Ender’s Game, dir. Gavin Hood (2013)
I am one of those people who always reads the book. Sometimes, I have conversations that go this way. Someone will bring up a book that I loved as a kid. “Do you know Toot and Puddle?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I loved those books!” And they say, “They made a book?” And I’ll say, “They made a movie?” I’m not just saying that because I’m a literary snob (although you’ll notice I don’t deny it) and there have been notable exceptions (The Hunger Games), but usually I read the book before any adaptation hits the screen.
Such was the case with Ender’s Game, and boy am I glad. As I sat in the theater last night trying to explain why I loved Ender’s Game so much, Hood’s movie playing in front of us didn’t help. I’ll say this: I can’t really fault the gorgeous special effects, the heart-thumping battle sequences, or even (for the most part) the acting.
But when it comes to getting to the core of what made Card’s novel such a great human story, the script barely tries. Asa Butterfield makes Ender sympathetic, but movie-Ender is hardly the subtle, layered, tortured character he is in Card’s novel.
Ender kills all the aliens. He nukes their planet. And then, that’s victory, right? No. In the book, Ender is wracked with uncertainty and guilt and resolves to find the last Hive Queen, the last surviving member of the alien race he massacred. Ender becomes the “speaker for the dead,” telling the stories of the race he murdered using his special connection to the Hive Queen.
The book goes from being a militaristic, gung-ho, Starship Troopers, wartime bildungsroman to a deep, quiet, sad contemplation on the nature of war and, fundamentally, how we treat the Other, l’etranger, whether it be human or alien.
The book has a certain flexibility that makes it both daring and appealing. It isn’t the sort of book that you like only if you like space opera, or only if you like novels that deal with the human mind. Even for readers who have a slight inclination to either one of those genres, Ender’s Game appeals.
But in a big-budget Hollywood setting, Ender’s Game fails. The constituent parts are (almost) all there, but the script is embarrassing and most of the relationships fall flat. Harrison Ford and Viola Davis perform well as the commanders of the Battle School, the space station in low orbit where Ender goes to train to become a “boy of war,” but they barely have any time to do so. The whole movie feels rushed: 114 minutes is enough to make a loud action extravaganza, or a quiet meditation on the nature of warfare and its effect on the human soul. It’s not enough time, apparently, for Gavin Hood et al. to make something worthwhile out of a book that has elements of both.
Read the book. It’s amazing. It deals with every question that the movie hints at on a much deeper level. It’s a quick, propulsive, surprising read.
The movie: 5/10.
The book: 10/10.