If you know me, then you know. This is the one.
First a little background—
If you want to skip straight to the review, I won't mind. I just wanted to give some context as to why this scary-mattered to me. And here we go ...
I first read "Ender's Game" in 1987-89, as a Freshman at Sweeny High School. We were going into a week of standardized testing, and that meant we needed a book to read once we were finished—something to keep us from getting bored and restless, and maybe make our brains work a little better. This was before public education discovered the evils of fostering a love of reading.
In the school's library, I was fruitlessly looking for something that interested me (read that as "screwing around and making no progress") when the librarian asked what sort of books I liked.
"Science fiction," I said.
Which wasn't entirely true. I mean, yes, I'd watched a lot of scifi movies and TV shows as a kid. But I hadn't read much science fiction in my life up to that point. All my reading tended towards things like "Encyclopedia Brown" and "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," and a smattering of comic books I'd had since I was maybe five. So my exposure to science fiction was limited.
Somehow, though, I had gotten it into my head that scifi was what cool people read. Because lasers spaceships and robots, that's why.
"You should try this book," she said, handing me a copy of "Ender's Game." She didn't go into detail, didn't even say she'd read it or anything. She gave me no "sell" at all, other than offering me a way to stop flailing around and to actually have a book in my hand before time was up.
She simply said, "I think you'll like it."
And I did.
Holy crap, did I like that book.
After I finished with testing, and was faced with the choice of either reading the book or staring into the abyss for a couple of hours, I cracked it open and started reading—and was hooked from page one. Two hours and 350 pages later, I was done reading, but was far from done with the book. I've read it at least once a year ever since.
I credit "Ender's Game" with opening me up to trying a whole new world of books. Where "Encyclopedia Brown" and "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" occupied (still do) a special place in my heart, "Ender's Game" has always stood out as a benchmark. It's the book against which I measure all other books. It's the book that made me want to be a writer. It's the book that gave me a place to start developing my own personal identity.
It started 25 years ago. So for nearly three decades I've had this book in my brain, creating a framework I've used again and again to define who I am and my role in the world. That's a whole lot of expectation for a film to live up to. Kind of unfair, really.
So let's see how it did.
The review that took 25 years to write—
I'll do my best to avoid spoilers, but a few might be inevitable. So turn back now, ye wary and uncertain.
Expectations aside, I totally knew what was coming. This movie couldn't possibly live up to the book. Not completely. It would have to be 20 hours long, just to come close. And even then, including all the nuances of B & C stories and exposition and internal debate and characterization—it would pretty much guarantee the most tremendous Hollywood flop of all time. Think "Water World." Think "Battlefield Earth." Mash them together.
So I tempered my expectations with determination. I was going to avoid reading any pre-release reviews of the film, avoid talking to people about the previews, avoid even thinking about this movie until it came out. I even decided to skip my usual obsessive rush to the theater on opening night—something my 14-year-old self would label as sacrilege. I was going to go into this with my "it's a movie" goggles on.
I'm just going to cut to the chase—this movie was amazing.
Don't get me wrong. There are holes in this thing. Big, huge, honkin' holes that could only be filled with planet-sized masses.
For starters, we go through nearly the entire film before anyone bothers to show us the aliens. There are a couple of a brief hints, such as the mask Peter forces Ender to wear while playing "Formics and Astronauts" ("Buggers" was apparently a bit too un-PC for non-American audiences). And in one potentially confusing scene we see the Hive Queen in the mind game Ender is playing. She's out of context, and there's a better-than-good chance that you'll just see her as another digital inhabitant of the game. But we don't get any real look at her until the end of the film, and there's only Mazer's somewhat vague reference to "ants," near the final battle, for us to use as a mental model.
Also, that Hive Queen in no way resembled and ant.
Ender's rise through the ranks could potentially be a quirky plot hole of its own. In the book, this happens over a period of years. Granted, not a lot of years, and it's still pretty swift. But the compressed timeline of the film means it happens in a course of months. No wonder Bonzo wanted to murder the kid.
There are tons of opportunities for me to pick this film apart, and in the coming months I'll almost certainly do just that. But for the moment, I'm going to leave plot holes alone, because the most alarming difference for me, between the film and the book, was the shift in characterization of Ender Wiggin.
Where'd Ender go?
The film actually did a great job with Ender's history. Yes, there were some changes. Finding out that Ender is in a military school instead of public school was a little weird. But I actually feel like they got that right. The military was trying to cultivate a leader and a brilliant military strategist. The idea that they would entrust the development of that kind of asset to the public school system is a bigger hunk of science fiction than the rest of the book combined. So I approve of the switch to a military school. I just question the fact that Ender was the only kid in the school to have a monitor in his brain.
More alarming to me was the shift in Ender's personality.
There was a conundrum with Ender's character that the director had to solve. This kid is coming out of a home filled with brilliant people, and one of those (Peter) is constantly trying to hurt him. Whether he'd actually do it or not, Ender believes he would. So that shapes him. It teaches him how to deal with people who have power over him. It teaches him to at least feign respect and obedience, even if the bully doesn't deserve it, while cultivating resources he can use to defend himself.
The film shows this very briefly during the first confrontation with Stilson and his cronies, when Ender walks away from the rematch amidst Stilson's complaints about cheating. We get another glimpse of it in the confrontation with Peter, when Ender agrees to play "Formics and Astronauts," as Valentine reacts to it as a threat. Ender knew what violence was coming, but also knew that it was better to face the threat here and now, letting Peter vent his rage and get it over with.
And then Ender goes to Battle School.
The film does an outstanding job of conveying the isolation method that Graff and Anderson decide is necessary to shape Ender into what they need him to be. Without a word, they showed the reaction of the other kids on the launch, when Graff extolled Ender as the "only smart one" there. It played out so beautifully and so intuitively that I was really disappointed when Graff and Anderson explained it out loud to each other. It broke the scene for me.
Once Ender is in Battle School, we start to see some alarming changes to his character. He becomes defiant, for starters. He breaks discipline, pushes back with his superior officers, and essentially goes into a "you can't break me" mode that we never saw in the books.
There was a pretty solid attempt by the director to use this change in Ender's character as a shortcut for creating the loyalty he would have built over years in Battle School. A pivotal scene for the character is when Dap tells him to "drop and give him 20." Ender is obedient, but questions orders that are contradictory, in open defiance of the order to "speak only when spoken to." And when Dap says (uncharacteristically), "I will never salute you," Ender responds with "yes you will."
This is not the same kid I've read about for 25 years.
I give credit to the director for using this scene to show how the other students make the mental shift to thinking of Ender as their leader. It did the job well, but it broke the character. Now he's the mouthy but plucky kid who can't be kept down by "the man." There's a touch of arrogance to the character that spoils him for me.
Later, when Ender encounters Mazer Rackham for the first time, we see this arrogance rear up again. I will give on this just a bit, instead of clinging to a "but in the book" defense, because it was really necessary to compress the timeline for Ender's first meeting with Mazer.
But Ender's reaction to the man made me cringe. The lines were right, he said all the things he said in the book. But because he's saying them to someone he literally just met, he comes across as a punk rather than someone dealing with being trapped in a room with a silent and "ambiguously dangerous" stranger for days.
All that is forgivable.
No ... really.
There are concessions that have to be made when it comes to transferring a character from page to screen. But there is one characterization fail that I can't just overlook. There is one unforgivable sin:
In the final series of battles at Command School, when Ender is commanding his team against "Mazer's war simulations," there is an iconic scene in which Alai over-commits his resources and the Formics swoop in to destroy all of his ships. This is actually a combination of two different scenes from the novel.
In the book, this scene more or less happened to Petra, not Alai. It was a sign of Petra breaking. She was tired, her reflexes were slowing, her judgement was becoming impaired. This forces Ender to rethink his strategy on the fly and marshall his remaining assets to compensate. He wins the battle, but with heavy losses. Mazer criticizes him loudly, at which point Ender replies that they are all tired, that there will be mistakes, and that he can't win if he can't take risks. Mazer realizes he's right, and plays it off as if he were testing Ender, reminding him that those blips on the screen are real, living people.
But in the film, that battle is lost. Not only lost, but lost because of Ender's mistake. It becomes Ender who overcommits, who makes a bad call.
You can make the argument that every other change to Ender's character was necessary. These changes could conceivably have helped fill in story gaps, and cleanly compress the timeline. But not this one. This is a fundamental change. Ender is flawed now. He can fail. As of that moment, he's only slightly more brilliant than anyone else around him, instead of the near god-like natural strategic genius he is in the book. That's not Ender Wiggin. I don't even recognize that character.
Other characters from the film are flawed, of course, but generally in ways that are necessary to the film, or just inconsequential. Bean isn't a genetically engineered super being with unmatched brilliance, as far as we can tell (maybe if they make "Ender's Shadow" we'll see that he actually is). Petra isn't quite the fiery ball of female firepower she was in the book. Peter, as much as he's referenced by Ender throughout, makes only one brief appearance in the flesh. Anderson's a woman.
I don't have much trouble with these changes (except possibly Bean). I'm not bugged by Mazer having facial tattoos. I'm not even upset that Bernard went from being Ender's ineffective enemy, disappearing from the story entirely when Ender leaves Battle School, to being one of Ender's elite at Command School (well ... maybe I'm a little upset). It's the changes to the main character that make this movie hurt.
Still an amazing movie
So for characterization of the main character, I give this film a solid "B." But I'm far more enthusiastic about it as a film.
The story was solid, especially considering the number of characters we had to be introduced to, and the number of environments we had to occupy. I felt that the director did an outstanding job with Bonzo, making him a bad guy we actively dislike while making him utterly sympathetic in the end. I saw his pride and ego flare, and I understood that to him, Ender was a significant threat. That whole arc was very well done.
The Battle Room was a dream come true. If anything, it exceeded my expectations! My vision of it from the books was always of a vast room, grey metal walls, bright white lights. The "stars" that floated inside were alway plain black cubes. It wasn't bad. But the open look and feel of the battle room in the film is outstanding. Envisioning myself bouncing around in zero gravity, with the Earth in plain view and the stars surrounding me, is a much better mental landscape than I had previously created.
Likewise, the Command School "simulators" were amazing. The "Minority Report" style manipulation was cool, and seeing everything play out in an immersive display was jaw dropping.
There was a perfect balance of action and story in this film. I didn't want to see it end. The effects were well done, and perfectly appropriate to the story. Even the music was great ... though at times I wondered if I was watching "Ender's Game of Thrones."
Did it live up?
25 years of hoping to see this story on the big screen. That's a long time, and a lot of expectations to get past. 25 years of re-reading the book, reimagining the story with a mind that's become more and more trained to understand characterization and plot, that has seen and read more incredible science fiction than my 14-year-old self could have imagined. That's a lot to come up against.
So did it live up to my expectations?
I went into this film knowing that it couldn't possibly live up to the one that's been in my head for 25 years, and with a determination that I would watch this as a movie, and not as an adaptation. That said, how could I help myself? I know this story forwards and backwards. There was no way to avoid spotting the recognizable bits and the differences. But what I appreciate is that the film honored the spirit of the story. It didn't flench from Ender's self-evaluation, thinking of himself as a monster and a murderer. It didn't shy away from Graff's obsession with doing whatever it took to make Ender into the commander that humanity needed him to be. The film, like the book, explored what it meant to be at war, not just with the enemy but with ourselves.
There are things I would have done differently, as the director. There are changes I would have made between the book and the film as well. Knowing that I couldn't adequately cover things like Bean's origin or Peter and Valentine's foray into global politics, I would at least have hinted at them, made some in-jokes. I would have combined Battle School and Command School (sacrilege!) to further compress the timeline, and give more space for characterization.
And maybe, for the movie in my head, I can do just that. But for now, I'm very pleased with "Ender's Game." It was everything I could have hoped for in the adaptation of my all-time favorite book. It was exactly the kind of story I would want to see fresh for the first time. And it did an outstanding job of drawing me in, making me wonder what it would be like to live in that world, and making me regret the sacrifices and personal struggle of the characters. It was definitely the film I hoped it would be for 25 years.
It was worth the wait.