written by David Steffen
Recently I went to see the Ender’s Game movie, based on the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card (who I interviewed here some time ago). They take place in a future decades after an invasion of insect-like aliens attacked Earth and nearly wiped out the human race. The last invasion was only repelled by the last-ditch effort of a master strategist which turned the tide of the war. Earth needs a new leader, a new master strategist, to lead this war effort, but no ideal candidate has stepped forward. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the orbital Battle School plucks the most promising children to train them in strategy, to see who will come out to be the best of the best and become the new master strategist that Earth needs. Ender is a third child, a rare on this planet with reproductive legislation that limits parents to two children to limit population growth–his parents were allowed to have a third because their first two children were very promising candidates but his older brother Peter was often uncontrollably violent and his older sister Valentine too empathetic to allow them to be viable candidates. Can Ender become the master strategist that Earth is hoping for? Will he be capable of doing what needs to be done to save humanity? Will his training break him?
I read the book for the first time about five years ago, so it wasn’t very fresh when I went to see the movie. After seeing the movie, I re-read the book to refresh it in my mind before writing the review. I’ll give an overview and general impression of each of them in a non-spoiler way, but will follow that up with a spoiler section where I compare/contrast them in more detail without concern for ruining major plot points.
In the book, Ender is recruited at the tender age of six years old, and the main events of the book take until he is about eleven. So by the end he has spent about half of his life in military training. The book follows relationships that he develops with the other students, starting off on a bad note when the head administrator of the school sets out to isolate him from the others on the launch. Most of the school (and thus most of the book) is based around the game which can be most concisely described as zero-gravity laser tag with teams of forty facing off against each other.
The reason that I thought the book was so phenomenal is that it convinced me very thoroughly that Ender is a strategic genius. He is set playing the game that others have been playing for years and years, passing down the most common strategies to their successors for decades, and in relatively little time Ender can see through all of these routine maneuvers and see the flaws in them, see ways to exploit them. For a book based around combat strategy, Card couldn’t get by on just telling us how great Ender is at strategy. He has to convince me of that through Ender’s actions, and Card succeeds at this with flying colors. That is what makes this book so great. There were moments when I first read the book that some of these moments just made my jaw drop at the unexpectedness of a new strategy–something which totally makes sense in retrospect, but which I never would’ve thought of. Even on the re-read, these moments hadn’t lost their luster. And the ending of the book was especially effective, and still gives me chills when I think of it.
In some ways, Ender’s Game has left a mark on the way that I think about everything, and how I interact with people, much in the same way that the concepts of Game Theory have affected me. The thing about the Game Theory kind of mindset that most people don’t realize is that it applies to everything. It’s all about trying to predict outcomes and choose ways to behave and act in situations with other people involved, trying to understand their motivations and what those motivations will push people to do. I’ve used this kind of mindset in recent discussions with Human Resources at my company to point out that certain policies might encourage undesirable behavior and to suggest alterations to policies that might do better. I didn’t always think of things in such terms, but I think that reading Ender’s Game did a lot to make me think in that way which has been very useful.
And then there’s the movie. It’s been a long time in the coming, even though Card had opportunities to make it into a film in the 80s and 90s, because Card insisted on a certain level of creative control. And good for him in sticking to his guns on that. This was the story that put him on the map, and I’ve seen way too many film adaptations that just mangled the original so badly that they didn’t only not do justice to the original, they were an insult to the original.
The film wasn’t bad. The core of the book is there, though there are many significant changes. The casting was good all around, the dialog writing portrayed well the parts that they reflected in the book. The special effects served the movie well.
But the movie is a pale shadow of the book.
I think the reason for that is that it’s just so compressed, both in the time available for the film to convey its story, and in the actual timeline of the story. I don’t know exactly the timeline of the movie, but I’d guess that Ender went to battle school when he was maybe… eleven years old? And he hasn’t aged noticeably by the end, so I’d guess it ended within a year. As opposed to the book where Ender spent literally half his life at Battle school, including those years where he went from a naive child to basically being a man. The ending really depends on this school being his whole life, and the timeline of the movie just doesn’t work with that, so the ending didn’t work like it should have even though it was pretty similar.
And the plot of movie had to compress so much to fit in the allotted time that there was no point at which I was convinced that Ender was a master strategist. A couple of the big strategies of the book are in the movie, but in some cases they are given to him by other characters for free, in other cases they just come to mind without the extreme stress that the book clearly made as a necessary step to being able to push to such strategies. Sure, he was sharp for a grade-schooler, but the book’s Ender Wiggin wasn’t just smart for a grade schooler, he could out-strategize anyone else who was available for the job, which is why he’s their hope to save humanity. The movie just doesn’t convince me of that and so, for me, it fails.
The one thing that I thought the movie improved on was cutting out a subplot that involved Ender’s brother and sister back on Earth–I felt like that was a waste of space.
The Ending (Herein Be Spoilers)
Okay, now that we’re being the cloak of a spoiler warning shield, let’s talk about the ending.
The ending is one of the things that really makes the book worthwhile. For most of the book, he’s in battle school with all the other kids, much of that time being spent in the battle room. As he’s learning to combat other strategies, he’s also constantly revising his personal relationships with the other children as he rises in the ranks to commander. By the time he leaves Battle School he’s proven that he is the beset of anyone there, at a younger age than most, even though the school at the end is intentionally weighing the game situations against him. Finally they graduate him and send him to Command School where he starts running complex simulations where he has control of a fleet of ships facing off against alien ships as he is in command of commanders who each control a subset of the fleet. These simulations are grueling, always against overwhelming odds, often several times a day, and are meant to be a simulation of what the attack on the aliens actually will be like.
By the time he gets to the end of the simulations, some of his commanders have broken beneath him and had to be retired, he has worn himself to exhaustion, and when he reaches the enemy’s planet he decides he wants to win spectacularly but in a way in which those judging him will never possibly consider him as a leader–by destroying their homeworld. And he does this, only to discover that this wasn’t a simulation after all. While directing what he thought was a simulation, he has destroyed an intelligent species. Those who have been training him chose this strategy because they knew that the only one who could beat the enemy would be one who could empathize with them to the point of thinking like them, but that person would not be able to destroy them if they thought the situation were actually real.
Holy crap, what an ending. But it depends a great deal on the timeline. The compressed timeline of the movie just makes this not work. If Ender resorts to genocide as easily as he does in the movie, even in a simulation, it’s hard to cut him any slack. There’s no mention in the movie that he’s trying to fail their test on purpose so they won’t choose him like he did in the book, and even if they did the compressed timeline of the movie likewise would make that very hard to justify. And I never got the impression that he and those beneath him had been pushed to the breaking point, either. Ender just reaches the planet and decides without warning “Oh, hey, I can blow up the planet. Therefore I will.” The end.
The movie is not a waste of time. At its core, it has much the same story, but the book is better on almost every level. If you see the movie first, you’ll be robbing yourself of the opportunity to see it play out the way it should in the book.
My advice: Read the book. Think about seeing the movie AFTER you read the book.