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.
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.