Only ten minutes in, a young girl, followed by her mother, ran out of the screening room. “I’m too scared!” She declared. Perhaps she was a bit too young for the vague 12A rating, but it certainly suggested the tone of the book had been captured. Unfortunately this suggestion was quickly shattered.
The novel, Ender’s Game, was released in 1985 and provided author Orson Scott Card with both the Nebula and Hugo awards, prestigious awards given to the best science fiction novels of the year. A strong following later, and we have around fourteen stories in the “Ender Saga”. While Ender’s Game is often cited in many a top ten of sci-fi reading lists, it has always seemed one of the more easily filmable novels when compared to the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick; authors like this have only had successful film adaptions from masters like Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Ender’s Game has a fairly simple story-telling method, inspired by the invisibility of Asimov, that dwells mainly inside the protagonist, Ender’s, head. Along with this heavily subjective point of view, it even has a beginning, middle and end that clearly screams cinema.
The indication that this film, sort-of-thirty-years in the making, is a sloppy and lazy adaption came early on: as the young space cadets first experience lack of gravity, one child vomits and you can imagine the rest. The novel handles this with thorough militaristic briefing, ‘no eating a day prior to take-off’. While this particular scene isn’t an offensive error, it signposted what was to follow – a gross abandonment of the book’s themes. The idea of military manipulation, dictation and exploitation that parades through the novel is abandoned in every sense. The training battle sequences are way too short and thus the film never portrays Ender as the child genius he’s meant to be. Instead we have Harrison Ford as Colonel Gruff, I mean Graff, occasionally appearing to remind us of the child’s importance, and Graff’s authorial disregard of his state of mind. Ford does well to bring in the panache this film sorely needs but doesn’t save this sorry state.
The film paces through these training battles that are so important in the book. A battle-cum-game far more interesting and considered than Quidditch serves as an insight into Ender’s understanding of the world around him, yet here they’re unexplained and passed by to dwell on scenes that really don’t need it. A long time is spent dwelling on Ender’s brief return visit to Earth to see his sister, which is completely redundant since his sisters importance to Ender made so stark in the book is completely unattended in the film. Generally, the drama in this film is swept aside to make way for a focus on xbox-style visuals. This pace couples with its hasty editing and gives no one except Harrison Ford room to breathe, so with that in mind maybe Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, gives a good performance but it’s hard to know until the end. Only in the final moments of the film does Butterfield’s character become real. Oddly, it’s as if the director had made one last Braveheart stride for success. The (now ironic) theme of tolerance that exists in the book is hammered on at the end of the film, but fortunately it resonates when Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield finally get to square off in a powerful sequence. This sequence would’ve been even more powerful if the cinematography hadn’t completely saturated the use of the close-up throughout the two hours.
Fans of the book and saga will no doubt wish a more visionary writer-director had commanded the adaptation, but as a film it isn’t without merit. One can only imagine, but if one is unfamiliar with the novel perhaps they will enjoy the film – a lot! In fact, if I had children I would much rather take them to see this than watch the frankly tedious and empty Pacific Rim (summer robots-vs-aliens blockbuster by Guillermo Del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame – Pacific Rim, a film that replaces Toro’s mesmerising, complex multilevel fairy-tale storytelling ability for Power Rangers). Or even Ender’s Game over Hunger Games. Over Star Wars (any of them). Over most of Dreamworks Animation’s recent offerings. But ultimately, I’d encourage my child to read the 1985 novel.
JAMES A. GEORGE IS THE EYEWEAR FILM CRITIC.