The 1985 book Ender’s Game is a sci-fi classic, describing the travails of the child prodigy strategist as he is trained by callous authorities for a war against aliens. No doubt part of its appeal is in the unremitting persecution an exceptional protagonist suffers – every teenager can find parallels with the struggles in their own life, and their own personal exceptional feature. Wry cynicism aside, the book Ender’s Game works on several levels: the no-holds-barred, no-external-help training Ender suffers; his personal struggle to define his identity while being trained to be a killer; and the political rise of Ender’s siblings in a pre-internet vision of a connected world.
While there had been rumours through the years, I’ve always been sceptical that the source material would be fit for a movie: it’s brutal, there’s a lot of it, and much occurs within Ender’s head. The 2013 movie deals with this by cutting out a lot of the content and leaving just the highlights: Bean is just another little kid, only a couple of battles are shown, Valentine and Peter rise to power via blogging is omitted, Ender’s mental struggle is briefly reflected in a tablet game that lacks the haunting dreamlike quality of the original, and his extreme reprisals (while remaining graphic) have been changed into provoked semi-accidents that he regrets.
Ender’s strategic nous is demonstrated more by his interpersonal skills than on the battlefield: he calls Graff out on turning the other kids against him, allows them to claim credit, and tries to save Bonzo (a fantastically sullen portrayal) face. “I know my enemy to both love and destroy him” is just something he discusses with Valentine, rather than the central paradox of his military ability.
Nevertheless I think they do a good job: the Mind Game fulfills its role while remaining realistic, the hints of adolescent romance between Petra and Ender satisfy Hollywood standards and humanise the characters, and the manipulations move fast enough to keep things snappy. Asa Butterfield again does a marvelous job as a sympathetic genius child protagonist, staying well away of being annoying. The big-name actors do what they need to, but there is too much going on to go deep into their roles.
The main reveal remains in place – I’ve heard that it’s surprising but also disappoints people looking forward to more. Rather unnecessarily, the nature of the Third Invasion is not a secret at all – I was surprised when I read it in the book, and it would have remained a viable plot twist in the movie.
I really liked the hints of fascism amongst the manipulation; it’s a fascinating setting, and I would have been happy watching an hour more of the movie. The other novels in the series have a completely different focus and tone, so I doubt they will be adapted (unless the new books are more amenable).
Ender’s Game is a decent (if noticeably abridged) sci-fi movie in its own right, with some freshness in how the protagonist strategically with other people. Fans of the original book will wish it covered more.