Welcome to the next in our series of “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”
The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “Ender’s Game,” a novel written by Orson Scott Card that was first published in 1984, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards that year, and adapted for the screen in 2013 by writer and director Gavin Hood (“Eye in the Sky,” “X-Men: Wolverine”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the story (adapted from the book cover):
“Once again, Earth is under attack. An alien species is poised for a final assault. The survival of humanity depends on a military genius. But who? Ender Wiggin. Brilliant. Ruthless. Cunning. A tactical and strategic master. And a child. Recruited for military training by the world government, Ender’s childhood ends the moment he enters his new home: Battle School. Ender proves to be a genius among geniuses. In simulated war games he excels. But simulations are one thing. How will Ender perform in real combat conditions? After all, Battle School is just a game. Right?”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? That’s a bit of a quandary in this case. Gavin Hood clearly was aiming for a “based on” adaptation and not an “inspired by” one – the names and the basic plot points were the same as in the book, and he even lifted much of the dialogue word-for-word. However, he gutted the major themes, hard questions, and fundamental details upon which Card’s original version depended in favor of making a more mainstream, action-adventure movie; as a result, the adaptation is just a pale shadow of the original. So, it’s adaptation, but only because Card’s story was so unique that the elements the film shares makes it impossible to mistake it for anything else.
The story focuses on Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a five-year-old child who is selected to attend the International Fleet’s (IF) Battle School to train for the upcoming war. Seventy years in the past, a species known as the buggers (called Formics in the film) attacked Earth and decimated its fleet; twenty years later, the Second Invasion took place, ended only by a gutsy tactical move by a now-revered soldier named Mazer Rackham. When he destroyed the aliens’ main battleship, the entire invasion force fell apart, and all the soldiers were found dead at the controls of their ships. That strange occurrence remains an unsolved puzzle.
Humanity decided it would not wait for a third invasion but would make a preemptive strike. And, those in charge reasoned, as children were much more easily trained and more adaptable to new situations than adults, they had to be at the forefront of leading that charge. As such, at only five years old, Ender finds himself aboard a space launch with 19 other boys his age, all headed for training at the Battle School station. And here’s where the film makes its first major mistake.
The producers cast Asa Butterfield, a 15-year-old actor, to play Ender. Yes, it would have been harder to work with a five- or six-year-old in such a demanding position, but Butterfield’s age (and those of the other “children” around him) made him completely unbelievable in the role. After his training, Ender would easily be over 18, the age at which we routinely conscript soldiers in the United States (and many other countries around the world), even though they are not usually in command positions. Card, though, set out to explore the difficult questions about how we use children in warfare and the morality of imposing such violent and restrictive training on the young. An older actor completely negated the very premise of the story.
Ender is brilliant, and he demonstrates this right from the start. Aboard the launch, he is able to reorient himself in zero gravity, where there is no “up” nor “down,” to adopt any perspective he wants – the only one of the bunch who can. Colonel Graf, the Administrator of the Battle School and the man who recruited Ender, singles him out for attention, thereby “isolating” him from the other children and ensuring he will have no friends. In this way, he will be able to focus entirely on his studies and will succeed or fail on his own merits. And here’s where the film makes its second major mistake. While aboard the shuttle, Ender extends his hand to the boy next to him in greeting and introduces himself. Though initially reluctant to accept, “Bean” then smiles and graciously accepts, and so a lasting friendship is born. Ender then has someone he can work with and confide in, and they remain together off-and-on throughout the film until the end. In the story, Bean is someone he meets much later in his training, and though they have a friendship, Ender is always clearly his superior. Ender remains the isolated commander, held not to the needs of his friends but only to each new battle.
After a short training period, Ender is prematurely promoted to Salamander Army, though he is clearly undertrained and unwanted by the commander of the unit. Only seven, small and scrawny, Ender is viewed as a liability to the older soldiers (ten and eleven years old), and he is ordered not to participate in the Army’s training battles. In the story, Ender uses the time to stay just inside the door to the battleroom, watching, analyzing, and learning strategies from the actions – and especially the mistakes – of his fellow soldiers; he then uses the information to guide his training during the rigorous practice sessions he sets up for himself and other soldiers who want to learn from him. And here – you guessed it – is where the film makes its third major mistake.
While Ender initially watches in his suit from the door to the battleroom, he sees an opportunity to help Salamander Army win the fight, and he takes it. The filmmakers show him expertly flying through the zero gravity battlefield (despite his obvious lack of training), both arms stretched out with guns blazing, and a huge smile on his face. This makes no sense. Ender had promised that he would always obey that commander’s orders, and here he takes the first opportunity to break that promise. It was a violation of the character’s discipline and his commitment to the chain of command for him to engage in so flagrant a violation of his well-ingrained training and would seriously injure his chances of advancement. It was, as such, completely unbelievable.
The film also failed to convey the rigors of Ender’s and the rest of the children’s training, a grueling schedule of classwork, practice sessions, and increasingly frequent battles that spans not just a few months, but years of their lives. It was a schedule meant to challenge young minds to the point of breaking; to push for results never before achieved by any one of any age; and to wear down the weak and harden those who would rise up in the ranks to command their own armies, and, in the case of Ender, to serve as Commander of the Fleet. The film gives us quick jumps up the training ladder, hitting only the major battles and successes, and we are expected to believe that Ender accomplished so much, and without a lot of training, in just a few short months.
Gone, too, are the very real brutalities of war – if not so much in the simulations, then in the toll it takes on soldiers and commanders forced to fight until they reach their limits and then are pushed to go beyond them. While the film’s final battle sequence sees Ender orchestrating his close-knit group of friend-soldiers into a rousing victory against the buggers, in Card’s story, there are casualties – many of them. Petra, one of the most experienced and competent commanders, freezes from exhaustion during a simulation, and she is broken as an effective fighter in future engagements, forcing Ender to rethink his battle tactics. Others, too, break along the way. Ender prevailed against the buggers, but at what cost? Card questioned whether the end really justifies the means with Graf’s court-martial for his brutal tactics, as well as the morality of genocide, even under such extreme conditions, yet we see no consequence for the soldiers or commanders in the film.
With all that said, it’s hard to imagine that there would be other deviations from the original story that would prove of consequence, but there actually are – many of them.
Card’s story is set against the political backdrop of a planet that has survived, though hardly unscathed, through two brutal wars. The only reason the people of Earth are united at this time, though, is because of the aliens, a case of “us versus them.” And it’s only the necessity of winning this new war that has permitted them to accept the harsh military realities of using children as front-line soldiers. What effect would this mentality have on a planet’s inhabitants, Card wondered? He uses Ender’s brother, Peter, and his sister, Valentine, to find out. The two take on secret identities, essentially blogging political opinions and “what if” scenarios to gain control over the political landscape. When Ender’s victory over the buggers eliminates the “us versus them,” Earth’s inherently divided nature rears its ugly head again, plunging the planet back into civil war. It is only Peter’s stranglehold on certain factions and Valentine’s support for off-world colonies that restores some semblance of peace. In the film, though, all we learn is that Peter is the brother Ender hates, and Valentine is the sister he loves, no more, no less. It makes for shallow characters and the abandonment of any meaningful discussion of how a war-like mentality can alter how we behave.
Perhaps the most important omission in the film comes at the end. Ender is wracked by guilt over what he did to the buggers, who, as it turns out, we never going to attack Earth again after learning that humans are sentient. The only bugger left is the hive-queen, and, through telepathy, she tells the story of her people to Ender, asking that he serve as their representative in communicating their history and intentions to the people of Earth. He writes an account told in the voice of the hive-queen as part of Valentine’s history of the bugger wars, and he signs it simply as “The Speaker for the Dead.” His moving description becomes almost a religion among humans, and many take up the practice of having someone communicate their life to the living, without glorification or adornment, when they have passed away. This account is the bridge that serves as the major transition to the next installment in the series, and it puts all that has happened in this book into perspective. Its omission in the film is a lost opportunity to gain meaning and understanding from the underlying story.
The Final Cut
So, how did “Ender’s Game” as a movie fare as a book adaptation overall? Very, very badly. In translation, it lost its foundation and its heart. It lost what made the book such a powerful statement about humanity. I would give it no higher than a D- for its lack of insight in to what was important in the original story and how to communicate that.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.