the best sci-fi mythologies ever written, bears more imagination and vision than most films of late. Hood himself is finally redeemed after 2009’s abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie with Fox’s muddy footprints all over it. Ender’s Game proves he’s better at handling a big-budget production with more creative control than most gave him credit for. If the director, who also wrote the script, can be faulted for anything here, it’s that he skimps on the exposition, hurrying the story of the novel along to keep it all within the magical two-hour time limit. As a result, we miss out on some of the novel’s deeper character moments detailing, for one, why Ender is so passionate about his family and sister Violet in particular.
Most impressive are the battle room sequences, the Quiddich matches of a new generation. Hood cares so deeply for their design that they even seem to recall, to the best of my memory, the original novel’s cover art. The film is also cast perfectly; Butterfield and Steinfeld are some of the most capable young leads of recent memory, conveying both vulnerability and leading presence. I had to smile when I saw how Hood had cast Bean; in first reading both Ender’s Game and its follow-up Ender’s Shadow, I’d always wondered how filmmakers would get a character like Bean to work without actually directing a five-year-old child actor to cuss and fight as he’s written to do. What results is Hood toning down Bean’s character and casting an actor who looks a lot more youthful than he actually is.
It’s the kids and how they’re treated that makes Ender’s Game not just a blockbuster, but an examination of relevant ethical debates. The idea of eliminating threats before they happen seems to be a recurring theme in movies of late (the upcoming Robocop remake and Captain America sequel, among others), a timely parallel to the US’s use of drones in Libya last year. “We can debate the ethics later,” says Colonel Graff. “Right now, there may not even be a later.” We watch Graff treat Ender like a father still indoctrinating an adolescent son with his beliefs, when the child himself is simply ready to start proving himself on his own. We feel conflicted about the film’s disturbing undercurrent of programming, of brainwashing children into killing, and robbing them of their innocence. Graff thinks he knows what’s best for Ender, but it is Ender that hasn’t realized the consequences of what he’s been asked to do. In the end, there really IS no villain of Ender’s Game, just different points of view.
If there’s anything glaringly wrong with the film, it’s that I wanted more from it. With so much ground to cover, readers will miss the little things, like Ender’s exhaustion during the third act, his choice to cheat the games he plays, and his overall rebellious nature. Still, this is a solid adaptation of a truly great novel that speaks to adolescents better than any book before it. I’m reminded of my own upbringing, and the place I was in when I first read the book. Ender is very much an avatar for children of all ages, a figure of unending hope for a flawed humanity.