Pop Culture

Ender Meets Hollywood

Last Friday, the movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s young adult sci-fi novel Ender’s Game opened in theatres across the United States. As Trop’s resident Young Adult lit enthusiasts, we couldn’t wait to see the nerd movie event of the season, with Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Ender Wiggins. However, only one of us had the luxury of attending opening night: while Ender’s Game the movie arrived in Brooklyn a day early (happy Halloween to Alyssa!), there’s no telling when it will get to Lagos, Nigeria, where Bick lives.

In the meantime, we’ve collaborated to discuss the book and movie versions of Ender’s Game. Published in 1985, the novel tells the story of a young boy tapped for military greatness and rocketed off to the Battle School to train for the return of the Formics, an alien population that waged war against Earth once before. Much of the book’s action takes place in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity training ground where armies of kids are prepared for ruthless warfare in space. There’s more to the story than laser guns, though—Ender’s Game also presents interesting quandaries about good and evil, and the nature of conflict.

BICK MCSWINEY: How will the movie treat Ender’s relationship with his brother and sister? Ender is the youngest in a Tennenbaum of a family, his siblings Peter and Valentine are two incredibly gifted prodigies, who failed where Ender will succeed. All of the Wiggins kids are considered by the military, but Peter is rejected because he’s too violent and Valentine is dismissed as too mild and loving. But Ender—who wouldn’t have even been born if not for his siblings’ genius qualities, since families are limited to two children—is thought to be just the right balance.

ALYSSA VINE: The good news is: Ender’s Game the movie is absolutely true to the idea that Ender’s potential for greatness stems from the strange combination of ruthlessness and an open heart. The bad news? It does so with little influence from Valentine, portrayed in the book as Ender’s source of understanding about kindness and empathy, and even less influence from Peter, whose torturous violence and threats are paramount in the book, but on-screen he’s basically boiled down to one headlock and a phantom-flash cameo in a dream-like video game. In the book, the respective strengths and weaknesses of both siblings are central to Ender’s success at Battle School and potential for military greatness. The movie pays far less attention to the earth-bound Wiggins’ kids—there’s no emphasis whatsoever on what they’re up to while Ender’s gone, and the interactions we do see with them are more archetypal. As a result, in the movie the melding of his compassion and aggression occurs differently—more driven by his own circumstances and growing self-confidence, and less deeply rooted in his upbringing and childhood experiences.

BMcS: The freeform nature of the Battle School, with its instructors observing as students organize their own armies, has always been one of the most attractive parts of the book for me. The adults leave the kids alone, letting them create their own Lord of the Flies. But there are no Piggies here. The action is centered on the Battle Room, a gravity-free arena that allows the students’ armies to face off against one another. This allows for the students to create zero-gee strategies that adults would never dream of.

It’s possible that as a ten-year-old I walked into Johnson Space Center and asked where the anti-grav rooms were. That might have happened. So perhaps it’s still just my ten-year-old self who imagines the Battle Room as something difficult to create, even in today’s era of special effects. But as a kid reading the book, I was really wowed by the victories that Ender was able to engineer there. The idea of platoons of kids my age flying weightlessly through the air seemed like such a fantasy back then, that I’m finding it hard to imagine actually meeting Ender on the big screen, I can barely believe it.

Even though the Battle Room itself was never as intriguing to me as what took place inside, I am definitely curious to see how it looks in the movie. Thanks to the The New York Times, I have a pretty good idea. But what I’m really excited to see, is how will the battle tactics be portrayed? Card’s ability to create strategic situations for Ender to face and solve always impressed me. Will we see each battle and the new ideas he brings? Will Ender teach the other kids to use the dark, frozen suits as weapons, and go feet-first toward the gate to narrow themselves as targets? Or will we have a musical montage as kids float around in a glorified laser tag arena?

The Battle Room is by far my favorite part of the book. If they fuck that up, I’m pissed. I might not even see the movie when I get back to the states.

AV: Fear not, Bick. The Battle Room remains completely badass. It’s a huge, globe-like atrium that offers glimpses of the homeland as the school pivots in the dark atmosphere. The armies enter through massive circular doors on either end, going weightless as soon as they pass into zero gravity. They’re able to control their motion by grabbing and pushing off of hand-rails situated around the doors and on the giant “stars” (solid masses anchored at random throughout the room) which act as shields and block visibility. With the help of orbiting shots of the overall school space station, it’s clear that the Battle Room is smack in the center of the action.

I’ll be honest, you’ll have to endure some musical montages. And Asa Butterfield will have you believe that flipping through zero-gravity is no big thing—he’s off the sidelines and showing up the older kids in his first go-round, which is a significant departure from Ender’s slower learning curve and long practice sessions in the book. But the Battle Room lives up to its allure as tactical playground, where Ender and the other recruits sling their weightless selves around, shooting lasers that render limbs and torsos motionless on impact and assuming formations to elude their opponents. I’m not really the type to fantasize about bouncing around in outer space, but damn. The Battle Room looks like a lot of fun. And I think that’s a pretty important part of the story—war is presented as a game to these children, and while they take it very seriously, it’s also their primary form of entertainment and excitement. It’s clear that while they know, theoretically, that the end goal of this intensive training is obliterating an alien population, that’s not what they’re focused on when they’re freefalling and laser-firing through the Battle Room, propelled by teamwork and adrenaline.

BMcS: There is so much in this book, I can’t figure they’re going to fit it all in. What will the game look like? Considering the current state of video games, I imagine audiences would have high expectations for the graphics and complexities of a futuristic game for genius children. Will they show Ender spending time getting through the “Mind Game,” being frustrated by the same problem over and over again? Is this where they show the montages? To be honest, the real payoff of this game is epilogic, so I wonder if it will even be part of the movie.

AV: Again, you’re in luck. The Mind Game is definitely a key aspect of the movie. Ender lounges on his bunk, mentally maneuvering his little on-screen mouse avatar through a creepy landscape. The lurking giant urges him to drink from one of two goblets: one is poisoned, one is not. After a few rounds of the mouse drowning in the bubbling potion, Ender goes for the proverbial jugular, launching the little guy at the giant’s eyeball. As the giant falls dead, Valentine appears in the game, urging Ender toward a crumbling tower. The mouse follows her into the structure, where Peter makes a flash appearance that sends Ender reeling, slamming shut the game.

Ender’s killer instincts and full-throttle tactics with the Mind Game are unprecedented among military recruits, signifying to Graff that he’s getting closer to ready for real battle. But Major Anderson (played by Viola Davis, nice gender-bender surprise right there) is alarmed by his virtual behavior, raising questions about how Ender’s training is affecting his mental stability and personal well-being. Legitimate concerns for sure. But as the clock ticks toward wartime, Graff cannot be bothered with doubts about his training regiment. Throughout the movie, the focus on Ender as a tool of war is more pronounced than I remember from the book. I watched with an overwhelming sense that the adults were forcing him to be the architect of a war that he didn’t understand or necessarily agree with. As Ender pours over video footage from the last alien attack, looking, looking, looking for clues about how they think, feel, and fight, Graff is stalking around determined to make this kid stop thinking and just shoot the goddamn Molecular Disrupter Device already. You can almost hear Harrison Ford growling, “Get off my galaxy,” while Butterfield moons around wondering, are we sure these aliens want to kill us? How can we be sure?

The movie makes clear, though, that this is exactly why Ender is the one who can lead the human race in defeating the aliens. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him,” Ender says at one point, in a line that is also the movie’s epigraph. He’s been chosen to lead because he is a quick decision-maker and gifted soldier with a knack for reading people and situations. But this same intuition also makes him thoughtful and searching. This important sentiment plays out pretty well on screen, which I credit to the fact that in the movie, Ender is reunited with his friends from Battle School as he prepares for his “graduation” battle. This is a departure from the book, but it works because his interactions with the other kids in those final days of his training highlights an overarching divide between the adults, whose fear-mongering is at the helm of the entire operation, and the child-soldiers, who believe in Ender because they trust and respect him.

Also—don’t worry about the epilogue, they’ve got it under control. It’s different, but it works.

BMcS: In the book, readers have extensive access to Ender’s thoughts, particularly his fears and doubts and, most of all, how much he dislikes the violence he must use to win. With this insight, we understand that Ender shows brutal force when dealing with enemies, but he’s not gratuitous. He uses the least amount of force he can to make sure his enemy doesn’t ever bother him again. But without having his thoughts available to us, does the film succeed in showing this aspect of Ender’s character and evoking sympathy? Granted, he does not know the extent of the damage he causes his rivals, but either way, he is brutal in his handling of the enemy.

AV: Ender appears far more stoic and aloof than his sweet, smart character in the book. No silent crying into the pillow on the big screen. Right from the start, he’s challenging authority and setting himself apart from the lot—but without his inner dialogue, he comes across as kind of cocky and dismissive, and it’s much harder to think of him as a little boy who is brave, but also confused and afraid as he adapts to his new life at Battle School. While in the book his isolation is by Graff’s design, in the movie Ender seems more like your typical sad sack getting the brunt of the school bully, only he doesn’t even seem to care that much. It’s like he knows that he won’t be eating lunch alone for long. As he starts to assert himself and make friends, though, without the contrast of his thoughts, his calculated interactions with the other kids don’t really have the same socially-aware, well-intentioned backdrop that we’re privy to in the book. A saving grace here, though, is the response he evokes. Most of the other kids seem to understand pretty quickly that Ender is a special case and is someone to learn from and collaborate with. But ultimately, I found this on-screen version of Ender much less endearing than his on-page counterpart.

In terms of violence and destruction, Ender takes no pleasure in cutting others down, and certainly does not revel in wielding power through physical assault. Rather, he just happens to be really effective at zero-sum problem solving and it’s simply his instinct to do whatever it takes to eliminate a threat. When Bonzo, the vengeful commander of the first army that Ender is assigned to, confronts him in the Battle School bathroom, Ender, in self defense, turns a scalding shower on him and knocks him unconscious by throwing him to the floor. Afterward, Ender watches teary-eyed as Bonzo undergoes surgery, horrified to see how the violent undertones of his personality are overpowering his compassion and capacity for diplomacy.

At this point in the movie, Ender loses faith in his own judgment and wants nothing more to do with Battle School or the impending war. But when he’s told that the human race will be destroyed without his leadership, he reluctantly presses on with his training. However, he is increasingly skeptical about the extent of the Formics’ threat to Earth. He wonders, are they really all bad? As an entire species, are they without redeeming qualities and deserving of the xenocide that the military has in mind?

BMcS: When the book starts, Ender isn’t quite six-years-old. Right away, he’s hacking into a mainframe, beating kids at video games, and establishing incredible Battle Room tactics before he turns seven. Not to mention killing a kid. The idea of using children as warriors is a common trope—Toys comes to mind—but is the violence be shocking, or is it be like watching little adults?

AV: As as a group, the kids in the movie look like middle schoolers, but they act like extraordinarily mature middle schoolers. Or actually, more like little adults. The interesting thing here is the juxtaposition with the actual adults, who strictly view the children as assets in this war. Anderson wavers on this point, but Graff is entirely committed to the military’s goals, without any apparent regard for how their training is shaping them as people. He and other adults seem pretty nonplussed about the potential consequences of grooming a generation for warfare. You can’t really blame them—they are, after all, charged with preventing annihilation of the human race. But by contrast, although the young soldiers rarely break rank or resist commands, they remain human: they care about each other, seek out friendships, and enjoy the comradery of teamwork.

The on-screen violence in this movie is deceptively tame. Scuffles between Ender and his nemeses end badly, sure, but are not shocking to watch. In the Battle Room, any intensive combat is cushioned by the airy gracefulness of zero-gravity and kids shooting each other with laser guns seems pretty innocuous. Even when Ender ascends to commander of the entire military fleet, he’s essentially conducting a hologram orchestra. The whole thing feels like the mother of all video games, with vivid swarms of enemy spacecrafts and remote controlled drones. It’s easy to forget that these children are learning to kill. Not just to kill, to destroy an entire world. Their experience is very disconnected from what’s actually at stake. Even throughout Battle School, they’re fighting in the tradition of sports teams—for standings, for pride—rather than learning to hate and fear a distinct enemy. The military, it seems, goes to great lengths to keep the game mentality alive and to address the impending war, only in abstract terms of patriotism and protecting the human race.

Watching Ender’s Game the movie was a lot of fun—it brought to life a story that I love, and it managed to maintain some of the book’s most interesting ideas about empathy, violence, and war. But what I find most intriguing about the book, is the fact that it was written in 1985. Now, I came late to the Ender’s Game party, in that I read it for the first time only a couple of years ago, when things like the internet, role-playing video games, drones, plus who knows what else in terms of military and space technology, were all realities that I could wrap my head around. But the fact that this book was written in the mid-1980s, before most of these concepts had any relevance to real life? Watching the movie in 2013, with all the special effects and graphic touches that we now expect of a sci-fi alien battle movie, really cannot do justice to what a fascinating, prescient novel it was for its time. So my advice is to first read (or re-read) it and marvel.

Bick McSwiney is a teacher in Nigeria.

Alyssa Vine lives in New York.