Movie Muses: Ender’s Game Was Not the Book… And That’s OK!

ender's game movie poster film 2013Last weekend, I went to see Ender’s Game in theaters, which was very exciting since Ender’s Gamethe book, is one of the very few science fiction novels that I actually enjoyed.  Now, you may mistakenly believe that I am a connoisseur of all things sci-fi, judging from my incredible science fiction short story that I wrote in September, but really I am not much of a sci-fi person.  I prefer my dragons and magic over spaceships and technology.

Ender’s Game is an exception for me because it is all about characters, and I love well developed characters.  Yes, there is lots of space and tech and ships and even aliens (to which I have a particular aversion for various reasons).  But the story is a character-driven one about a young genius whose gifts are being molded to create a perfect warleader regardless of the struggles Ender himself endures because of his views on conflict.  He is an incredible strategist, but he also has a developing set of morals, and this is the central tension of the novel.

Admittedly, the battles that the teams of youngsters engage in are pretty cool, as well.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book.  I appreciated that it was not a straightforward battle against a big, wriggly army of aliens, and I appreciated how Ender grew and changed and remained an interesting person throughout the story.

ender's game asa butterfield harrison fordGoing into the film, it was impossible not to have at least some hopes for a similar story to be told.  However, what I had to keep in mind was that this was a movie, not a book, and films will always be different.  How can a film convey a character’s inner thoughts and conflicts, or embrace exposition and narrative brought into it by the author?  How can one film span years of involved storytelling and show the growth of a character from a very small child into a pre-teen?  How can a film possibly relate all of the elements of the book that readers love in a two hour timeframe?

The simple fact is, a film cannot fulfill every hope and dream a reader has. Moviemakers must pick and choose what to use, what to change, and what to dispense with.  Ender’s Game was not exactly the same as the book.  The timeline was sped up significantly to take place over months rather than years.  Of course, we were not inside the character’s head, but could only guess what Ender was thinking or pick up on bits of exposition.   There was not nearly as much time spent on the relationships between Ender and his battle schoolmates and how he became a leader. The Peter/Valentine plotline was gone entirely.

The film was not the book.

But that’s okay.  The trick to enjoying a good book-to-film adaptation, at least in my opinion, is to set the book aside as much as you possibly can and judge the film based on what it offers.  Of course, if you’ve read the book, it is not possible to forget the story or what you loved about it as you sit and watch it play out before your eyes (or not, as the case may be).  But the more you can step away from the book and watch the movie, the less likely the inevitable comparisons will upset you.

ender's game battle school dining hallI will say this, the film Ender’s Game was remarkably closer to the book as far as adaptions go.  These are all my own personal opinions, of course, but as I watched it, I felt that I was enjoying the same story. It followed the same plotline, it got Ender the character down very well, and it turned my vague and uninformed visions of what battle school and the battle simulations might have looked like into a fantastic reality.  It was fun.

Most importantly, though, using a book about the ethical implications of training child soldiers, of deceiving and manipulating those children for “the greater good,” and preemptive attacks on an enemy that may or may not pose a future threat, the movie had the daunting task of grappling with these same issues in a very short span of time.  It did so, I thought, very well.  In some instances, I felt more strongly for the characters in the film than I did for the ones in the book.

But (let me say it again!) Ender’s Game, the filmis not the book.  Some characters were deliberately changed from their book versions, scenes were altered or cut altogether.  The story was different because of the medium and the timeframe.  Did it lose anything for being different?  Not necessarily. Of course, if a film that claims to be “inspired by” a certain novel goes off the deep end and has nothing much in common with the original, I think we are justified to be more than a little miffed, not because the film itself is automatically bad (it might be quite good!), but because we were led to expect to see a story we know and loved recreated in some way.  What is less reasonable is to become miffed when a film takes liberties with the book and changes things.  Once again, it will be a much more enjoyable experience for us if we can just watch the movie as a movie in its own right and see how it does.

An example of this that I often think of is the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan.  I have read the book and consider it one of the best children’s books ever written.  The film version is profoundly different.  They changed one of the fundamental issues of the novel – that is, the inability of Peter Pan to mature or change. You might even say, the movie is nothing like the book at all because they changed what the story was supposed to mean.  But it’s a very, very good movie.  It is beautiful, fun, emotional, and sweet.  It is well acted, funny, and fulfilling as a film.  Is it different from its original source?  Yes!  Do I mind?  Not at all.

Ender's Game final battleNow, judging Ender’s Game as a film and not as an adaptation of a novel, there were definitely some flaws.  I felt that it was too rushed and could have stood for more time developing the character and going through school.  It lost a sense of realism in being so quick.  The characters, though, were all believable, and the story itself was powerful.

This film stands alone just fine.  The good news for lovers of the book is that it also represents the story in the novel very well. I guess the point I’m trying to make here, aside from the fact that I liked this film, is that complaints about the film should not really be driven by how it does and does not reflect the book.  Rather, we can judge this film on its own merits, and I think that it comes out looking very strong.

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on November 6, 2013, in Authors, Books, Characters, Children's Literature, Ender Wiggin, Ender's Game, Film, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Movie Reviews, Orson Scott Card, Science Fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Excellent post, Melissa. I think Erik wrote something similar last year about the recent Hobbit film. Your comments reflect his same sentiments about the two art forms. I used to be a stickler for direct book-film adaptations, but my recent foray into film studies has shown me otherwise. The point of a film is to tell a story, and many people consider film a inferior form of art after literature. So, they most likely consider a movie dishonest if it does not follow exactly the source. But as you said, films stand alone as a work of art in their own right. However, if the film markets itself as “based on” a book or true event yet strays from the source material becomes false to the art of storytelling.

    • I saw Ender’s Game with Melissa and Rachel, and we had a friend along who had not read the book. It was basically case and point for the argument I made for the Hobbit movie in my posts about respecting the differences between art media: he didn’t know what was changed or missing from the story, and so he judged the movie based on its respective medium. In this case, he was also fascinated by the implications of the book which extended beyond what was represented in the movie, but his appreciation for the movie only grew from knowing more about the source material.

      The more I think about the movie, the more I think it very clearly represents a good balance for movie adaptations: a strong focus on creating an effective movie, while also representing the strongest elements of the original story, without attempting a 1:1 representation (which is impossible).

      It also helped that the acting was top notch (Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield both nailed it), and the CGI was some of the best I’ve seen, without being such a stagehog as to distract from the actors or story.

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