SPOILER ALERT: This blog post is a comparison of the movie and the book and is mainly aimed at people who have already read the book.
The acclaimed military science fiction novel Ender’s Game has been brought to the big screen by director Gavin Hood. Hood also wrote the screenplay based on the book by Orson Scott Card. The novel is beloved and there has been much trepidation about the movie adaptation. I have read the book and I am concerned here with my theory that a movie should end up better than the novel it is based on. I am familiar with the belief that movies seldom match their source, especially when we are talking about classic novels. I swim upstream when it comes to this parroted philosophy. Does “Ender’s Game” support the majority view or mine?
For those unfamiliar with the novel’s plot, Ender Wiggin is a young boy who is a prodigy when it comes to military strategy and tactics. He is groomed through tough love to become a fleet commander to lead Earth in the upcoming sequel to Earth versus the alien would-be conquerors.
The movie briefly backgrounds the previous war in which the Borg-like Formics (the “Buggers” of the book) almost wiped out Earth. Only the amazing performance by a Mazer Rackham saved the human race. 50 years later Earth is preparing a pre-emptive attack on the Formic planet. Ender (Asa Butterfield) is taken from his parents to Battle School which is located in outer space. The commander of battle school Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) feels Ender is “the one” and takes steps to harden him for command. Ender makes friends and enemies among the cadets and quickly proves a natural in the Battle Room where the low gravity environment makes for interesting competitions and great special effects. The movie does as good a job as could be expected in recreating the environment, but the competitions are pale reenactments of the vibrant book scenes. Ender is the Battle School’s star pupil until his encounter with a jealous older boy causes him to drop out. Graff uses Ender’s sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) to convince him mankind needs him.
Ender is taken by Graff to a secret outpost where he is introduced to the legendary Rackham (Ben Kingsley) and reunited with his best mates from Battle School. They are told they are going to go through simulations of commanding the fleet assaulting the Formic planet. Each simulation involves Ender directing his comrades as each controls a different part of the fleet. This leads up to “graduation day”.
The movie is not substantially different from the novel. The main difference is what is left out, basically for time reasons. The film jettisons the subplots of Valentine and Peter (Ender’s psychopath older brother) in their political guises as Demosthenes and Locke. This is an improvement as that part of the book struck me as being highly unrealistic and mostly filler. The movie also makes no reference at all to the situation on Earth. In the book, Card makes the questionable decision to liken Earth in the distant future to Cold War Earth (even using the term Warsaw Pact). This allows for the dubious inclusion of an Earthbound conflict that the movie thankfully avoids.
The movie hits the highlights of Ender’s rise to commander status, but naturally cannot go into the details that were one of the highlights of the book. The movie only hints at the struggles Ender has to go through in overcoming obstacles placed in front of him by Graff. In order to compact the time frame (possibly for purposes of using only one actor to portray Ender), we get a much quicker progression in the Battle School. The movie is particularly weak in depicting how Ender’s outside the box tactics were the keys to his success. In fact, he wins his last match using a conventional formation which essentially dilutes what little effort the movie had made to hint at why he was brilliant. There is also much less character development among the core group with Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) being bumped up to BFF (not surprisingly). Bean, Alai, Dink, and Bernard are there only to bring back fond memories for fans of the book.
The other highlight of the book (the “mind game”) is given a prominent role and benefits from video game style graphics that should go over well with the core audience. The movie places the emphasis on how the game got out of the control of Graff whereas in the book the emphasis was more on Ender’s problem solving abilities. More would have been better, but again time constraints played a role in limiting these forays into Ender’s mind. The scenes do play a pivotal role in setting up the ending of the movie.
The biggest strength of the movie is pushing the theme that the war may have been unnecessary and was blatant genocide. The movie downplays the evilness of the Formics (witness the omission of the term “buggers”). Ender is more torn up by what he has done than in the book. The movie also is able to be more visceral in portraying the sacrifices Ender has to call for from his fleet during the simulations. The post script is simplified in a more satisfying way than in the book.
Is the movie better than the book? In advancing the overarching theme that Ender was being used by the military to preemptively destroy an alien species that perhaps was not deserving of extinction, the movie is more efficient than the book. The excision of the subplots streamlines the plot, but the slimming down of Ender’s Battle School experience keeps the movie’s length under control at the expense of the most memorable moments and characters.
In conclusion, the novel is on the Marine Corps’ recommended reading list. It is highly unlikely the movie will be recommended viewing. What this means is that if you prefer a plot that deals mainly with the stresses of command with a heavy dose of strategy and tactics, you would probably prefer the novel. The movie is more a synopsis of the book – hitting the high spots without diving in too deep. The film concentrates more on the moral dimensions of the war. While the book erred in going into too much detail on periphery plots, the movie does not go into enough detail on the cherished elements of the book. Is the movie better? I would give it a slight nod, but it is not as clear a victory as for “Starship Troopers” the movie.
P.S. If you have not read the book, I strongly recommend you read it before watching the movie. But be sure you stop reading the book before you get to the graduation simulation.