In some ways, the highly anticipated “Ender’s Game” movie is a pretty faithful adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel: It follows the book linearly, and even where it streamlines the plot or characters, it hits the book’s emotional touchpoints. For those reasons, some critics are giving it high praise. Even Card, Ender’s somewhat polarizing creator, has had positive things to say about writer-director Gavin Hood’s interpretation.
Still, other critics say that in adapting the book to film, Hood glossed over key plot points. I felt the same way. Here’s what “Ender’s Game” got right, and what I think it got very wrong.
First off, Asa Butterfield makes a fantastic Ender: Gangly and scrawny, he’s physically perfect for the role. He also manages to juggle the character’s dizzying array of emotions, shifting in the space of a scene from hurt vulnerability to brutal determination. With his trademark mix of gruffness and grudging pride, Harrison Ford (Colonel Graff) also impresses; it’s great to see him in a role that isn’tHan Solo or Indiana Jones. As for Viola Davis–who plays Major Anderson, a man in the book–she’s a great foil to Ford’s character: Sensitive and caring, as opposed to harsh like Graff.
Wrong: Stunt casting
As much as I love to see Ben Kingsley in unusual roles, his brief appearance as half-Maori war legend Mazer Rackham felt like a stunt: It was as if Summit cast him simply because they could. Unlike his nuanced turn as the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3,” here Kingsley’s performance is stiff; he simply fulfills the role without elevating it. Why couldn’t the casting director have found a person of color–or an unknown–for the role, like onetime “Hannah Montana” star Moises Arias, who utterly transformed himself to play Ender’s intimidating Battle School enemy Bonzo Madrid?
Right: Special effects
Casting missteps aside, “Ender’s Game” dazzles in the special-effects-filled Battle School simulation scenes. They’re key moments: The battles impact Ender’s emotional state of mind, and help move the plot. Also cool: The “Giant’s Drink” game that Ender plays in his spare time (and is designed by the school’s commanders to tap into his brain and dredge up his subconscious demons) is exactly as chilling as I imagined it while reading the book.
The real triumph is in the battle scenes. The filmmakers decided not to make the Battle School skirmishes as tense as those in the book; instead, as Ender and his friends discover the exhilaration of floating in zero-g and basically playing laser tag, there’s a lightheartedness to them. Things get more serious later, after Ender and his best and brightest graduate to Command School, where they are put through a battery of simulations of Formic space battles and a final, epic showdown on the Formic homeworld.
Wrong: The other Wiggins
One thing Hood should’ve rethought is putting such laser-like focus on Ender. Yes, he’s humanity’s last hope to defeat the buggers–but to completely disregard his siblings, who play important roles in the book, was a mistake. In Card’s book, Ender’s brother, Peter, and sister, Valentine, are just as smart as he is but don’t make it in Battle School; while Ender is up in space, they start writing political tracts under pseudonyms, enacting real change planetside. The movie doesn’t even hint at this subplot, even when Ender and Valentine reunite years later. It’s one thing for the International Fleet to be obsessed with what’s happening in space and forget about Earth–but the audience shouldn’t have to do the same.
Right: Children fighting wars
Even though there was some uproar when director Gavin Hood elected to cast teenagers instead of kids (in the book, Ender starts Battle School at the tender age of six), Butterfield and his co-stars are still very young, which makes watching them do battle disturbing. (Though audiences desensitized by similar kid-on-kid violence in the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series might not be that shocked.)
Wrong: Underdeveloped characters
Unfortunately, in streamlining the movie, Hood tightened his focus on certain characters at the expense of others. Ender’s shadowy, shifty brother Peter is key in the book: Early on he tries to kill Ender. Alas, in the movie he appears once, then disappears; Hood oversimplifies his role in Ender’s psychology. Similarly, Graff and Anderson’s yin-and-yang dynamic is way too stark.
Right: The final battle
Some of the film’s strongest elements–Butterfield’s nuanced acting and the SFX–combine in the final Command School simulation, where Ender and his cohorts face off against the Formic homeworld. Watching Ender bark orders, sacrifice ships and constantly shift statistics on a digital battlefield shows how much he’s grown into his role as commander. The rapid transitions between the simulation chamber and space make this unlike many space battles we’ve seen in sci-fi movies.
Wrong: The twist
I won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t read the book, but suffice to say: There is a major reveal at the end that devastates Ender and alters everything he’s regarded as truth. When that moment comes, Butterfield gets only a moment to process it–and that moment is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, the movie rushes immediately into the fallout, undermining the emotion in the moment. Considering how deftly Butterfield plays Ender’s panic and guilt at beating up his rivals in Battle School, to not give this young actor the opportunity to play out Ender’s desolation really cheats the viewer. “Ender” purists won’t be pleased.
Bottom line: Read the book first to get the emotional anchoring, but then see the movie for the cool effects.