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A long time fan of the book reviews the “Ender’s Game” movie

Movies made from books seem to have the odds stacked against them, especially science fiction books. My favorite author, Robert Heinlein, wrote two books that were made into movies after his death, and both sucked toxic waste: Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers

There have been a few excellent movie adaptations, mostly in other genres. Hopscotch and Being There come to mind. In both cases, even the book author liked the result.

More recently, the last Harry Potter movie did quite a good job of adapting the book. I started reading that series to my then-young children when it came out. Most of the movie adaptations in the series were fair, but the last one was worthy of several repeated viewings. Many Tolkien fans swear by the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’ll sit through twelve hour marathons to watch all three movies again.

I wish I could say Ender’s Game is in the same league, but I can’t.

I’m assuming most readers have read the book at some point, so I’m not worried about spoilers. For those of you who have not read the book, I suggest that you don’t bother with this movie. It will probably feel like another generic “kid saves the universe” story, with special effects trying to carry a sketchy plot. If you plan to see it despite this advice, then you might want to stop reading now.

For those who have read the book, let me explain my mixed feelings about this movie.

If you already understand the story, this movie isn’t awful. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Heinlein adaptations I mentioned earlier. It has generally good casting and good special effects. If you are a really big fan of the book, as I am, it’s worth a viewing. It really works to stay faithful to the book.

In fact, the movie’s biggest problem is that it tries too hard to stay faithful to the book.

I cited Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 because it is an excellent example of adapting the story to the needs of a movie. There are many things that depart from the book. For example, in the book, Voldemort can’t feel when a Horcrux is destroyed, and Harry can’t just sense their presence. But the movie needed those shortcuts for dramatic effect, and they work very, very well in the film.

Ender’s Game feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of the book. Or perhaps a Cliff’s Notes version with every other page missing.

Every major theme and turning point is included, but most of them are in matchstick drawings instead of fleshed out drama. For example, the battle room scenes are well done from a production standpoint. But there are not many of those scenes. The development of Ender’s skills and leadership is compressed to a mishmash, with one battle against other teams mashing together several battles in the book, simply extracting key scenes from each one. The result feels disconnected and contrived.

When the script does depart from the book, it’s done badly. They obviously wanted the character of Petra in that major battle room scene, so they contrived a sprained ankle by a team member and a dispensation from Graff to get her there. But just before that, it’s explained that Ender’s team is a bunch of misfits anyway. At that point, Petra doesn’t have her own army, so why not just put her in Ender’s and skip the contrivance? That’s the kind of spackling over a problem that makes a movie adaptation smooth.

The final battle is fairly well done. The set for it was perfect, and the use of holographic technology and gestures was as good as any movie I’ve ever seen.

Then that was spoiled with a heavy handed resolution about the battle being real instead of a simulation. That entire part of the movie bends over backwards to slap people in the face with the supposed peaceful nature of the buggers, and how terribly awful it was to kill all of them. As the book made clear, they started the conflict and killed many millions of people. When the survival of one’s species is on the line, giving the benefit of the doubt to an enemy who attacked first is mushy, politically correct sillyness.

Casting is reasonably good. They apparently wanted the gruff version of Harrison Ford here, so that’s what they got the entire movie. They could have done lots worse for the role of Graff. Ben Kingsley was fine as Mazer Rackham.

Most of the kids are good enough to get by. The actress in the role of Petra turned in a good performance, but she looked too soft for my vision of Petra. Plus, she resembled the actress playing Valentine enough that I got confused at least once about which one Ender was talking to.

I have no idea if the kid playing Bean is any good, because they didn’t give him enough of a part to find out. I realize the story had to focus on Ender, and Bean was pushed to the background to allow that. It still grated on me to see one of my favorite characters reduced to wallpaper.

Bottom line: this movie isn’t awful, but it isn’t great either. As I said, if you really liked the book, you’ll probably want to see the movie at some point. You probably won’t be shouting at the screen in rage the way I did at Starship Troopers. But unless you liked it better than I did, you won’t be watching it twice.

18 Responses to A long time fan of the book reviews the “Ender’s Game” movie

  • “with the supposed peaceful nature of the buggers, and how terribly awful it was to kill all of them.”
    Carry over from what bastards we were to drop bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.   I mean, the Japanese don’t even have an army man (except to fight Godzilla now and then), they’re peaceful and all and they make cars and stereos and TV’s and what the hell were our parents and grandparents thinking when they nuuuuuuuuuuuked them!  We were BAAAAAAAAAAAAD, we didn’t NEED to do that!
    Bad America!
    Bad humans…..whatever…Global Warming!  Gaia, Captain Planet, Pandora, murdering pillaging viking like sons of bitches that we are.
    I got a sense from reading some reviews that the bugs were going to turn out to really be peaceful (sorta like the bugs on Klendathu were peaceful…..heh) but misunderstood.    It made me wonder if my reading of the book was right all those years ago.
    Starship Troopers….the only good part was the shower scene :), aside from that the whole thing pissed me off….WHERE THE HELL IS THE  NUCLEAR REACTOR POWERED TROOPER ARMOR?……  (good Avalon Hill board game though)

  • Yep, I have to agree with all those points. I just settled in with the fact that the movie was going to be a character study, and young Mr. Butterfield’s performance was perfect. He’s on-screen for two hours and at no point has any scene stolen from him, nor did I stop believing that he was Ender. I can cut a movie a lot of slack if I like the principals, but I didn’t need to cut EG much slack. I do really wish they had gone with a different actress for Petra, though. She just didn’t feel right.

  • I loved the book also and I kind of feel the same way – disappointed in the shortcomings. If I hadn’t read the book I would’ve been a lot happier with the movie. I think the book is actually unfilmable – so much of it is really in Ender’s head, the pressure Graff subjects him to, his mixed feelings about using his violent side, his evaluations of the other kids etc. And the Demonsthenes/Locke subplot which I liked – impossible to film.  Then again, who knows? They said Lord of the Rings and Watchmen were unfilmable and those came out ok.
    As for Starship Troopers – I actually saw the movie before I ever read the book. Aside from some lovely shots of Dina Myer, I regard it as a huge black hole of sVck. Once I read I book I couldn’t put it down – I’ve read it at least 10 times.

    • If you liked that one, and haven’t already read it,  try “Armor” by John Steakley.

    • The video game Halo is a more faithful descendant of the book Starship Troopers than the movie that just happened to have that name and which used a few of the same character names. (Though some of those managed to change to a different gender on the way to the movie.)

      • Halo 🙂
        Where Master Chief is the Tom Clancy Mr. Clark of the future.
        Have you seen the Halo-4 “Forward unto Dawn” ‘movie’?

  • My favorite author, Robert Heinlein, wrote two books that were made into movies after his death, and both sucked toxic waste: Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers.
    Starship Troopers was a good film.
    It was a horrible adaptation of the book, is the thing.
    Viewed as a propaganda film from that universe it works, and pretty well.
    The key is to not expect it to be the book.

  • A couple of thoughts:
    First, you must not have an 11-13 year old.  I have several in that range, and will no doubt be rewatching this, “the best, most awesome science fiction movie ever!” (their words) over and over again.  Hey, at least it’s not Star Wars.
    About Petra and Valentine resembling each other.  I didn’t picture them similarly when reading the book either, but for the movie adaptation I thought casting similar appearing actresses made sense.  Ender loved his sister, and he loved Petra, both in the same sort of way in that he would do anything for them in the movie.  Making them appear similar worked in that it connected his behavior towards them both in my mind.
    I think you are absolutely spot on about there being too little of battle school.  Just one more battle for Ender to establish brilliance as a leader, not just a smart nerd who hates future fights because of not winning the first one well enough, and Bean as a capable independent thinker Ender trusted would have gone a long way.  More battle school would have helped in establishing the kids mentality of:  1. everything the adults give them is a game, 2. Ender is outside the box brilliant, and 3. the Dragons were a unit that needed to be promoted together to ‘command school’.  Otherwise Ender could have had anyone there at the end.
    Still, as book-movie adaptations go, it could have been a lot worse.  At least they didn’t cast that boy who sees dead people as Ender.

  • My own review, if I wrote one, would look a lot like yours. I wonder if it’s really possible, in 90-120-minute feature film format, to capture the important elements of the book.
    I was disappointed that one psychological element (the fact that Ender had actually killed both the bull at school and Bonzo, and that Graff et. al considered this positively important but hid it from Ender to avoid losing him to guilt, etc.) was massaged into a bully getting knocked down and another bully being pretty messed up but not dead yet.
    The war’s-end scene was also disappointing. In the book, Ender comes to the realization that those “simulations” were real battles because the VIPs are jumping around and hugging each other and stuff, not because he gets a terse announcement to that effect.
    Maybe David Lynch could have pulled it off. He did a pretty good job of capturing the “what’s going on behind what’s going on” feel with his adaptation of Dune.

  • I found Billy’s review very helpful.  I’m not going to waste $$ at the theatre.  Hopefully, next year they’ll release a director’s cut DVD improving what sounds like a mediocre movie.

  • I always found it hilariously ironic when casper van deen would speak about handing out copies of starship troopers at showings.

    • “Here’s a book that has the same title as the movie you’re about to see”.

  • I have read Scott’s books, everyone several time. A great writer.
    The movie was very little like the book. All were to big in the movie, except Bonzo who was too small. All the caricature development was non existent. This was a movie that Peter Jackson should have done, he could have pulled it off. Also the music score wasn’t very good …. Overall I was really disappointed . I will go bank to my audio book version, where I keep their proper images in my mind! Please get Ridly Scott to do both Scott Cards Empire Books!