Ender’s Game: I Don’t Want to Live On This Planet Anymore

Yes, I have read and adored the book as a kid. I completed the main series and also picked up all the Ender’s Shadow books as well. I’m very familiar this universe and could easily break down the differences and mistakes that have been made in the theatrical release but I don’t want to do that because I really enjoyed the movie. The question should not be whether or not it’s as good as the book, rather, the question is whether or not the story itself can work as a film. And it mostly does if not for the fact that it seems to have gotten itself in a big hurry. The book itself is great in part because of its pace, slow and methodical at first then gradually building in complexity and scope until the final emotional reveal, one that leaves the reader as speechless as Ender himself. But the film, thankfully absent of narration, is forced to provide exposition through clunky and obvious dialogue which just comes with the territory while telling a story that is about human interaction and mind games. In a way it’s like telling the story about a chess match without actually being able to see the pieces in play. Gavin Hood is mostly successful in doing so even if he doesn’t necessarily create a film that can stand apart from the book.
Ender’s Game starts out very serious and mostly stays that way throughout with the occasional humorous moment here and there, so I was a little bit worried the real heart of the story, the investments that we make with the entire delightfully multi-racial crew that makes up Ender’s jeesh, would be entirely absent. I wondered if this would become Colonel Graff’s Game with Ender, for the sake of Harrison Ford’s screen time. I wondered why Ender kept pointing the blunt object he fought his first bully with, as if it was going to shoot something at his attackers instead of using it for what it was (a club).
But all that wondering went away when Bean introduced himself. My inner child smiled. The enemy’s gate is down, I remembered and the little details followed: the awe of the weightless Battle Room, the tension and competition between armies, the thrill of Mazer Rackham appearing like some kind of Kung Fu yogi delivering his first lesson to Ender.
The truth is I absolutely loved this story as a kid. Many people do. Apparently the novel is recommended reading on the Marine Corp professional reading list but probably for the wrong reasons. Although it is in ways about group dynamics and leadership, along with a brilliant primer for the process of strategic and tactical thinking, the overarching theme is about compassion and empathy for one’s enemy. In its original novella form it was meant to serve as a prequel to Speaker for the Dead, a story that couldn’t be more different from Ender’s Game if it were set in India and featured Bollywood numbers. But the success of the novella prompted an expansion to novel form and included a fascinating side story about the delicate alliance of nations between the remaining world powers. Peter is treated as a throwaway bully in the film and Valentine is barely realized as a shoulder for Ender to cry on but in the novel these two characters anonymously manipulate world opinion via the internet by writing political pieces as Locke and Demosthenes, two unknown demagogues conceived as…
…still there? Are you asleep? I’d understand if you are asleep.
The point is, there is a lot more going on in this story than is what is in the film, I’m hoping there is a director’s cut out there somewhere. I was also shocked that the film is rated PG but it explains some deviations from the source material that didn’t make sense in context. For example, in the film the showdown with Bonzo ends when Ender kicks the other boy away who slips, falls, and cracks his head on a shower step. PG. In the novel Ender drives Bonzo’s nose back into his brain, killing him. Not PG. Which is still pretty absurd, the argument about the double standard between sexuality and violence has been made by smarter people than myself but it bears reference. There is a fair amount of violence in a movie about, well, interstellar warfare but one exposed boob would have changed the rating entirely and cut the box office gross in half. I invoke the title of this article regarding residency on this pale blue dot. Further, as a kid reading the novel I saw nothing awry about the fight between Ender and Bonzo but given recent controversy about Orson Scott Card and his views on homosexuality it becomes crystal clear why his main character would find one of his greatest fears in the form of a naked lathered up Spaniard attacking him in the shower. And as an occasionally naked lathered up Spaniard myself, he has every right to be afraid.
The penultimate ending was spectacular. There are moments in some films where you can feel the audience holding its breath around you, when the theater is feeling and thinking together, with one mind. Where you don’t notice a gasp or a sigh from a stranger because it may have come from your own lips without you even realizing it. Maybe I got lucky in the screening I attended but when Ender triumphs in his last test I really felt the exultation and the horror at what he’d done. The audience seemed to feel it with me and as the Little Doctor did her work I had to remind myself to keep looking, knowing what was coming for our poor hero.
Asa Butterfield. I just like saying the name. Asa Butterfield. This kid is exceptional. He’s more or less perfect as the Ender I imagined and he so capably emotes that I really found myself rooting for him in spite of the fact that I knew what was coming. More than that I found that I really liked the entire cast, as stunted as their screen time is.
The most significant problem with the film version is the ultimate ending itself and the amount of time between Ender’s revelation about his time at Command School and his connection to the Hive Queen. In the book Ender effectively drops into a coma, he is so overwhelmed with his genocide. In the end he is sent into exile by the machinations of his monstrous brother and finds the Hive Queen, and redemption, alone on some distant world. In the film barely a moment is spent between Oh my dear God in Heaven, I’ve massacred an entire species and Oh, wait. There’s one. It robs the audience of the opportunity to think, to meditate on what has just taken place and discounts the fundamental theme of Speaker for the Dead, and the real story itself. An extra minute of film time would have done the trick. A moment of sober reflection on the complexities of war, a pause to consider its cost to the human soul, it was apparently too much to ask of an audience. And that’s alright. As a kid Ender’s Game blew my mind and Speaker for the Dead was kind of interesting but as an adult I recognize the latter as a more compelling work with a message that lasts rather than just entertains. That this message came from a fundamentalist bigot is irrelevant, to save you some time if you’re not familiar with the sequel, Ender becomes a sort of anonymous religious leader after writing a book about the Hive Queen. This book inspires a following of practitioners referred to as Speakers who serve to eulogize the dead and objectively illuminate their lives to the people who thought they knew them, revealing their loves and fears without bias, warts and all. Which is a beautiful idea, if only that.
I can relate to Ender, more so as an adult and I think anyone can. His story is about that time and place where pride or ignorance or emotion wrecks something beautiful in an irrevocable way and the only path towards redemption is that fickle, unsteady trail, that pursuit of empathy and understanding. Because make no mistake, it’s a pursuit, not a goal, it never really ends. And, just like Ender, that pursuit can and should lead you to a new perspective, and maybe to a brand new world entirely.

2 thoughts on “Ender’s Game: I Don’t Want to Live On This Planet Anymore

  1. I didn’t have a lot of high expectations for this movie but found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. I think the twist at the end is more dramatic in the book because Ender is younger than his movie counterpart. The fact that an epic military battle and xenocide rest on the shoulders of a boy not yet close to puberty was both triumphant and horrifying. This movie was rumored to have nearly a decade behind its casting search, and though I enjoyed Asa Butterfield’s portrayal (despite his accent sneaking in every once in a while), wish they could have found an actor closer to the age of Ender in the books.

    I would love to hear a review from someone who is not familiar with the books and see how well it works as a stand-alone film. Though I read the books well over a decade ago It’s hard to separate the vivid imagery and emotions they leave behind and watch the movie with no preconception.

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