“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” — Andrew “Ender” Wiggins from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Perhaps that’s what Gavin Hood was hoping for from voracious Ender’s Game consumers when he wrote and directed his film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s beloved fast-paced military sci-fi children’s novel.
He must have hoped Ender’s Game fans would have the same empathy, understanding and forgiveness as their boy hero, Andrew “Ender” Wiggins. Hood hoped they would understand his extensive creative liberties in the film — how he had to cram a 324-page book into an 114-minute Hollywood blockbuster, translating it for mass audiences (We can’t all be Peter Jackson, right?).
It’s a formidable task — complicated by the controversial and psychological themes of Card’s novel. And, as one can expect, the film doesn’t measure up.
Hood’s adaption opens with a familiar voice over (like the ones we’ve recently seen in Pacific Rim or After Earth or in half a dozen other sub-par post-apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers). This time, bug-like aliens called Formics attacked Earth half a century ago, killing 50 million people. In response, humans created the International Fleet, recruiting and training the world’s next child-Napoleans and Alexander the Greats.
These precocious and gifted children were destined to be the next commanders, tacticians and strategists: the future leaders in the impending alien space war. And I.F. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks 12-year-old Ender Wiggins’ (Asa Butterfield) humanity’s last hope.
Because the alien threat’s growing, Ender’s space training (which consists of games of laser freeze tag against opposing teams in no-gravity fly zones) is accelerated.
“The Colonel is changing the rules,” says one boy when Ender’s team is forced to face two opposing teams at the same time.
“We’re running out of time,” says Colonel Graff, as he studies maps and simulations.
But as fast as Ender’s training is going, Hood has even less time to make Card’s points, causing the film to feel rushed, chaotic and ultimately unsatisfying.
While Colonel Graff and Major Anderson’s (Viola Davis) training regimen for Ender includes keeping him isolated from the other children, Ender makes quick friends with Bean (Aramis Knight), another small and intelligent boy; Alai (Suraj Partha), a Muslim boy who vomited during their first flight to space; and Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), an older girl who teaches Ender the ropes. Meanwhile Graff’s paternal one-on-one sessions with Ender (probably to give Harrison Ford more screen time) belies the scenes when he cruelly elevates the boy, separating him from the other children.
These contradictory messages make the film confusing. And while those who understand Ender still love him, it’s hard to connect with a hero who’s seen bullied one minute and violently kicking another boy in the next.
It’s not Asa Butterfield’s fault that we cannot connect with him. He was charming as Hugo in Martin Scorsese’s film.
But Ender’s Game omits scenes crucial to understanding the boy’s character development. The end result is a botched though-provoking masterpiece.
The book portrays Ender as a pragmatic teacher, who understood it’s safer to be feared than loved. He treats his protegee Bean as Colonel Graff treated him.
But Ender also understood that his soldiers each had value; that he could delegate leadership and trust Bean, Alai and Petra to come through.
Card drew criticism because his hero was so young and perceptive that adults found it hard to believe. But it’s a lesson Hood should learn and remember because the movie-going public is intelligent.
Instead, Hood’s encumbered by making the film comprehensive for those not familiar with the text, stringing the movie together with catchy soundbites like, “Let the courage of Mazer Rackham [the renowned commander who defeated the Formics the first time] be your inspiration.” (Sound familiar, folks? “May the odds be ever in your favor,” is the catchphrase from Hunger Games, another popular book-turned-movie franchise.)
He also creates digestible expository ones like this: “The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars.”
The phrase may ring true, but the film doesn’t delve deeper than the soundbite. And George Orwell said it better and more succinctly when he penned, “War is peace.”
It’s not Asa Butterfield, Viola Davis or Harrison Ford’s fault that they’re acting out caricatures of Card’s creation. Like Ender, they are chess pieces in Hood’s game. But unlike Card’s Ender Wiggins, Hood doesn’t know how to utilize his talent.
Hood’s from the Hollywood mindset: the one that doesn’t understand that people are smart and have attention spans longer than 114 minutes.
But as much as I want to hate Hood’s creation, I can’t. I can’t because I understand where Hood might be coming from — the pressures of mass marketing, time constraints and the complicated nature of his subject matter. And when I truly understand where Hood’s product is coming from, I love and appreciate Ender’s Game that much more.
“Ender’s Game” was written by Orson Scott Card in 1985, winning both the Nebula and Hugo Award for best novel. Card also wrote “Ender’s Shadow,” “Speaker for the Dead,” “Xenocide,” “Children of the Mind,” and many more following the events in “Ender’s Game.”
The film adaptation of “Ender’s Game” was directed by Gavin Hood and written by Hood and Orson Scott Card.