The Wasted Potential of “Ender’s Game”

After around 25 years in development hell, the film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s bestselling novel Ender’s Game has finally arrived in theaters. This piece isn’t meant as a formal review (I’ll be speaking in more detail about the film on an upcoming episode of Cinema Fix), but just as a casual collection of thoughts and concerns I was left with after the movie. Be warned: this does contain spoilers for the film and the book, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should bookmark this for later. Or better yet, just go read the book and then come back.

(Also, one side note: I’m not going to touch at all on the controversy around Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs and whether or not the film should be supported. If you want to boycott it, fine. Personally, I think it’s a rather silly debate.)

If you don’t know what Ender’s Game is about and are reading this anyway (why?), here are the basics. It takes place in the future a few decades after a devastating war with a race of alien insectoids called the Formics. We won, but now the military focuses most of its recruiting efforts on children, training them to think strategically so they can hopefully lead mankind to victory in the case of another attack. One boy, Ender Wiggin, is thought to be a child prodigy so bright that he could be the key to defeating the Formics once and for all. The plot follows his journey as the military brass attempts to mold him into an effective leader through a series of simulated war games.

That’s the premise in a nutshell. Overall, I think it’s a fine film adaptation that unfortunately botches the ending so much that the rest is retroactively soured. The problem with Ender’s Game the movie isn’t that it’s unfaithful to Ender’s Game the book. Sure, there are certain subplots and relationship dynamics that were left on the cutting room floor, but that comes with any adaptation. If anything, the film is too faithful, presenting Ender’s story in a slimmed-down way that prioritizes plot over character and does a good job of showing what happens, but not why it matters. The events are there, but the weight of them is told to us rather than shown, and the last act feels rushed and distant, as if the producers or the studio were afraid to dwell on the depressing implications of the finale.

This wouldn’t be very much of a problem if the climax of Ender’s Game didn’t hinge on some of the heaviest themes possible: genocide and cultural continuation. The first half is a fairly well-done young adult space adventure, and while I wish the film had kept some of the darker elements of the novel—the book portrays Ender as far more cold and potentially brutal, given to sadism if he feels it could serve a long-term purpose—it does communicate most of the important stuff while delivering some pretty spectacular sequences in the zero-gravity Battle Room. I spent most of the two-hour runtime impressed by how much they got right in the translation to the screen, only to ultimately be disappointed because they failed to capture the most important part of all: the ending.

The last act of Ender’s Game finds him at Command School, leading a squad of his colleagues in virtual war simulations that gradually increase in difficulty. From what I remember, this takes place over weeks or months in the book, with Ender constantly placed under intense physical and psychological stress. This is arguably just as important as his time in Battle School, but the film—perhaps for budgetary reasons—rushes through in a series of montages, and before you can say, “Hey! These effects look like Minority Report!” it’s time for him to graduate. For his final “test,” Ender leads what he believes is a simulated attack on the Formic homeworld and destroys the entire planet. The enemy is defeated. He’s done it. He wins the game…

…except it wasn’t a game after all.

The big “twist” of Ender’s Game is that Command School isn’t actually a school—his tests were real. Each Formic cruiser he destroyed in a simulation was an actual ship blowing apart, and each human military dreadnaught that he sacrificed contained real people, some of whom he knew from Battle School. These were real lives he was playing with, not pixels. By beating what he thought was a simulation, he inadvertently committed genocide and wiped out an entire species of sentient beings capable of empathy and, perhaps, diplomacy. The dark heart of Ender’s Game is that its protagonist isn’t a hero, even though he wins the war; he’s the biggest mass murderer of all time.

The film provides us with an obligatory scene of Ender being upset about how he was tricked, and that’s it. We quickly move into a denouement which finds him discovering the last egg of the Formics and deciding to travel the universe to find it a new home planet. In the film, this comes off like a quick, last-ditch attempt at leaving the audience with a little bit of hope. You see, everyone? Everything’s okay! The Formics will live on!

Things aren’t that simple, though. Ender Wiggin doesn’t just nearly destroy an entire species of sentient life, he also becomes the primary individual in charge of its continuation. He’s not only responsible for how the Formics will live on, but their previous history as well: he’s the only person now who knows it. He has to pass along their identity. Their culture. Their story. He becomes the Speaker For The Dead, the only person around to say this happened. These beings lived. Here’s who they were. Know them, and know thyself.

Now that’s an ending. There’s profound tragedy and yes, little bit of hope, but above all, there are massive stakes. One person has the power to both end and begin entire civilizations; Ender becomes Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, yet he’s also a child messiah. These ideas are mentioned in passing in the film, but the audience is never allowed time to reflect on them, to ponder the murkiness of them, to feel the weight of them.

Even more disappointing is the fact that there’s so much squandered potential to update the material to reflect modern themes. It’s been nearly 30 years since the book was published, but many of its ideas are just as resonant now as they were during the Cold War, if not more so. Look at the advances in technology, for example. We’re all connected through social networks and capable of instant wireless communications. Our video games are more immersive than ever before, allowing children to live virtual lives in virtual worlds, inflicting violence on virtual characters. What better way to explore controversies and debates about video games, violence, and the effect technology has on relationships, than through a story in which a child’s simulation turns out to be real?

Or what about U.S. foreign policy? Nearly 20 years after Ender’s Game was published, we decided that a pre-emptive strike was a justified course of action, and our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq—which, like Ender’s genocide, were arguably committed on false pretenses—will have a tremendous impact on the Middle East for decades to come. Even now, there are reports that the Obama administration has implemented a system of such intense intelligence gathering and covert operations that the United States will now always be in a state of perpetual war. The film does have the insight to refer to Ender’s supposedly simulated spacecraft as “drones,” but it doesn’t take the idea much further than that. There was a huge opportunity for the film to connect with the audience on a cultural and historical level as well as an individual moral one. Ender’s belief that he’s playing a game ultimately leads to genocide; does the use of unmanned drones in Libya and Pakistan distance us from the carnage involved, and if so, is that distance morally justified?

Ender’s Game is a story about the trauma of war, and how young hearts and minds can be corrupted by the institutions around them, but that’s mostly missing from the film adaptation. Ender gets a little angry at the end, but other than that, you wouldn’t know that he and his fellow trainees are responsible for wiping out an entire planet. Normally, I don’t like to judge a film adaptation on how faithfully it captures the source material—movies should be assessed on their own terms—but it’s hard not to when the film sticks so closely to the surface-level events of the book without carving out its own identity or communicating the emotion behind those events.

I’d much rather see a film that differs from the book but fully captures its themes than the faithful but hollow version we got. Ender is us. That’s why the book feels so universal. We all struggle to be compassionate but also decisive, and we all occasionally find ourselves distrustful of the authorities that guide us. We also all want to win, even though winning sometimes means hurting other people. The triumph of Ender’s Game is that it doesn’t end with Ender denying the sins he has committed or arguing that he was tricked and isn’t to blame. He takes responsibility and then moves forward, doing whatever he can to right past wrongs and make the world a better place. At the end of the day, it’s a story about growing up. I just wish the film had done a better job of reminding us that we can do that, too.

What do you think? What were your thoughts on how the ending was handled? What themes and ideas would you have liked to see them address? Let me know in the comments below!

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