Several years ago, I chanced upon an audio version of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and I really enjoyed it. The book was published in 1985, but until now it had never been translated into film. Somewhere—I don’t recall whether it was a part of the audio or in print—Orson Scott Card discussed the problems in getting the book onto the big screen. One of the problems was age of the characters. I don’t recall exactly how old they were in the book, but they were young. For this and other reasons, no film version came to pass—until now. It was worth the wait.
The problem seeing a film adaptation any book that you’ve really enjoyed is that you’re likely to suffer a disappointment. There are exceptions, To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind as a great book and a great movie. And some books probably become better as films. I’m guessing here because I never read the book, but I imagine that The Godfather is better as a film. But the finer the book, the more likely the disappointment in seeing its film adaptation. I can now add Ender’s Game as an exception to this rule. The screenplay sticks closely with the book (as far as I can remember, as it has been several years). Ender’s relationship with Valentine and Peter is not as fully developed—wasn’t Peter on the way to becoming some type of fascist leader?—but on the main points, I think they adhered to the major scenes and themes. The lead (Asa Butterfield) looks like a pre-pubescent boy (if he has any peach fuzz on that face I couldn’t see it). Some of the others were older, and some younger, but we see that Ender and the others are kids. The premise that kids could be trained more effectively than adults in the complex and intuitive skills required makes sense. The filmmakers have maintained this crucial aspect of Card’s original vision. A child shall lead them—but at what price?
The crucial part of the adaptation is that Ender remains the central and enigmatic character. Ender is at once sensitive and ferocious. (One has to ask, once the testosterone gets turned on, what’s this guy going to be like?) We don’t know where the ferociousness comes from, perhaps the book addressed it—a combination of genetics and having Peter as an older brother? But Valentine helps nurture Ender’s sensitive side. If Ender hadn’t worked as a character, the film wouldn’t have worked, and for this we have to thank the director and young Mr. Butterfield. Others in the cast worked well also, the young actors and the veterans. I must say, however, that I wonder if Harrison Ford doesn’t tire of having to snarl in every movie (although I’m sure that’s what they hire him to do) and Ben Kingsley doesn’t tire of playing a burly, tough heavy (each new role an anti-Gandhi). But both fulfill their roles appropriately.
I read an article from The New Yorker about politics and SF in which author Tim Kreider makes an argument that really resonated with me: politics is about the future*. This strikes me as profound and accurate. Indeed, we might extend that and say that life is about the future. In any event, since politics is about our collective future, the SF genre is well suited to explore politics because of its ability to experiment with future societies. I know of political science courses based on SF literature. (Alas, I was never was able to take the one that was taught at Iowa by one of my profs.) Ender’s Game, both the book and the film, addresses tough political and moral issues (and these two subjects are often combined). An attack by the Formics traumatizes humanity. The task assigned to Ender and his fellow youngsters by the leadership of a seemingly united humanity becomes a project of genocide. I was surprised to hear the term genocide used in the film. The decision to annihilate the Formics before they annihilate humanity has been made at the highest levels. But is this necessary? The question occurs to Ender and to us. The ending leaves us wondering what becomes of Ender and his quest. Is his accomplishment a source of pride or guilt? Wisdom or foolishness? The film doesn’t try to answer the question (perhaps Card does in his later installments in the series), but to have the questions raised encouraged me that a mainstream American SF film can address tough questions. These issues are relevant to decisions made in our world every day. Most recent SF films have disappointed me, with an overemphasis on special effects and loud booms. Don’t get me wrong, FX is great, and I’d love to play in that zero-gravity training room with those stun guns—that would be terrific! But such neat stuff can’t substitute for some gravity of theme, and I’m happy that this film doesn't ignore that ingredient.
P.S. This entire essay is worth reading.*Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.