It took nearly three decades and multiple creative teams for it to happen, but the movie version of Orson Scott Card’s seminal sci-fi novel “Ender’s Game” finally hit the big screen last weekend. The film led the domestic weekend box office at $28 million, according to boxofficemojo.com, and opened to generally positive reviews with a 62 percent positive rating on rottentomatoes.com.
Ask almost any fan, though, and they'll say it was worth the wait just to see the story translated right — something that can hardly be said of most book-to-movie adaptations.
Card’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning series now numbers at more than a dozen volumes (including a recent prequel trilogy co-authored with Aaron Johnston). However, rumors of a big-budget Hollywood adaptation have been floating around pretty much since the first novel hit bookstore shelves back in 1985.
To put things in perspective of what an “Ender’s Game” movie might have looked like back then, that was only a few years after “Tron” (1982) introduced audiences to primitive computer-generated graphics, and only one year after another Hugo Award winner, Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” got completely butchered in the jump to celluloid — to the point where even the director, David Lynch, asked to have his name removed.
The only thing that kept “Ender’s Game” from the same fate? Card’s vise-like grip on the movie rights.
“I became a problem in that we could not sign any deal unless I agreed to certain conditions about (the movie) being true to the story,” the author told an audience at the 2013 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
In the late ’90s, though, it looked like a version of “Ender’s Game” might actually get off the ground with Jake Lloyd of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” rumored to play Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, as recounted in a recent piece on Grantland.com.
A poster featuring the young actor studiously peering at a copy of “Ender’s Game” was part of the Association of American Publishers’ “Get Caught Reading” campaign.
“Jake Lloyd wants to play Ender, and I want him to play Ender,” the author said during a 1999 interview on Talk City Chat. “ Jake is a young actor who is every bit as good as Roddy McDowell was in his ‘How Green Was My Valley’ heyday. ‘Ender's Game’ would give Jake a chance to show it.”
However, that iteration of the movie failed to launch, and Lloyd outgrew the role.
The next close miss came a few years later when Wolfgang Petersen (“The Neverending Story,” “Troy”) was tapped to direct from a screenplay penned by Card himself — despite an earlier statement from the author that he would be “just as interested in stepping outside and beating (himself) with a hot rod of iron” as he would be in trying to adapt his own “unfilmable” book.
That version of the movie collapsed, as well, when Petersen left the project in 2008, leaving things once again up in the air for Card’s prepubescent Napoleon.
In hindsight, though, the false starts seem almost like a blessing in disguise.
It’s difficult to imagine the story of children co-opted by the military establishment in a grim, post-apocalyptic future getting made without the current young adult boom of things like Harry Potter and, especially, “The Hunger Games” — neither of which is anywhere near as dark as Card’s novel or Gavin Hood’s adaptation of it.
What’s more, as anyone who’s seen the movie can attest, some of the most stunning moments (no pun intended) are the ones that take place in the Battle Room. These elaborately staged simulations of a zero gravity environment where Ender and Company compete in a game of military strategy are exactly the kind of thing that would have been just about impossible a decade ago.
In fact, even with some of the same effects wizards used by James Cameron on “Avatar,” two entirely new rig technologies had to be invented for “Ender’s Game” in order to capture the effect of weightlessness, according to slashfilm.com. The film's young stars then trained for a full month with members of Cirque du Soleil to learn how to use them.
Finally, even with all the flash and spectacle afforded a studio tent pole like this, none of it would have mattered without the right cast. As many reviews have noted, Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) delivers a standout performance — at once calculating and sympathetic. It’s that more than anything that allows the movie to come together without losing the emotional complexities of its source material.
How “Ender’s Game” will ultimately fare at the box office is still a mystery. But fans can be happy knowing that this adaptation goes far beyond what most could have expected in remaining true to the spirit of the novel.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.