Orson Scott Card published “Ender’s Game,” a futuristic science fiction short story about a young genius training to be a military commander, in 1977. Card developed the short story into a Hugo Award-winning novel published in 1985, and Hollywood has tried to make an Ender’s Game movie ever since. As recently as last week, Card called the book “unadaptable [because] the book takes place entirely inside Ender’s head.”
However, writer/director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) was up to the challenge, and teamed with producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek Into Darkness) and Summit Entertainment to try to adapt the “unadaptable” book. Hit the jump for Ender’s Game by the Numbers, a numbers-based feature that tracks the three-decade journey of Ender’s Game from page to screen.
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Runtime: 114 minutes
- $1.5 million – Amount paid to Card in a deal to adapt his book for the screen. It took some convincing. In 1990, Card declared, “People who write screenplays are, by definition, trying to destroy themselves.” After 10 years of watching the book toil in development in hands he did not trust, Card signed a deal with Chartoff Productions in 1996 to write the script when Chartoff promised to be “responsible guardians of the book.”
- 6 – Attempts by Card to adapt the screenplay. Card recalls, “Starting from the beginning, starting over again with a whole new concept, I did it about 6 times. So believe me, I am more sick of Ender’s Game than anybody.” Card was willing to make changes, including incorporating the parallel novel Ender’s Shadow into the script. Card liked Janeane Garofalo or Rosie O’Donnell for his movie version of Colonel Graff (played in the current version by Harrison Ford) and suggested Andre Braugher or Will Smith for Mazer Rackham (now Ben Kingsley).
- 100% – How much of the final script Card attributes to Hood: “The screenplay you see on the screen was 100% Gavin Hood. None of my writing was used.” (Those who boycott Ender’s Game because of Card’s opposition to same-sex marriage will be happy to know that Card has no share in the movie profits.) Hood signed on in 2010. Producers Kurtzman and Orci announced their involvement in 2011. Summit acquired the rights a few months later and after 20 years of false starts, the studio officially announced a 2013 release date for the Ender’s Game movie.
- 2195 – Year when the film begins. In 2114, an alien race known as the Formics attacked Earth. Earth won the war in 2115 and formed the worldwide military force the International Fleet (I.F.) to protect the Earth from future invasions. In 2171, the I.F. opened Battle School to train the future generation of military leaders. In particular, the I.F. is searching for the next great hero to defeat the Formics. (See the infographic Summit created below for the full timeline.)
- 2 – Children allowed per family worldwide. Ender’s genius older brother Peter showed great potential, but he was too cruel. The International Fleet asked the Wiggins to have a girl. Valentine was another genius, but she proved too compassionate. The I.F. asked the Wiggins to violate the two-child policy to have Ender, a “Third.” They hoped for a combination of Peter’s aggression and Valentine’s empathy—Ender was bred for this.
- 6 – Age of Ender as the book begins. The I.F. is desperate to train young talent as early as possible to face an enemy that nearly annihilated the human race. There is also a suggestion in the Enderverse canon that the I.F. believes, “People reach their peak ability as military commanders … in their late teens.” Butterfield turned 15 years old during filming.
- 13 – Novels set in the Enderverse, spanning over 3,000 years. There are at least 3 more novels in the works, 13 short stories, and 47 comic issues. Just 5 of the novels directly track Ender’s story—the spinoff Shadow saga follows Bean (Ender’s classmate at Battle School) and Card is in the middle of a prequel trilogy about the alien invasion that sets the stage for Ender’s Game. In other words, if the first movie is successful, Summit has plenty of options to extend the franchise.
I love the book, and I have trouble escaping that bias to evaluate the movie on its own terms. The things I love about the book—deep psychological profile through inner monologue, detailed descriptions of strategy and tactics, exploration of complex political ideology—do not generally translate well to an aspiring blockbuster. I also have limited faith in the creative team led by writer/director Gavin Hood and producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, so I kept expectations low. Given the tricky material, I feared a crash-and-burn failure.
Casting was a total success, starting with Asa Butterfield as Ender. Butterfield is much older than the character in the books, but he is so scrawny that the relative effect is the same on screen. Butterfield’s piercing blue eyes capture Ender’s intensity, and his portrayal convinces the audience of Ender’s genius when the script can’t quite get there. Moises Arias is a highlight as he navigates the line between ridiculous and menacing as Ender’s primary foil in Battle School. I welcomed the charisma Aramis Knight brought to a limited role as pint-sized Bean. Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld make a great team as the feminine counterweight that Ender desperately needs in a world dominated by territorial males. Speaking of whom, late-model Harrison Ford is just the man to play the prickly, demanding Colonel Graff that pushes and prods Ender toward martial heroism.
The biggest problem of the movie is pacing. Hood cut out what he had to (the politics back on Earth) and condensed what was left (tragically only two zero-gravity matches in the Battle Room remain). Still, the adaptation is as faithful to as many moments from the book that can possibly fit in under two hours. The rush through the plot does match Ender’s rapid advancement to military commander. (As Graff says, “You’re never ready. You go when you’re ready enough.”) Yet a more ruthless adaptation (or perhaps an extra twenty minutes) would let the scenes breathe so the audience could process Ender’s adversity and triumphs. In this version, we too often must assume that Ender has evolved because the movie has already moved on to the next conflict.
Hood is in a hurry to get to the moral lesson that drops at the end of the movie. Ender’s Game changed the way I see war as a teenager. The movie wants to do the same for its audience. The book is more effective, but I expect the movie will reach a much wider audience. Ender’s Game is not the first movie to ask the viewer to consider the complex horror of war and champion empathy for your enemy, but it may be the first to target such a young viewer. The movie falters often in delivering this message, but the ambition and the intent outweigh the missteps. The movie adaptation of Ender’s Game is far from perfect, but after nearly three decades in development, it’s ready enough.
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