Have you ever seen that one movie? You know the one, it’s based on a young adult novel and it’s starring a hot young actor alongside a few veteran adults? The one where the trailer looked pretty cool but then when you saw it you realized that they had cut so much of the actually important parts of the story that the movie ended up not being very good?
Yeah I saw that movie tonight. It’s called Ender’s Game.
It’s a fairly typical problem really. Books have such nuance and depth and often times when being adapted to the screen the film makers will lean towards the things that they know are cool: an awesome environment, a shiny computer system, battles in space. Why is this a problem? Mostly because when the focus is so heavily on making a film a visual feast the things that actually make a film hold together –plot and character development– get left by the wayside. We saw it in most of the Harry Potter films, all of the Twilight films, the failed adaptation of The Golden Compass, god knows how many other adaptations, and now we’re seeing it with Ender’s Game.
So here’s the basic premise. In the near future Earth was attacked by a race of insect like aliens called The Formics. The invasion was turned back thanks to the heroism of one Mazer Rackham and now the military of Earth is recruiting bright young children to Battle School in hopes of finding a new great commander to lead the next defense of Earth. Ender Wiggan is one such child and, as you can probably tell from the title of the movie, the child.
It’s a cool set up as it basically transfers everything that every boy in the schoolyard has endured to space and the character building taken to the logical extreme of great men born of adversity. Except none of that is in the movie. In the book Ender is isolated by the faculty at Battle School Every time he gets comfortable he’s reassigned or singled out in some way to ensure that everyone is against him and he’ll be forced to adapt and grow and win the games he’s forced to play on his own.
In the film we’re told all this is happening but don’t really get to see any of it. In the book we follow Ender as he’s moved from launch class to an army, to a new army to being a platoon leader to getting a command of his own all while the faculty change the rules to make everything harder for him. In the movie we see his first battle with his first army, then he’s given a command, we’re told he’s successful in making them the best ever, we see one battle and then him put at the top of the rankings, and then it’s off to the next level of school.
Through all this we’re constantly told how hard the school is being on him and how he’s not able to rely on anyone while all the while he forms a number of close friendships. It’s entirely discordant.
Once Ender gets to command school where he’s commanding space fleets in large scale simulations (you’ve seen this in the trailer) we get to see a couple of battles and lots of talkign about what’s going on. The space battles are pretty damn cool actually but this is sort of the crux of the problem. The space battles are cool, but they effectively cut out the character development of Battle School so you have no idea why Ender is the one they chose to elevate in the first place other than that his name is the one in the title.
Gavin Hood has directed four movies that I have seen. Tsotsi was prety amazing and won him an Oscar for best foreign language film. Rendition was muddled and heavy handed, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a mess but it made a boat load of money. Ender’s Game is similarly a mess. It cuts between scenes too quickly and it can’t decide if it’s trying to be a character study or just a glossy space battle movie. If Hood had chosen to make the film one or the other we might have ended up with something great but in choosing the middle road he ended up making just another forgettable young adult movie.
The one standout in the movie is Harrison Ford. He’s a perfect fit for the gruff commander of the school and delivers all his lines pretty much perfectly. It’s tempting to say that he stands out because he’s acting mostly with kids but his scenes with Viola Davis are also dynamic and engaging; once Ben Kingsley shows up he get to be upstaged by Ford as well.
So all in all Ender’s Game is a disappointment. Just another case of “let’s adapt the cool looking stuff and not the story” that happens so often with this sort of film. this was the last of my most anticipated films of the year and honestly, I wish I’d picked better.
There is a silver lining to all this though because if Ender’s Game tanks in theatres then the chances of a sequel being greenlit, and Orson Scott Card getting another paycheque, are almost nil.
So that’s something.