I should mention beforehand: I’m going to be comparing a lot to the book. Of course I’ll talk about the movie itself as a standalone, but I’m also incorporating the book. So if you’re one of those people who disapprove of book-movie comparisons, feel free to move on.
First off, I want to say that thinking about the movie hurts. It hurts like crazy because the book has so much depth and material to work off of, and the movie doesn’t take advantage of that. Ender’s Game is such a well-crafted piece of writing with well-rounded characters and wonderful world-building. The movie… falls short.
Short, not flat.
By itself, it’s pretty good. It hits the bigger themes of the book. It tells the story of a child who wishes to be good but ends up becoming the destroyer of an entire species. A child who is afraid of his own cruelty and wishes to be good. There’s a lot of identity conflicts, and that’s what makes Ender’s story so unique and special. Despite being set in a futuristic technology-heavy world, the main focus is on him as a person.
Things I liked about the movie script: Bernard’s development. It was a little sudden and idealistic in a could-only-happen-in-a-story way, but I have a soft spot for character development storylines. I also like that that the bugger egg was on an ‘advanced command post near the formic home planet’ (AKA Eros, as it was called in the book). For the purposes of condensing a book into a movie, as is usually necessary with adaptations, this was a good change. It was a smooth way that didn’t detract from the storyline.
About condensing books into movies. Ender’s Game was severely cut. It completely missed out on the development of a lot of side characters. Especially Valentine and Peter. What about the whole Locke and Demosthenes aspect? Where did that go? It was crucial towards developing the personalities of Ender’s siblings. And Valentine and Peter are the idealized polars in Ender’s mind that he constantly struggles between. Those two are crucial towards understanding Ender’s multi-dimensionality. What about the greatest irony of the Wiggin brothers- that kind Ender is remembered as a killer while psycho Peter is remembered as a hero?
And of course, the relationship between Bean and Ender. Bean has an entire book titled Ender’s Shadow for a reason. Bean is a character in himself. He has his own story to tell, his own life, his own personality. What he looked like in the movie: a kid that represented the majority of Ender’s launch group- hating Ender at first, looking to him as a leader at last. He was a manifestation of the general population. He didn’t have his own story.
It makes me feel betrayed.
And it’s not just about Bean. It’s about Ender. In the book, Ender has a complex about treating Bean like Ender’s instructors treated Ender. It’s an important theme in the book: isolation entails excellence. Ender stepping into the role as Bean’s isolator is an important development point for Ender’s character. And the story of how Bean becomes Ender’s right hand man. That development is so much deeper than ‘Bean used to be jealous of Ender but now he likes Ender.’
Ender’s complicated relationship with his friends was also underdeveloped. People like Petra were flattened out a lot. In the book, Petra is both good and bad. She is simultaneously a teacher to Ender and a jealous student. She is both good and bad, as is human nature. You can apply this concept to the majority of the minor characters in book Ender’s Game. They’ve all been flattened to all-good or all-bad (except Bernard, as explained above). What did she look like in the movie? Only a teacher and supporter to Ender.
As a side note, I don’t know if Hailee Steinfield was the right choice for this role. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love her in other movies. Like Pitch Perfect 2- she embodies those kinds of characters accurately. Just look at Hailee in real life. She doesn’t strike me as a tomboy. She’s not the kind of person who should portray boyish Petra Arkanian. Petra Arkanian in the book never broke until pushed and stressed to the cracking point. She does not cry out of empathy for other people. She cracked because of a personal failure. In the movie, she was close to tears when Ender was about to leave to explore the bugger structure on Eros. That doesn’t align with Petra of the book. Nor does it serve as an improvement.
And I know just because you are something in real life, doesn’t mean you can’t act differently for a movie. But imagine Asa Butterfield was a jumpy and excitable person in real life. I don’t think he could have portrayed silently-suffering Ender Wiggin quite as easily then. What I’m saying is, characters usually have to ring with the actor in order to be portrayed meaningfully. And they have to ring on a deep level, not a wouldn’t-that-be-fun-to-play level.
I believe Gavin Hood had no excuse to saw away at a book that much (keep in mind I’m only talking about his screenplay work with Ender’s Game. I’m in no way criticizing his directing or his other screenplays). Ender’s Game runs just barely under 2 hours, which isn’t too bad, but it could have been longer without raising eyebrows. It needed to be longer. And even if it was too long, I’m fairly sure it would have had a much more positive reception than the way it is now. Interstellar runs almost 3 hours, but it’s amazing because of the idea of the story. I feel like the amount of times Ender did a voice-over recap of things happening is proof of where the movie could have had more material. And anyways, if the movie had been exactly like the book, it probably would have run about 4 hours. But Titanic is proof that despite the normal movie time of the era, if it’s good, people will like it. Ender’s Game had the potential to be one of those massively long but exceptionally well received movies.
Another side note: I believe the book version of Ender’s Game is just as good as Interstellar, in its own way. Interstellar has its accurate yet interesting-to-the-masses science (who knew that was possible?) + makes-you-think theory thing, and book Ender’s Game has the very human message of internal conflict + attempting to drive your own life when everyone else has their hands all over your future. Interstellar rings with me in a thoughtful way, and Ender’s Game rings with me in an emotional way.
They don’t call it the Enderverse for nothing. There is extremely well-crafted world-building in his world. But it’s all glossed over in the movie. The Polemarch, the thing about Jewish commanders in the Strategos, the Warsaw Pact, the way the world is clinging together only out of a mutual fear of the buggers… Gone. The missing politics completely takes down a dimension to the IF. The International Fleet is keeping the world together against the buggers, thus there’s a certain futility to the Battle School and Ender’s pseudo-victory at the end. The basic They Weren’t Attacking but We Attacked guilt in Ender, but the politics aspect would have compounded that. Made it a more painful thing. It would have rung more.
There’s little things that I want to talk about too. Fly Molo was caricatured as just another Salamander annoyed at inexperienced Ender. He’s even on Bonzo’s side. That’s not true to the book. Of course, there’s little things I like, too. Petra calling the Little Doctor a ‘her.’ That matched her character. It made sense that she would say it. But in general, the characterizations were shaky. Bean is supposed to be a genius. Yet he said “Ender? What kind of name is that?” scoffingly. I’m not sure how I feel about the battle Ender lost. It deconstructs the picture that Orson Scott Card seemed to be drawing of Ender Who Never Loses, but it does build on Perfect Ender Finally Fails and It’s Shocking for Him. It makes his more human. So that boils down to how loyal one wants to be to the author’s creation. I liked the Asp + Salamander vs Dragon battle. Putting Salamander there instead of Leopard and Tiger was a good condensation that developed Bonzo and showed how he hates being beaten by Ender. It also gives a clear reason for the shower scene. The Mind Game was nicely condensed. It kept the important ideas about the Peter-Valentine polarity.
I’m curious as to how this movie’s ratings might have changed had there not been a book to compare it to. Obviously, I have a lot to say about how the movie falls short of the book. I wonder what others think. I’m going to say again that in itself, the movie was pretty good. But the part that hurts inside me is that Ender didn’t get a full story. He’s a wonderful character. He rings so much with me. But he didn’t get his chance to show his full potential on the big screen.