Ender’s Game was good. That’s an extremely short version, but the rest of this will mostly be caveats on that statement. So, don’t miss it: I really enjoyed Ender’s Game, the film.
The source material is among my favorite books. I own multiple copies, have read it five or six times in the last decade, and have spent a fair amount of time in its extended universe. I’ve used the ideas explored in Ender’s Game to illustrate philosophical points in papers. In short, I’m probably one of the biggest fans of the book. I’m also not the sort of fan who thinks that the film had to be one hundred percent exactly the same. For a story like this, that would be nearly impossible.
Spoilers from here on out.
So I won’t complain about those changes. I won’t complain that the film cuts down on Ender’s interactions with Peter and Valentine. I won’t complain that the entirety of the movie is condensed down into approximately a year, rather than the six that the book takes. I won’t complain that most of Ender’s frustrating zero-g battles are condensed into one battle, rather than a slower increase in difficulty.
I really want to complain about Bernard making it all the way to the end of the movie. But I won’t, because that’s really petty. It does bother me, though.
Here’s the biggest issue with the movie: pacing. While the movie manages to hit almost all of the major notes in the book (and this is actually quite impressive), in order to do so the film moves as quickly as possible through nearly everything. There’s some sense to this: we should probably feel the impending invasion the same way that the characters do. But it gets to the point where every line feels like it is rushed. You could pull almost any 30 second fragment from the film and make it into a trailer. Provided you avoid spoilers, that would actually work just fine.
I’d have rather the film been three movies, or at least two. Give the first film a bit more time on earth, then Battle School up until Ender is promised Dragon Army. Then, do a movie from his first battle up until he is transferred to Command (spending some time showing how much they are sacrificing as far as the school itself). Finally, do an entire film for Ender’s time on the asteroid (rather than the planet), fighting new types of battles, focusing on the background learning of the Formics.
I recognize that you couldn’t really talk a studio into doing that. Without proving you can sustain audiences (*ahem* The Hobbit), you won’t get funding to turn “one story” into three movies.
So that’s the biggest problem. My second issue is more localized. When Ender fights Bonzo in the book, the fight is visceral; Ender’s win is both decisive and intentional. Bonzo attacks, and even after Ender has incapacitated him, he continues to beat him. The fight is a clear mirror with Ender’s fight before he leaves Earth, which was depicted in the film. Ender is still a monster. A relatable protagonist, with clear motives, but one who clearly acts violently in ways that are morally evil. Even at the end of the text, when Ender has won the war, he feels guilty not just because of the actions he participated in, but because he was convinced that he would have acted the same way, had he known.
In the film, however, Ender progressively becomes less violent. Rather than continuing to possess the reasoning he has in the beginning, after Ender enters Battle School, he starts to think the way he grows to think in Speaker for the Dead. Eventually, Ender grows to hate himself in the book series, branding himself as the Xenocide and working hard to bring back the Formics he had previously destroyed. But while he is still a functioning and active part of the International Fleet, Ender pretty clearly maintains the willingness to destroy his enemy, if need be. He won’t like doing it, but he thinks that it is necessary. It isn’t until he’s completed the task he was asked to do (and had spent half of his life working towards) that he manages to snap himself out of this “fight to end all future fights” mentality. But when Ender fights Bonzo in the film, he doesn’t actually hurt Bonzo intentionally. Ender lands one solid kick, mostly to keep Bonzo away from himself, and Bonzo falls and hits his head on an edge. Ender calls for help, immediately, and even goes to watch surgery being performed on Bonzo’s now-shaven head. There’s compassion, sure, and Ender has always had that. But we still end up with a different Ender than the one in the books.
That said, the Ender in the film is probably the moral superior. Book-Ender is a killer all the way up until Speaker for the Dead, even as he is incredibly compassionate. But Film-Ender manages compassion from the moment he leaves Earth. He doesn’t even have to fight back against Bernard, who miraculously stays with him through the end (those who haven’t seen the film but have read the book: if you’ve forgotten who Bernard is, that’s understandable; he isn’t memorable by name, and shouldn’t have gotten that far in the film).
Oops. I said I wouldn’t complain about that.
The film looks fantastic, to give it the praise it is due. The acting is top notch, regardless of characterization decisions. Ender is incredibly emotional, and Asa Butterfield portrays that excellently. Harrison Ford pulls off Graff better than I had hoped. All around, the cast is tight, the effects are cool, and the experience as a whole just plain works. The moral conflict is preserved, and even the Giant’s Drink game manages to do well.
But really, Bernard?