It’s finally here—just over 25 years since it’s release as a novel, Ender’s Game is hitting the big screen. Matt and I have been hitting the book from every angle that we could think of, but of course left a lot to be discussed, so head over to the forums and sound off.
The one thing we deliberately didn’t spend much time doing is talking about the movie adaptation. This was largely deliberate. First, we hope that the Book Club podcasts will be “evergreen”: that they will still be enjoyable down the road, when the movie is old news and new readers are picking up the book for the first time. Second, there’s something valuable in looking at a text on its own merits, instead of speculating what the machine that is Hollywood is going to do with it.
But, like a swarm of angry Formics, the hive mind that is Hollywood is going to do its thing, and Ender’s Game The Movie is now a reality. Like many long-time fans of Ender’s game (and like long-time fans of any eagerly awaited adaptation), I approach the release with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m excited to see what a massive VFX budget and top-notch casting can do with the story that I’ve come to love.
On the other hand, I’m worried that all the VFX in the world can’t make up for the compromises that have to be made in order to get a movie made.
So in the spirit of Overthinking It, here’s a score card of what I’ll be looking for when I sit down to watch Ender’s Game this weekend:
1. The Battle Room
In many ways, the Battle Room is Ender’s Game. According to Orson Scott Card, the story began as a question of “How will we train people for battle in space?” The Zero-G battle room was his answer to that question.
And in that sense, I think that getting the Battle Room right is a sine qua non of a successful adaptation. While the battle against the Buggers (er, Formics) is the conflict that’s driving the story, the Battle Room is where the book spends most of its time and detail. Compare the level of detail about the Battle Room battles with the level of detail about the battles in space.
That said, everything I’ve seen so far in the trailers/marketing makes me think that this will be done well. I like the choices they’ve made in the visual design, and apparently they spent a lot of time making sure that the zero-G movement looked convincing. In particular, I’m loving the fact that they used former Cirque du Soleil performers to train the actors.
2. The Bathroom Fight Scene
If the Battle Room is the heart of the book in terms of action, then Ender’s fight with Bonzo is in many ways the emotional heart of the book. For most of the middle of the book, Ender’s interactions with the other children are what drive the story, and Ender’s fight with Bonzo is the culmination of this story.
And what happens after Ender leaves the school is tied tightly to what happens to Bonzo; there is Ender Before Bonzo and there is Ender After Bonzo.
What will I be looking for specifically? Two things.
First, I’m worried that the fight will be too clean, too sanitized. One of the things that distinguishes this fight and this book is the level of violence that it’s willing to place at the heart of the book. This is not a school yard fight, and it would be a mistake for the adaptation to portray it as one.
Second, in the book, we get access to Ender’s inner thoughts, and his justifications for what he does to Bonzo, and we are still left somewhat unsure of whether these justifications are morally sufficient. I’m hoping that the movie doesn’t “whitewash” this fight, and lessen Ender’s moral culpability for his actions
3. The dual “twist” endings
I already warned you once, but here it is again: Spoilers ahead.
Ender’s Game is defined by not one by two twist endings, both of which are crucial to making Ender’s Game anything other than a Starship Troopers knock-off. I’m very much hoping that the movie effectively preserves both of these twists for non-book readers.
First, of course, we have the “It’s been real that whole time” reveal—that what Ender believes to be his “final exam” at Command School is, in fact, a real war that wipes out the Buggers for real.
I’m very skeptical that the movie will effectively hide this twist from non-book readers. The marketing has in many places telegraphed what’s going on, and the “hi-def” of the space battles will, I fear, mean that people will find it very easy to see what’s really going on.
In particular, I’m excited to see the exact moment where it’s revealed. In the novel, the moment where Graff and the other Generals, previously stoic and reserved, break down in tears, preying and cheering, is deeply affecting. I am really hoping that that moment is included, and that it it’s effectively portrayed.
Second, and possibly more importantly from a thematic standpoint, there’s the reveal on the colony world that “The Buggers were never coming back,” that the whole Third Invasion was unnecessary, and everything Ender fought for was a mistake.
While this reveal definitely has not been telegraphed by the marketing, I’m curious to see how it will be revealed. In the book, it’s done largely telepathically, and there’s virtually no action that can be shown to demonstrate the import of what’s been revealed.
If the movie wants to succeed, it will have to do (at least) all three of those things well. There’s one more thing I’ll be watching for:
4. Sequel set-up
It’s difficult to imagine that they’ve greenlit a big-budget VFX movie like Ender’s Game without at least SOME possibility of a multiple-movie payoff down the road. This is a challenge, though, because none of the sequels to Ender’s Game are anything remotely like the original novel: No Battle Room, no Space Battles. I’ll be very curious to see whether, and how, the movie sets itself up for a sequel.
The focus on Ender, and a few shots from the most recent trailer, make me think that it will likely be pointing towards Speaker for the Dead, which, unless completely overhauled, is essentially unfilmable. It just doesn’t have the quality or quantity of action that would be needed to sustain a franchise.
So any hints they leave behind in the movie will be extremely interesting to see.
What will you be looking for? Sound off in the comments, or head over to the Book Club forums!
Thanks for enderthinking it for the last few months Ben Adams. What i’m wondering about for the movie form:
1. How are they going to handle the passage of time? Will we get an Ender training montage as he goes from launchie to commander and his year in command school? Will it be set to Eye of the Tiger?
2. Where is Bean? Will there be a setup for Ender’s Shadow?
3. Will they show me something new or stick within the book? I’m all for deviating from the source if you can give me something exciting, perhaps a third twist?
Regarding the two twists, I’ve read a handful of advance reviews of the movies and have cringed to see explicit references to both twists. Best case scenario is that these reviewers are just spoiling the movie, but I have the unfortunate expectation that those elements won’t be twists in the film narrative, but will be a clear plot point from the beginning.
In the book Ender goes from five to twelve. They have to compress that time line to two year perhaps. I’m also concerned about the pacing in that they will want to spend more time on the space battles.
I also expect much of the Peter/Valentine subplot to just disappear. It’s not really critical to the plotting of the movie although it’s at the heart of the story.
Saw the movie last night and am dying to her Ben’s thoughts. Overall I thought this was an OK adaptation of the book, but kind of an infuriating movie to watch (and listen to).
Here are my quick takes on the four criteria above.
(spoilers, of course):
1. Battle Room – the sequence where Ender goes all spicy two handed-guns was a beautifully crafted moment. It walked right up to the line of being over the top, but stayed just shy of it. Deliriously good.
2. Bathroom fight scene, or at least its aftermath, was a total letdown. Ender is of course supposed to believe that Bonzo might have survived the encounter, but leaving the audience with an idea that he survived undermines the whole point of the conflicts and Ender’s habit of, well, ending everything that gets in his way.
3. The endings were reasonably well executed given all of the challenges associated with A) masquerading the battles as simulations and B) the telepathic bugger revelation. If I had to complain about something, it would be the muted reaction of the adults; it wasn’t the cathartic moment it was presented as in the book.
4. Sequel? I have no idea where they’d take this from here.
Additional thoughts: the key scene that broke this movie for me was Ender and Valentine on the raft. Let me break it down for you:
(Anxiety-ridden music playing underneath)
VAL: You’re manipulating Ender!
GRAFF: WE MUST DO THIS
VAL: (looks weepy)
VAL, TO ENDER: YOU MUST DO THIS
ENDER: I DON’T WANT TO
VAL: (looks weepy)
The whole thing was rushed and utterly failed to build any real sense of tension or conflict in that moment. The music didn’t help either; it made the scene–and most of the movie–feel like it was on autopilot, relentlessly moving forward and rising in stakes.
Lastly, why did this have to be a 2 hour movie? Why not a 12 or 24 part TV show? This felt like a forced 2 hour march through the main story points that gave insufficient time to feel the full effect of Ender’s experience.
More thoughts later.
Agree with you on these points, especially what was left of Val’s truncated role and including the thoughts on a long-form tv run being a better vehicle. The adults instead being stunned at the end was unexpected…but then again, maybe a more appropriate reaction? There is naturally less “relief” in a pre-imminent (albeit successful) attack. I got a read that they were almost disgusted or ashamed of what Ender did, like it was too much.
I don’t think it is realistic that they could keep the first twist hidden from audiences. Even people who haven’t read the book simply wouldn’t believe that studios would make a hundred million dollar movie about a kid struggling to pass his final exam.
Hiding the first twist would require an elaborate ruse, like telling the public that they are actually going to split the book into two or three movies (like Mockingjay, Deathly Hallows, or Breaking Dawn) and then not actually making the sequels, so that people go into the theater thinking that they are seeing an incomplete story. Otherwise it is just not plausible that the movie wouldn’t end with some kind of decisive battle in the war.
In fact if I were the screenwriter I would assume that people already know the first twist, and the challenge for me is how to make the story interesting without that particular tool.
Sorry… as curious as I am, I will still not spend a single dollar on an OSC project until the man is dead. There’s lots of unpacking to be done about good art created by bad people. (Wagner, anyone?) But I have to live with myself right now.