WARNING: THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE FILM AND THE NOVEL
If I had seen this movie before I read the book, I would have thought it was just ok. But because I saw this after I read the book, I thought it wasn’t all that great.
The biggest problem this movie has is a problem I fear that every novel adaptation has, and that’s pacing. The movie is too fast for its own good. It doesn’t allow the viewer to settle into a single scene for very long. There are a couple exceptions, such as the first time the students enter the Battleroom. But for the majority of the film, it’s difficult to get into because the scene transitions happen too often without allowing the atmosphere to set in, or allowing the characters to settle into their respective roles for how they are to act in a scene. This film doesn’t have the worst case of this symptom that I’ve seen, but the film suffers from it regardless.
Pacing aside, there are several things the film did different than the book, some that make sense, a lot that irritated the hell out of me. But I should talk about what the novel tries to do vs. what the film tries to accomplish.
The novel’s focus is on war, training for war, the fear/paranoia and communications breakdown that is a result of or a reason for war, and the consequences war has. It’s also about how individuals can make a difference, what kind of individuals make a difference, the cruelty of man, the possibility of redemption despite terrible acts of the past, and so on. Ender commits a violence that he never intended to do to the extent that he did, both in war and in settling personal grudges others had against him. He comes to see himself as a monster, like his brother. And his brother is a fearsome monster that tortures animals and Ender himself whenever he could. Despite that, Peter may have a conscience, may want to do things differently, and sets about doing so during the mid-portion of the novel, where he ends up resorting to political/communication tactics to get what he wants rather than violence, which all things considered turned out to be the best case scenario. And then there’s Valentine herself, who helps Peter become a political talker rather than a monster, but also helps Ender do things he doesn’t want to do, despite the fact that there are “supposedly” good reasons for it. Ender himself just views everything as a game, because he was raised to think that way, even though his intellect and intuition, as well as his friends, indicate that adults aren’t to be trusted, that everything isn’t as it seems. Despite the fact that he wants to do good, he is raised by others, and forced into situations where he is strongly encouraged to do otherwise, which he inevitably will.
Then there are the adults themselves who raise the current generation to be what they are. Their harsh methods do end up giving them the results they desire, and then some. Outside of Ender and the other troops/commanders themselves, some citizens on Earth, particularly Ender’s brother and sister, use an intellect they were born and raised on to solve problems that they knew were coming, an intellect they mostly developed on their own without the help of adults.
But the adults had good reasons to train the kids for war, even if they ended up being understandably misguided. They didn’t want humanity to get wiped out, and they would do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening, no matter how hard they push the youth, no matter how harsh their methods.
Despite the revealed intentions of the aliens (which the movie didn’t address very well, more on that later), there are some fights, alien or not, that require violence. When Ender is confronted two times by bullies, he had the right idea. He had to beat them so bad that they wouldn’t ever want to fight him again. But he got carried away and ended up killing them both, another fact that the film overlooks. This mirrors mankind’s reaction to the alien’s, to an extent, except that the intentions of the aliens was never as ill-willed as the bullies Ender fought, which could be a statement on the faults of man.
Onto the film itself. It leaves a lot of those elements out. After finishing the novel, I knew the only real way an adaptation could do it justice would be if it was an animated series, like a 10-13 episode anime OAV or OVA. I mean, there are points in the novel where kids were stripped naked and sometimes had to run around naked. There was nothing sexual about it at all, it’s just like a military barracks. But regardless, that is definitely something that a live action film would never have put into it. And then there’s Ender and the other children themselves. The novel covers a time-frame of several years. Ender and the others age and mature, something that a live action film can’t do effectively.
So to compensate, the film makes the events seem to take place in under a year’s time. The consequences of this are that Ender’s friendships can’t be established or developed naturally, and that’s saying a lot considering that he didn’t have much time to do so in the novel either. On top of that, the environment of the team camps he stayed at couldn’t be established effectively either because the film moves too quickly for it. In addition, many of the themes and issues found in the novel are left out. The biggest thing that was left out was the Warsaw Pact, and the Russia vs. U.S. Cold War mentality, which I didn’t have much of a problem with. But I did have a problem with the film not addressing that nations on Earth may still want to go to war with each other after the Bugger War ends. Leaving that out also leaves out Ender’s brother and sister, Valentine and Peter, and the role they played on Earth. Consequently, the theme of mankind fighting amongst itself is downplayed considerably, and is only kept on a personal level with Ender against the bullies, which even then I didn’t think was handled as well as it could have been.
Let me get right down to it and mention the specifics that I didn’t like in the film vs. the novel (note, there’s a lot of them):
* The opening action segment. It’s not bad, but it seemed unnecessary to place it at the beginning of the film since they’re only going to show it again a couple more times later on in the movie. In fact, from a budgetary standpoint, I felt a lot of the visual effects could have been saved just for the Battleroom and the simulation fights during the last third of the story, to keep the perspective focused on Ender with the occasional shift of perspective to Graff and Andrew discussing the methods used on Ender.
* The fight with the kid at the school in the beginning of the film. The age difference was much greater compared to the kids in the book. In addition, it took a couple elements from a later fight, which I thought might not happen, but did. They don’t address this fight later in the movie, by later in the movie I mean near the end with the revelation that Ender ended up killing the kid unintentionally, which is meant to be a shocking twist. Missed opportunity, but I guess they don’t want the film to be that harsh.
* Peter and Valentine were criminally underused. They had no dimensions to their character, Peter is only seen once as a bully, and Valentine is only seen a few times with a personality that has no more dimensions than Peter. For all we know from the film’s perspective, Peter stayed as an asshole bully, and Valentine stayed as a borderline teary eyed woman who does nothing but beg for people to do good. Nevermind that both had bigger roles in the novel, along with more depth, and more cleverness.
* Anderson is a woman. Ok, that wasn’t a big deal to me when I thought about it. What was a big deal is how pathetic the character turned out. She became a one-note “we’re pushing the kids too far” character. In the novel, the character did the same, but wasn’t such a whiner about it, and stayed strong, and threatened court martial against Graff. Plus they were both long-time friends, despite their different opinions. You would never guess that from the film.
* When they launched into space, that one kid puked. In the novel, they make it clear that the kids don’t eat for a period of time specifically to prevent incidents like that from happening. It felt unnecessary. Just needed more visuals to show off weightlessness in space I guess.
* The kid playing Ender isn’t a bad actor, but he’s not a terrific one either, thus he isn’t qualified to have that inner turmoil displayed with his character, among other things.
* The dialogue got a downgrade. How the hell does that happen? It’s right there in the book, all they had to do was use it. For example, when Ender laughs at how Graff is floating in space, and Graff’s reaction, and Ender’s response, and Graff’s speech to the launchies afterwards, it made sense and seemed natural in the book. In the film, the dialogue made less sense with why Ender found Graff’s zero-gravity positioning to be funny, which made his intelligence suffer in the film.
“Do you all think this is funny?” “No!” “Yes it is.”
Compare that with:
“Do you all think this is funny?” “No!” “Why not!?”
That may seem like a subtle difference (it gets worse from there), but that is exactly how a commander would speak. Make the students question their reaction, evoke creative thinking, etc. That’s just a small part of the bigger problem with the dialogue, just for that scene alone.
* No fight in the first launch to space with Ender and another asshole kid. In the novel, it demonstrated Ender’s quick learning on how to use lack of gravity to his advantage, and setup a rivalry with that asshole kid later. Absent from the movie. So is the rivalry with Bernard, yet another element taken away from the environment the movie could’ve set up to immerse the viewer in the world Ender was in, both with the physical and relationship immersion.
* Team leader Dap was younger and had more of a sense of humor in the novel. The age is significant because they had students act as team leaders, to develop their skills as commanders. With Dap in the movie, he just seems like another adult teaching the students.
* I don’t recall Wiggin being so direct with his questions about blocked messages. It was more of an internal line of thought that command wasn’t letting messages through. And on top of that, in the book, they didn’t have the “nets” on the training grounds, so sending messages should’ve been an impossibility from the get-go, which means there’s no reason why the film should have made that a possibility in the first place. There are better ways to show the adults screwing with the rules. Fun fact, the novel was written in 1977, way before the Internet, which makes Orson Scott Card a fucking genius.
* Dap takes unnecessary character traits from Bonzo in the movie compared to the book, which seems pointless since Bonzo is in the movie too.
* Not enough demonstrations of the tactics being developed during the training exercises. The film showed a few good tactics that are from the novel, but not enough of them, and definitely nowhere near enough buildup to how they thought of some of these ideas.
* Ender becomes revered as a commander happens too quickly and unrealistically.
* They pull the same bullshit in this movie that they did in The Watchmen film adaptation, in that the “antagonist” character gets talked down to with no good comeback for getting the last word in, or just stays silent as if contemplating whether or not he’s wrong. In the novel/comic versions of both cases, the “antagonists” had very good strong arguments for their cases. Whether they were right in the end, or if they’re philosophical views are flawed, is supposed to be up in the air for debate. But no, they had to have less grey and more black and white, which probably explains why they made Andrew a black woman.
* Ender’s guilt about Gonzo wasn’t the main reason he wanted to stay on Earth goddamnit! That’s how they make it look in the movie. In the book, it’s for a number of reasons. Sure it was partly because Ender felt guilty about “becoming more like Peter”, but there was more to it than that. Becoming a bad person, being used (and angry about how the adults keep changing the rules), having doubts about his duty to mankind, about how he hates and loves the enemy and has to “destroy” them, etc. The film doesn’t focus on much of that at all during the scene when Valentine confronts Ender, the key point in the movie when it should have.
* Film didn’t emphasize on any of the physical and mental breakdown of Ender or his team. They always seemed fit and ready.
* Film didn’t do a very good job at building up the legendary status of Mazer Rakham. He’s only mentioned in passing a few times before he finally shows up. So the reveal doesn’t seem all that surprising because it’s difficult to care.
* Where’s the thousands of people who are supposed to populate the command center where Ender does his final “training” at?
* The foreshadowing of Ender’s dreams and the Fantasy Game became way too obvious, making a couple twists less surprising. Same applies to how the final acts of “training” are at the command center.
* Mazer Rakham didn’t have face tatoos, or do any of that Speaker of the Dead shit in the novel.
* The secret weapon is called Dr. Device, not Little Doctor.
* Not once did Ender and his team fail in the final command missions in the novel.
* Conversations between Ender and Rakham and Graff were handled better in the book.
* Ender kept his concerns about the misunderstandings about the buggers to himself in the novel. Here, he discusses it a few times with his friends, more greatly destroying the surprises to come.
*“Maybe they think we come in peace.” Shut the fuck up.
* After the final “training” mission, in the novel, all the commanders were celebrating, crying tears of joy, and hugging Ender. In the film, they are just silent.
* Too fast and convenient with the ending twist.
* Why does it show Valentine with Bugger ship toys dangling over her head near the ending? That makes no sense.
* Not enough implications of incest.
As for the film’s positives, it did have some awesome set design and special effect work, especially with the Battleroom. That was very well made. Plus I liked how Ender’s team saved the user of Dr. Device for the last battle in the film compared to its early use in the novel. But those are the only real positives I can give for the movie. The majority of the changes they made are disappointing, and the pacing is too fast. The only real way the novel can be done justice is if it was made into an epic animated film, or an animated OAV series (if they make it an animated television series, they’ll just fuck it up somehow). As the film stands, it’s just mediocre at best. Not terrible, but it could have been so much better.
P.S.: for those of you who think I’m being harsh about comparing the film to the novel, you have no idea who I am. I liked the film adaptations of Misery and Jurassic Park better than the novels. I’m not one of those fancy fucks who thinks that all novels are better than their film counterparts.