It’s the season for space. Or is it loneliness? This month I have seen or will see Gravity (2013), Ender’s Game (2013), and The Right Stuff (1983). What a nice cross-section of reality, realism, and sci-fi fantasy. Gravity was quite excellent (review), The Right Stuff I’ve seen before and will see it again on blu-ray momentarily, and I’ve read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) and Ender’s Shadow (1999) and liked them quite a bit. These two are the origin stories of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin and Bean, Ender’s diminutive friend, covering the same period of time from two perspectives. At the end of audio books, Card gave little updates for the film version of his very popular first book with limited hopes. Producers kept wanting to make the children older and establish love stories and Card wouldn’t have any of that.
On the second update, Card thought he’d cracked the screenplay and would tell Ender’s Game alongside Ender’s Shadow in order to overcome the internal nature of the stories. That appears not to have happened in the final product and that’s too bad. Both have very interesting pre-battle and post-battle stories that are only glimpsed at in this film version from writer/director Gavin Hood. Instead, Hood bolts through the spine of the narrative to nod in the general direction of characterizations outside of Ender’s and hammer home the current topicality of what the book has to say about war. Storytelling aside, let me assuage those who would like to attack the film because Orson Scott Card is a Utah conservative. This isn’t The Fountainhead, it isn’t a novelization of Card’s social views. If the story has anything to say on political topics, they are quite squarely directed from left to right, questioning war, aggression, and the use of youth in those fights.
Fifty years ago, Earth was attacked by an alien race called the Formicks. Led by the great Mazer Rackham, they were turned back, but only after great loss. The world has united in response to this threat and have marshaled the greatest young minds of humanity to train them so that, when the time comes, they might defend us. Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) is the head of that program and he believes that Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the one that can lead the International Fleet to victory. Wiggin is vastly intelligent, tactically wise, and reluctantly ruthless. Wiggin must leave his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) and go into the satellite academy for these wiz kids for training. Graff and his second-in-command Maj. Anderson (Viola Davis) follow Wiggin’s progress and manipulate his environment to groom him into the commander they need. Along the way, Wiggin gains the trust and admiration of Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), Bean (Aramis Knight), Alai (Suraj Partha) and the rest. When will they be ready?
The guy for this is Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Gravity (2013). Ender’s Game is like Hogwarts. The kids fit into relatively neat styles of goodness and badness, reliable and volatile. What Cuarón did so well with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) was to create and maintain that school environment with realistically chummy children who do things with their time off. Hood is so focused on getting this story out that a lot of that is missed. The classrooms are dark and sterile, lunch happens a few times, and only the big moments are shown. If you’ve seen Gravity, and the box office numbers suggest you have, you’ll know that Cuarón can handle those big moments very well.
When they decided to make this movie under two hours long, they crippled their capacity to make a stand-alone great film. Because while the spectacle of this world is amazing, what drives the story is the internal workings of Ender’s mind which, if you aren’t going to have a constant narrator, takes some time to establish. How, for example, do you expect to show Ender’s isolation in ten minutes? Solving that problem requires someone who can marshal impressionism and realism, and that’s Cuarón. Look at Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and tell me he can’t establish a world quicker than anyone. Possibly he could have squared that circle and communicated the kind of long-developing psychological manipulation Ender was subjected to while keeping the plot alive. I found myself making up for the little misses the movie made and filled in with my knowledge of the book to inform the character. Without that, I imagine I would have been annoyed by how much Hood forced me to accept in the dialogue rather than through my own empathy.
As for Ender, the character, Butterfield commands a great deal of sympathy. He’s got the character down pat. With his twitchy way of doing the transparently right thing to manipulate the people around him to gain their support or at least keep them from open hostility. As in the novel, your feelings for the character are about nine-tenths admiration and one-tenth antipathy, loving him for his skill and regretting his need for it while also having a mild distrust in someone with that kind of power. I suppose this is how we feel towards all great people. Butterfield and Hood do slightly undersell the latter part of the film where Ender begins to crack under the pressure–as I alluded to before, if it’s only been an hour, how can he be tired?–with too quick an intervention by his friends.
The other characters get barely a semblance of a personality. Petra is a girl, Bean is small, Alai is Muslim. That’s about as deep as it goes for the children. I wanted to see the normals, the humming hallways with the kids obsessed by Battle stats (very like house points in Harry Potter). Graff is a semi-reluctant pragmatist, but Ford doesn’t really give him a sense of craftiness that might have made him less heroic. Instead, Hood plays Ford against Viola Davis’s very reluctant psychological observer who constantly tries to pull back the trickery. This is both a deviation from the book (minor infraction) and a pretty bald retreat to familiar gender roles (medium infraction) in conflict with the probability that it’d be her character who would formulate the stratagem (major infraction).
The method of the storytelling is so important to these adaptations. If a book is successful, the person adapting it has to respect the reason for its success. When the book is like Ender’s Game with its relatively light plotting and heavy character insight, that should be the jumping off point. I saw somewhere that the approach one “should” use when writing an adaptation is to take the three to five best scenes and build around those. That’s such a hack trick. If we’re talking about Game of Thrones or Twilight, where people are attracted because of the pendulum nature of the storytelling, then that rule might well apply. But when it’s the world and the people in it that are foremost, then the adaptation must follow suit. When you have something like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings which is about world, plot, and character, then it may well be impossible to accomplish in a film. The makers of The Hunger Games trilogy, however, show that you need to approach this interpretation maturely or else be tempted into the always ephemeral melodrama.
On the production side, there’s an odd tension between conventional style and high-end, well-imagined CGI. The cinematography from Donald McAlpine seems to suffer from the very thing Ender hammers home from very early in the movie and novel: in space, there is no up or down. If Gravity hadn’t come out and showed us that very notion with absolute perfection, I probably would have taken McAlpine’s work as perfectly acceptable. But now I know better. It might be that graphics have come along too far since the novel came out. Card predicted immersive video games, laptops, the power of blogging, and remote warfare. But did our expanded imagination for the complexity of a simulator undermine a central plot point (which I won’t spoil, but people who read the book know what I’m talking about). The score (Steve Jablonsky), which I liked quite a bit, is probably one of the few things I liked unreservedly. Very neat and moody.
I hope there’s an extended version somewhere out there. If not, we might need to start thinking about a miniseries.
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