let’s start at the beginning.

i have a close, personal connection to ENDER’S GAME. i’ve read the entire ender series a few times, and the original novel a few times more than that. along with Y: THE LAST MAN, it may be the book i’ve forced the most people to read. i’m always afraid this will come off more arrogant than it feels, but i feel a kinship with the brilliant, beautiful, damaged protagonist. when my friend van jones read it and nicknamed me ender, it was one of the highest, most personal, most cherished compliments i’ve ever received.

so, naturally, i was a combination of excited and nervous when they finally released the film adaptation of the seminal sci-fi novel.

first, a brief summary of the story, for anyone who hasn’t read the novel.


ENDER’S GAME is set in the aftermath of humanity’s first interstellar war, a devastating conflict with an insectile race of aliens that humans have disparagingly dubbed “buggers”. the war spurred earth’s three rival political powers (the hegemon, polemarch, and strategos) to create the international fleet (IF). it’s peacetime, but everyone expects another war to come any day (or year, or whatever). that’s why the IF created battle school, a program that subjects tactically talented children to rigorous—even cruel—training.

enter ender wiggin. ender, six years old, is the wiggins’ third child. earth has a two-child policy, but the wiggins were allowed to have a third because their first two were very promising strategic minds but washed out of the program for emotional reasons. (brother peter was too cruel; sister valentine, too kind.) ender has the desired combination of ruthlessness and compassion, and is admitted to battle school. the adult leadership isolates him there with public showings of favor, then hopes that he responds with excellence.

he does. battle school cadets participate in competitive war simulations in zero gravity. ender quickly earns his own command, and his strategic, training, organizational, and leadership innovations lead to unprecedented success. he is not only tactically brilliant, but he is able to understand his adversaries’ thoughts, emotions, and motivations, helping him defeat them. ender earns the love and admiration of his soldiers before moving on to command school at the age of ten.

his siblings are a few years older, and have, like their brother, found themselves playing leadership roles in a distinctly adult sphere. for them, it is the political arena, where they attract great followings under pseudonyms. their leadership sets the stage for a lasting peace among earth’s political powers, even should the specter of the buggers cease being the unifying factor they have been.

at command school, ender fights computer simulations of space battles to prepare him to command the fleet when the actual war comes. the brutally intense training is made somewhat more bearable when his comrades from battle school join him as his sub-commanders. still, he is depressed, fatigued, and terribly lonely when he faces his final test. when he finds himself badly outnumbered, he sacrifices most of his fighters so he can fire the molecular disruptor device at the buggers’ home planet—a doomsday weapon that essentially wipes out the entire simulated race.

except it’s not a simulation. ender learns afterward that he has been commanding real soldiers, real ships, and that he really destroyed the buggers’ home world. he and valentine leave together to help establish a new colony, far from earth and the echoes of the war. peter stays behind, becoming hegemon and leading the world into post-bugger peace.

on the new colony, ender finds the dormant egg of the last bugger queen. the queen telepathically explains that the buggers had thought humans were a non-sentient race, then realized otherwise, to their great shame. ender agrees to take the egg with him and find a new planet where the buggers can live again. he also writes their story, beautifully, with the compassion and empathy that define him as much as his strategic acumen. he signs it “speaker for the dead”, and under the title THE HIVE QUEEN it becomes an instant classic.

now, ender’s game is an obviously difficult book to adapt for the big screen. so much of the story is just in this kid’s head: what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling, how he reasons, what observations he’s making, how he interprets and understands everything around him. i knew there would be points in the movie where i’d be like, “aw, come on. it’s so much better in the book!” or, “that really didn’t capture the feeling of that scene.” or whatever.

i didn’t expect the entire movie to be like that.

the main problem is that the movie feels like a series of things that happen. one of my friends who saw it with me said, “it was like the CliffsNotes, or the CliffsNotes of the CliffsNotes.” she’s right. the movie was so busy with plot, it didn’t have enough room to let you get to know the characters, to let you grow to care about them.

an example, from battle school. in the zero-gravity game room, we see maybe a couple of training sessions, a battle with ender’s original army (where he is the least regarded soldier), and then another one with the army he gets to lead later on. we don’t see any evidence of his tactical brilliance, nor do we see him show the kind of leadership that earns love and inspires loyalty. they show a couple action-y scenes, and then have someone say, “he’s brilliant!” that is just not how visual storytelling works.

speaking of battle school, we don’t get any sense of how fucking tortuous it is for ender—and how active the adults are in purposely making his life hell. the initial period of being away from his family and wanting nothing other than to go home to be with his sister; the isolation when (and even before) he begins excelling, a target painted on his back by the other children’s jealousy and envy; the self-doubt about whether he’s leading his soldiers well, teaching them well, doing better by them than the adults had done by him; the sheer stress of being subjected to—by far—the most intense gaming/fighting schedule in the history of battle school. these military fuckers put these kids through hell. ender was the best of them, so ender got the worst of it. at one point in the book, ender clearly and explicitly decides that the adults are the enemy. he never comes to any such conclusion in the movie.

instead, his time at battle school seems like a pretty fun, brief adventure with a few road bumps along the way. at one point, ender says (in a voiceover) that he’s been at school for months, but you can’t tell by looking at him. he certainly doesn’t look like he’s been through four years of psychological torture and programming from the IF. he physically ages about three days in the film, and that’s a big problem. that’s a bigger problem than the fact that the kids are about six or seven years older than they should be. by the end of the story, ender should have the weight of years, about half of his life, spent as a subject of battle school and command school. he should have had the time, in those conditions, to discover himself, to grow, to become the leader and person worthy of the story. instead he’s a tween who has just spent weeks playing war games with his new friends.

as for his brother and sister’s political machinations on earth, we see none of them. the idea that the war effort is an extension of earth politics—and that this might be important to understanding the story and the characters—apparently never entered writer/director gavin hood’s mind as he crafted this adaptation. it was in MY mind, though. this is a text i sent to a friend right before the movie started:

ME: fair warning: i have no idea who’s playing her, how much she’ll be featured, or what the director’ stake on it will be, but there’s a decent chance i’ll fall in age-inappropriate love with valentine.

FRIEND: That’s possible. But she will probably be played by an adult woman who looks 12.

ME: i could also fall in age-inappropriate love with harrison ford as graff…

i need not have worried. valentine is hardly in the film at all, and you certainly don’t get a sense of the depth and necessity of her connection with ender.

time after time, the film shows moments that would be emotional payoffs—if there had been any emotional buildup. the fight with the boy who was his first ‘superior officer’. his meeting with valentine after not seeing her for four years. (that’s right, four years.) his final examination in command school. the conclusion of that ‘simulated’ battle. none of these has the gravitas it should, or that hood seems to have expected it would. it is a movie with no emotional weight, adapted from a book with tremendous emotional weight.

aside from the problems with pacing and the dominance of plot over character, hood made some decisions in terms of storytelling craft that i can’t really get with. the biggest of these—the use of voice-over narration from ender—is in part an outgrowth of the pacing/plot problems. instead of taking the time to let us discover the earth has been through a devastating interplanetary war and how that has changed the politics and culture of humanity, ender tells us in a sentence or two what happened. again, potentially powerful stuff (both emotionally and visually), neutered by the script and direction. also, after aging all the kids up about six years (presumably to make it easier to find child actors who could play the parts), the acting is not very good. my guess is that this is at least in significant part due to direction. whatever it was, the decision made battle school and the IF a bit less alarming and made ENDER’S GAME overall feel a little more like a run-of-the-mill tweeny sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian story (à la THE HUNGER GAMES). the decision to have the kids not age during their time in battle school and command school only makes this worse.

my expectations weren’t terribly high (they would have been lower if i had realized the writer/director was the genius behind X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE), but this movie still managed to be a huge disappointment. really, the one thing i was hoping for out of an ENDER’S GAME movie was that i’d be able to recommend people watch it to understand how i came by the nickname ‘ender’ and why it means something to me. unfortunately, that’s not this film.

the verdict: