Film Review

'Ender's Game' Sacrifices Story in the Name of Crowd-pleasing Adventure

The big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel trades nuance for thrills.

By Jessie Beebe November 1, 2013

Asa Butterfield (Ender) and Harrison Ford (Col. Hyrum Graff) star in Ender's Game.

Here's the story of Ender’s Game in the smallest of nutshells: a boy genius rises from an obscure family in order to conquer an enemy species of insects and save planet Earth.

This plot may sound like the stuff of second-rate science fiction, but the new film Ender’s Game is an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s award-winning, sci-fi classic of the same name. Unfortunately, the new film fails to capture the depth of the novel’s main discussion: the vertiginously thin border between hate and love in war. Instead the adaptation lands its soft blows with a flurry of easily identified themes and tropes (can you spot the “Great Man Theory” or the orphaned band of misfits?) and flattens the characters in favor of accessibility and easy comprehension.

Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young strategy mastermind and military genius, lives in a future world dominated by the traumatic memory of an alien invasion of Earth, where an insect-like species called the Formics were only narrowly defeated by the heroic Gen. Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). The planet now lives in constant fear of a second attack and has structured itself accordingly. The best and brightest children are commoditized as potential military resources and sent off to Battle School, with the hopes that one of them will be the leader who will save the planet from the imminent Formic attack. Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) believes that Ender is “the one” destined to save the human species and uses every brutal technique at Battle School from isolation to emotional ploys to forge Ender into the warrior their world needs.

Butterfield’s intense and intelligent performance suffers somewhat from writer and director Gavin Hood’s more commercially driven, tween-sensitive script. Rather than allow the audience to completely see Ender’s brutality as he violently beats other children and destroys his enemies in training, he is treated almost exclusively as divine child, prophet, and savior. The Ender of Orson Scott Card’s novel has been read by critics as both possible Christ-figure — an innocent taking on the sins of his predecessors — and Hitler stand-in — a genocide-guilty tyrant. This enigma is hinted at with a few well-placed quotes, but the movie plays it safe with a relatively approachable Ender.

While Ender’s Game falls short of the epic proportions of its original source, the film successfully navigates the mode of dystopian thriller and space adventure. The film’s strength lies in game-like rhetorical jousting and psychological footwork as Ender traverses through the social and political structures at Battle School. Hood deserves great credit for making a film that is both a crowd-pleaser and a solid adaptation for more devoted fans. But in the end, the transition from novel to film makes the story less nuanced, less brutal, and less impactful.

Ender’s Game opens nationwide November 1.

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