I took myself to see the new Ender’s Game movie on Sunday this weekend. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have read the book the movie is based on, by Orson Scott Card, and its companion, Ender’s Shadow, multiple times; I actually own them both. (I have also read most of the rest of the series, but things got a little odd for my tastes; I like the first two parallel stories best.) So I did go in hoping it would be a good movie, but knowing that book adaptations can go either way.
I will say the book is better, but that’s not because the movie is bad. It’s because you can fit so much more in 324 pages (my ’94 paperback edition) and howevermany hours that takes you to read than you can in just short of 2 hours of movie. Because they had to understandably compact the story, some of the awesome moments lost some of their weight. But, because they were now visual and aural instead of just my imagination, some of the awesome moments were more awesome. I saw it in 2D and, while I don’t regret it, I think this is one movie that is probably better in 3D.
Side note for a moment: While I know I have two family member blog readers who have read the book, I can’t assume anyone else knows the story. Since I’m horrible at summarizing things, here is a modified summary from Summit Entertainment: In the near future, a hostile alien race has attacked Earth. All was nearly lost, but for the heroics of one man. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff and the International Fleet seek to find a future leader who can save the human race. Ender Wiggin, a shy but brilliant young mind, is recruited to join the elite in the Battle School, where he’s trained to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth.
Casting the young leads was very important – there are only a handful of key adults in the book; the majority of the main players are children – and I feel they nailed it.
I grinned when I saw Hailee Steinfeld in the trailer, as she was one of the best things about the new True Grit (2010). She was perfect as Ender’s sharpshooting Battle School companion Petra. Ender’s older sister Valentine had a small fraction of the story time that she does in the book, but Abigail Breslin did a great job with what there was. I haven’t seen any of Asa Butterfield’s other movies, but he played the lead, Ender, extremely well. All the conflicts that come with being a youngest child chosen over his older siblings for a prestigious program, with being a gifted child who still has to navigate between adults in authority whom he may very well be smarter than and other children, with knowing that the Battle School is training you for violence and war and yet a great leader needs empathy and understanding as well… all of this Asa has the expressive face and acting talent to convey. He’s a completely believable Ender Wiggin in my book.
The young supporting characters – Bean, Dink Meeker, Bernard, Fly Molo, Bonzo Madrid, and older brother Peter Wiggin – were also well cast and played; though as a result of the necessary story-crunching, they were all less developed than in the book. An extensive Valentine and Peter sub-plot was dropped, actually, so they suffer the most from the abbreviation. The older supporting characters (supporting in the sense that this is really Ender’s story) were also superbly done. Harrison Ford as International Fleet Colonel Hyrum Graff and Viola Davis as IF Major Anderson were their usual talented selves. Though Viola was an interesting choice, as in the book Anderson is male and of unidentified ethnicity, probably Caucasian. At first I was worried that the switch was simply an effort at forced inclusiveness and would be strange, but Viola was so good I soon forgot about it. Ben Kingsley was also magnificent, but I’m pretty sure the internet message board debates will be raging about his accent (I think it was fine and I’ve been to New Zealand).
But enough about the casting – you want to know “does it work?” Can they make us believe in an orbital boarding school built to train brilliant children into the military commanders we need to save us from a repeat of the alien invasion that nearly wiped us out? The answer is yes. Imaging technology and quality have come so far since that old green screen that the Battle School, and, just as importantly, the zero-gravity Battle Room are awe-inspiringly believable. And the weight of Harrison, Ben, and Viola’s performances make us believe that they believe this is truly what has to be done to save the human race, no matter the cost to the children or to themselves.
Does the movie carry all of the fascinating complexities of the book? No – it can’t. There isn’t room. It does carry a good many of them; it does raise a number of the same difficult to answer questions (Do we really have the right to do something like that to children? [In the book, Ender goes up to the Battle School at six years old and spends four years there before moving on.] But exceptionally high IQ people will tell us that their childhoods were never “normal” anyway, so is it condescending of us to think they must have one? Isn’t it better to give them a direction for that intelligence, a place among their peers to push them to excel, rather than trying to shuffle them in with the average kids? And do the answers to any of those questions change when we have reason to believe the survival of the human race is at risk from an outside force and their intelligence could save it?) but not quite all of them.
Did they change things? Yes, of course. Some of the changes were in the process of compacting the story, some were in the adaptation from one storytelling form to another, some I’m sure were choices made in process by the Director or Producer. Many of the changes made sense to me, but some of them are going to affect the way people unfamiliar with the book see the story. For example, because there isn’t as much time to develop the culture of the Battle School, Ender’s strategic isolation by the administrators doesn’t carry as much of an impact. Because they don’t spend as much time in Command School, the toll it takes on all of the Battle School graduates is not felt as much (though they do highlight some of it).
Overall, even with the changes, it’s a good movie. It could have been better, because there was so much material there, and some will be more disappointed with the omissions than I was. But it’s still visually gorgeous and detailed – the Battle Room and the final simulation are particularly spectacular in that respect – it’s well cast and acted, the music is good, and it doesn’t shy away altogether from the complexities of the book. But the problem I have is this: is that my opinion because I already know the story, know more of it than they could fit in the movie? Because I wanted it to work? Or is it a good movie on its own? I kept thinking, especially through the ending, ‘does this work for someone who doesn’t know from the book what is going on in Ender’s head right now?’ Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question, I can’t un-read the book (and wouldn’t want to). Any readers here who haven’t read the book brave enough to give the movie a shot and let me know what you think? I’d love to discuss the movie and its questions with anyone who has seen it, whether they’ve read the book(s) or not, actually. I believe that’s the mark of a great story, really, in either film or book form: that it makes us think and talk and wonder.