A Critical Review of the Movie Adaptation of Ender’s Game

enders-game-promo-posterThose of you who follow me on social media sites like Facebook or Google+ know that I am a fan of Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game. It is one of my favorite books. I have been anticipating the movie adaptation for some time.

In preparation for the release of the movie on November 1st, I read the book out loud to my children. I have read the book more than 5 times, but this was the first time I read it out loud. Yes, the book is very violent and some of you will legitimately question my parental judgement for reading it to my children. I did soften some of the language as I read, but I didn’t skip over any of the violence. It was a great experience and the kids loved it.

(Reading a book out loud to someone else is a very different experience than reading silently to oneself in the same way that hearing it read is different than reading it; you notice things you might have missed otherwise. I highly recommend it.)

So when I went with my wife to see the movie on opening weekend, the book was very fresh in my mind, and more so because I had read it out loud.

Be warned that I am not a film or book reviewer.  This is not an organized review.  It’s just some of my personal, unorganized thoughts after having seen the film.

First some mostly positive observations:

The special effects, sets, and imagery in the film were excellent. I liked how they used the camera to disorient the audience in scenes in which the characters themselves are disoriented by their first experiences with zero-gravity. Really sharp, impressive work.

Harrison Ford did a phenomenal job of playing Colonel Hyrum Graff. A very strong performance for a character that could have easily been oversimplified and flat. Very impressive.

I had seen Asa Butterfield perform in the movie Hugo and when I heard that he had been cast as Ender I had serious doubts as to whether he could take on the role.  You see, Ender has to come across as exceptionally brilliant. It takes a talented actor to portray a child prodigy, and based on his performance in Hugo I feared he would not be up to it. I am please to say that Mr. Butterfield surprised me. He did an exceptional job.

Unfortunately Ben Kingsley, who is a wonderful actor, was largely wasted in the role of Mazer Rackham. He did well with what he was given, but the role was too abbreviated to let him shine in what should have been a much stronger character.

Another thing I noticed is that compared to the book, there was very little swearing.  Even the offensive slang employed throughout the book by the battle school students  (like “bugger-lover”, “fart-eater”, “butt” and “turd”) was assiduously excised from the movie. They also changed the slang term that the characters in the book use to describe the aliens, “buggers”, to the more clinical “formics”.

The violence was toned down from that in the book to the extent that I will feel fine taking my children to see it.  That’s a good thing.  They could have emphasized the violence of the book in ways that would have made me hesitate to let my children watch it, but they chose not to. I appreciate that because it makes the movie much more accessible to a wide audience.

Don’t get me wrong. The film is still violent. Ender still hurts people badly. But they did a good job of contextualizing the violence, not overemphasizing it, and showing Ender’s inner-conflict about his actions.

The Ender’s Game movie is a fun film and I think that those who have never read the book, or who have not read it recently, or did not really like the book will probably love the movie.

But I also have some serious criticisms about how the abbreviated plot, especially during the battle-school portion of the book, undermined the character of Ender.

(To be fair I have only seen the movie once, and with film adaptations of books that I love I tend to like the film a great deal more on the second viewing, once I have synthesized the differences and can appreciate the film for itself and not just in comparison to the original material.)


The beginning of the film was excellent. So was the movie climax in the command school as Ender leads his team to victory in his “final examination”. But the middle of the movie in battle-school was so muddled and hurried that it turned what could have been a powerful portrayal of Ender into a far less powerful character, despite Asa Butterfield’s excellent performance.

There are three things that are absolutely essential to the character of Ender Wiggin and his victory:

  1. He is a brilliant child genius capable of going head to head with even his brilliant teachers.
  2. He is a great leader, who wins the trust and confidence of those who serve under him and is able to get them to perform their best for him
  3. He is able to destroy his enemies because he comes to understand them so well that he loves them.

The movie tells us all these things, but it breaks the cardinal rule of storytelling to do it: it tells us through verbal observations instead of showing us that they are true.

Ender moves from Launchy, to Soldier, to Commander so fast that he never gets chance to display his brilliance. You never get a chance to see much of why his soldiers trust him and follow him. You never get to see him come to understand his enemies or his love for them.

The film portrays only two battles at the battle school: one with Ender as an inexperienced soldier in the Salamander Army of Bonzo Madrid, and one with him as the commander of Dragon Army as he leads his team to victory against two armies simultaneously.

Ender’s genius and leadership lie in his ability to change how other people see things and his understanding of the need to balance obedience to his authority with individual initiative. He wins all his battles by reorienting his soldiers in ways that none of the other players have ever thought of and by giving his toon leaders and soldiers a great deal of freedom to use their own judgement and skill to make decisions.

While the movie does allow Ender to observe before all the other students that in zero-gravity up and down can be whatever direction you want them to be, the script curiously takes away his key innovation in the game, that “the enemy’s gate is down”, and makes it an observation by the character Bean instead.

[Correction: I saw the film a second time and realized that I made a mistake. Ender is in fact the one who says that “the enemy’s gate is down” and Bean responds that he likes it. I had mis-remembered. I am happy to be found wrong. See the addendum at the end of the post.]

Since most of his other innovations are never shown in the movie (like flashing your own legs to create a shield while holding the gun downward at your crotch, or giving his soldiers decision making power and trusting them), taking away “the enemy’s gate is down” and giving to Bean means that Ender’s real genius as a commander and strategist is never really demonstrated.

In the film, the reason the other student follow him is because he is insubordinate and stands up to the teachers and leaders when the others are afraid to do so. This is established in a scene where he challenges Graff about his censored emails to home in front of the other Launchies  But insubordination is not a substitute for brilliance and it does not inspire the kind of allegiance needed for Ender to do what he does once they are in Command school.

The movie could have avoided this problem by letting Ender keep his observation that “the enemy’s gate is down” and then by at least adding a montage of battle-room scenes showing his progression, his innovation, and his leadership (as well as his increasing exhaustion!) as Graff and Anderson continually stack the games against him in the most unfair ways possible.

Instead they inexplicably make him a commander and then immediately jump to the future, mention off-hand that he has been pushing his army hard, and then send him straight into his final battle (the only one we see with him as commander).

Ender tells us that he comes to understand his enemies so much that he loves them, and that doing so allows him to destroy them. But in the movie you never see any indication that he does understand them or love them.  He just destroys them. At a minimum they could have shown him obsessively reviewing battle videos trying to understand the buggers.

It would have been worth their time to increase the movie length by 10 to 20  minutes to show that progression. But because they didn’t we are left to believe that Ender is a genius, that he is a great leader ,and that he comes to understand and love his enemies only because they tell us he is and does. They should have shown us, not told us.

And because of these omissions, Ender’s triumph at the command school is far less powerful or convincing than it should have been. Ender’s ability to destroy the buggers is a direct result of:

  1. The system of organization through individual initiative and distributed decision making that he originally innovated at the battle school — The formics are all centrally controlled by the mind of the queen, and while it allows them perfect coordination, the are no match for the individual brilliance afforded to each of Enders toon leaders under Ender’s direction.
  2. The fact that his toon leaders love and trust him because of their experiences with him in the battle school.
  3. His growing understanding and love for the formics.

Since the movie skips over all of these things, in the film Ender’s victory is attributable primarily to his aptitude for video games. Maybe that is okay, but if that is the angle they wanted to go with, then they should have displayed all of the other games at the battles school (which the book does mention but not emphasize) and shown how Ender beat the pants off of everyone else even in that.  They did introduce that idea briefly in the opening sequence of the film, but then it hardly comes up again until the very end. If they weren’t going to do a montage of battle-room battles, they should have at least done a shorter montage of video game victories.

To make it worse, at the command school, the movie has Graff and Rackham telling Ender that he needs to delegate more and trust his toon leaders. So not even that key concept can be attributed to Ender’s brilliance, but instead is an instruction from his elder teachers.

Another thing that they should have done that would have only added 30 seconds but really helped the build up to the climax would have been to have Mazer Rackham explicitly tell Ender that he would be programming all of the simulator battles.  That is what he did in the book.  It was so important for Ender to believe that he was battling the real, brilliant human mind of Mazer Rackham and not just a computerized artificial intelligence. It gives that much more oomph to the final reveal that he never battled against Mazer Rackham once, but that it was really the buggers the whole time.So in the end Ender is again a brilliant tactician not because we have seen it, but just because we are told it it so by characters like Graff.

[Another correction: after a second viewing of the film I realize that Mazer Rackham did in fact tell Ender that he would be designing his training exercises. And that later after the final “simulation” Ender explicitly says that he believed that Rackham had been running all the simulations. So the film actually did better than I had remembered.  It could have done better by making it even more clear to the audience, but it didn’t omit it the way that I had thought. Again, happy to be wrong on this point too. See the addendum at the end of the post.]

Finally, Ender’s greatest fear is that he might be really like his sadistic older brother Peter. But the movie didn’t give us enough of a glimpse at Peter to really see what a horrible person he is.  We are told that he was disqualified from the battle-school program because he was too cruel. He is supposed to be a potential Hitler, who skins squirrels alive just for fun. But in the movie he is mostly just a mean bully of a big brother.  He threatens to kill Ender, but we never see how real that threat is. I felt like they needed to really show the audience why being like Peter is so paralyzing for Ender, even at the risk of making the film darker and a bit more violent.  But they didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is a good film with at least a higher level of moral dilemma and depth than is often seen in many modern blockbuster-style films. But it could have been so much more with only a little more care with the script and direction.

(And remember, as I mentioned earlier, I inevitably like movie adaptations of books much more on subsequent viewings…)

But don’t take just my word for it, go see Ender’s Game at the theater and then tell me what you think.

Addendum: I went to see the film for a second time, this time with my kids, and just as I expected I liked it much, MUCH more the second time.  While many of my criticisms still stand, I was happy to find that I had mis-remembered a couple of things about which my criticisms were dead wrong (now corrected above).  It isn’t the book. But it really is a very excellent film. Go see it!

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