It seems the success of the first “Hunger Games” movie has left its mark on Hollywood. A few weeks before the release of the second movie in the franchise, “Catching Fire,” an adaptation of another book that centers around the cruel and strategic use of children came to theaters. “Ender’s Game” is a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card that was published in 1985. It was an instant hit, winning the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel, largely for its acute attention to detail and its harrowing plot. The story focuses around military wunderkind Ender Wiggin, who is sent to an extraterrestrial Battle School at the age of 6, where he is heralded as a potential leader of the entire fleet of starships in a kind of cold war against an alien race that had invaded decades before.
The movie version stars Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) as a slightly older Ender — while the book follows him from the time he’s 6 to when he’s about 11, the movie places him at about 12 or 13 for its entirety. The film has an impressive supporting cast: Harrison Ford is Ender’s chief commander, Col. Graff; Academy Award nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt,” “The Help”) is another of the military leaders, Maj. Anderson; Ben Kingsley is the old war hero Mazer Rackham; and Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin, is Ender’s beloved sister back on Earth, Valentine.
While Valentine and Ender’s other sibling factor significantly in the book, the movie focuses on Ender’s development. To advance and survive the rigorous school and its students, Ender must develop his brilliant mind and change his usually peaceful demeanor. After overcoming confrontations with his schoolmates, his teachers and, most importantly, himself, Ender is promoted to Commander School, where he receives his final lessons and learns more details about Earth’s victory over the aliens from long ago. **SPOILER ALERT** In what he believes is his final battle simulation, Ender orders the destruction of the aliens’ planet, but he is then informed that the simulation was real, and that he had just won the war. Enraged and exhausted, Ender finds the last egg of the alien enemy and heads off into space to try to give them a new chance at life. **END OF SPOILERS**
Much like “The Hunger Games,” the movie version of “Ender’s Game” toned down the brutality of the original story. While still shocking at points, the film scales back on just how much living in the Battle School environment gets at Ender. Some of his fights with the others are shown, but it’s only a fraction, and the ones that do make the cut don’t look that bad. In the book, Ender beats two bullies to death (though he doesn’t know it at the time) as a warning to the other would-be bullies. The depths of his aggression are talked about, but they never manifest the way they do in the book.
Also kept out of the movie were the depths of Ender’s tactical genius. In the book, Ender never gets completely immobilized by the war games, and he never loses a battle when he’s in command, thanks to him always being a step ahead of both the other cadets and his maniacal teachers. The movie shows a few battle scenes, and once, they showcase his quick-thinking leading abilities. But it’s not just one moment that makes Ender stand out: It’s the continuous battle of facing ever-changing rules designed to break him down and always overcoming them, no matter how unfair. It’s also why the audience isn’t as connected with the movie’s Ender as they are with the book’s version. Readers are with him for years of arduous labor on his body, mind and spirit, whereas the theater audience never sees Ender really grow as a character. Ender is always one of the smallest in his class, escalating the amounts of bullying he receives. In the movie, Butterfield is of moderate height, and he towers over one of the biggest threats to him at the school.
With the attention to battle tactics goes some of the book’s incredible attention to detail. The way Card describes the zero-gravity battle room and illustrates the movement and physics of how the students move through it follows with what science would expect would happen if those situations were real. The movie goes back and forth between the laws set forth by the book and its own movie logic, with the properties of momentum in a zero-G environment getting tossed aside whenever convenient for the scene.
The biggest omission, though, is the story that takes place back on Earth while Ender is away. Ender’s siblings, big sister Valentine and eldest brother Peter, use their own brand of intelligence to help shape the future of terrestrial politics as an extraterrestrial war rages on. The dynamic between the mild-mannered wordsmith Valentine and the ambitious sociopath Peter grounds the book right in the midst of Ender’s greatest turmoil. Their arguments and eventual union keeps the story from being purely science-fiction, drawing parallels to the real-life tensions of simple ol’ Earth.
The movie really suffers from this subplot being removed when Ender returns home for a brief shore leave. Valentine is barely explored as a character before this point (especially a shame because Breslin would have been terrific with an expanded role), so her private conversation with a broken Ender loses its impact. Peter is barely in the movie at all, while he is Ender’s main antagonist in the book, his psyche haunted by Peter’s viciousness and the thought that the two are more alike than he would want.
“Ender’s Game” the book is one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve read. The movie feels like a rushed summary that could have measured up if given more time. It’s not a bad movie, but it certainly can’t compete with the original.