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28 years in the making, 'Ender's Game' comes to theaters

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 4:20 p.m. MDT

From left, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield star in From left, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman)

Christa Baxter grew up listening to tales of science fiction, so it was no surprise that she found “Ender’s Game” as a 13-year-old seventh-grader.

Rumors of an “Ender’s Game” film have haunted the Internet for years, but when Baxter learned the film was moving forward to production, she was "ecstatic."

Baxter, now an English master’s student at BYU, said that as a young middle-schooler, she enjoyed finding a sci-fi book where the protagonists were actually younger than her.

“(Seventh) grade was also the height of my painful middle-school awkwardness,” Baxter said in an email. “So in a shallow way I identified with Ender for being picked on because I was smart. (Of course, not world-saving, child-genius smart. Mostly just a bookworm-with-a-big-vocabulary-and-a-side-of-bad-hair smart).”

From left, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield and Aramis Knight star in From left, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield and Aramis Knight star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman)

Author Orson Scott Card was just 33 when “Ender’s Game” hit bookshelves in 1985 and quickly became a science fiction classic for both young and old.

Set on a futuristic Earth still scarred by an alien invasion, the novel follows child-genius Ender Wiggin, who, along with other children, is drafted by the International Fleet to train and hopefully become the next defenders of Earth.

Through his career, Card has returned to the Ender universe several times in his "Shadow Puppets" series, "Ender in Exile" and other sequels. But while video game and comic book adaptations were made, Card for years held onto the novel's movie rights.

Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford star in Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford star in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

This week, nearly three decades after the novel’s publication, the long-awaited film adaptation of “Ender’s Game” hits theaters.

'Devilishly' hard to adapt

In a 2005 post on his website Hatrack.com, Card wrote, “I jealously protected the movie rights to 'Ender's Game' so that it would not be filmed until it could be done right.”

One of the biggest hurdles was creating a concise screenplay.

Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford star in Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford star in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

“It’s a devilishly hard book to adapt for film,” Card said in a recent interview with the Deseret News.

Card had worked on numerous screenplay adaptations before he sold the rights in 2009. However, each time he would complete a draft, he would run into the same problem.

"The biggest problem we had was that I would write draft after draft and people who already knew and loved the book would say, 'This is it. You nailed it. This is great. This is even better than the last one,'" he said. "And then (I) would hand the script to someone who had never read the book, and they would have no idea what all of it was about."

In short, Card said, it was dependant on already having being invested in the characters. According to Card, part of the problem was that much of the novel occurs in Ender's head as he tries to beat the games his commanders assign to him.

Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford star in Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman)

Turning a novel of internal dialogue into a visually engaging film was more challenging than even producer Gigi Pritzker imagined.

“I’m not sure I really understood how difficult it was actually going to be until we started getting into it,” Pritzker said. “It was a real interesting alchemy of what to keep in and how to edit it so you really got what the spirit of the book was. It’s a testament to how well-constructed, frankly, the book is and what a great piece of work it is.”

For the film, director and screenwriter Gavin Hood pared down the novel, focusing on the relationship between Ender, who is torn between his propensity toward both compassion and violence, and his military commanders, who are ultimately trying to save humanity from an alien race.

From left, Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield star in From left, Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman)

The final product, according to producer Bob Orci, is a story that introduces itself to a new audience while still paying homage to the novel fans love.

“If you’ve never read the book or know anything about ‘Ender’s Game,’ don’t worry about," he said. "The movie can introduce you to it and show you what we love about it and hopefully maybe it will lead you to read the book.”

Bringing the characters to life

Orci and Pritzker said auditions were held across the globe, looking for the right actors and actresses for the roles.

From left, Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield star in From left, Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

“It’s hard to find — forget young actors — actors who show both the natural empathy and intelligence behind their eyes to portray some complicated situations,” Orci said.

Between hard work, homework and a lot of luck, Orci said, the film secured an all-star cast including Asa Butterfield (Ender), Harrison Ford (Col. Graff), Sir Ben Kingsley (Mazer Rackham), Viola Davis (Major Andersen) and Hailee Steinfeld (Petra), just to name a few.

“There’s no weak link in this cast," Orci said. “We just got so lucky. We’re so proud of the work that our actors did and they all rose to the occasion.

From left, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in From left, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

“To have Asa and Ben reunited after 'Hugo'? You don’t get that lucky."

During filming, Card visited the set briefly and said he was impressed with what he saw, particularly the interactions between Ford and Butterfield as Graff and Ender.

"The whole cast really does a very good job," Card said. "And the kids do a good job. Asa's best performance so far is in this film."

For the film version, Ender and his companions are a few years older, but still young enough to remind the audience of the innocence of youth and how that innocence can be lost and manipulated by adults.

“It’s a truism that wars are fought by young people,” Orci said. “One of the things that I think attracted Harrison Ford to it was that truth, the idea that he’s (playing) someone who is trying to save the world by training young protagonists, young leaders, and that’s the history of leadership in a sense.”

From left, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in From left, Moises Arias, Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman)

Due to the leadership and military themes in the novel, “Ender’s Game” is actually recommended reading for both the lower and officer ranks of the United States Marine Corps.

Human drama takes stage

For many, it's the combination of science fiction action and the deeper themes of war and childhood that has made "Ender's Game" a success.

As she grew older, Baxter said she was compelled by the idea that Ender's talent for empathy could be manipulated into something destructive as well as positive.

Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

"At its heart, this story grapples with heavy concepts: childhood innocence at the whim of adult manipulation, the costs of compassion and the price of survival," Baxter said. "Card was awfully prescient with his sci-fi elements like the Battle Room and the Nets, but without a fundamentally human drama to hang those elements on, this book would have been forgotten long ago."

Both Orci's and Pritzker's experiences reading the novel years before led them to want to work on the film.

Orci read the novel as a teenager and never dreamed he would eventually be part of the team bringing "Ender’s Game" to theaters.

For Pritzker, it was her then-teenaged nephew that brought her to the novel — and eventually the film. Pritzker said that 14 years ago her nephew would rarely read anything, so when he recommended the book, she had to read it.

Asa Butterfield and Abigail Breslin star in Asa Butterfield and Abigail Breslin star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman)

Eventually, Pritzker said, her nephew challenged her to make it into a movie. A decade later, she acquired the rights.

“I thought the fact that there could be a book that would inspire two people from very different ages and places to have conversations that we did — that’s quite a piece of material," she said.

"Ender's Game" is rated PG-13 for violence, sci-fi action and thematic elements. The film opens in theaters and IMAX on Friday Nov. 1.

Asa Butterfield stars in Asa Butterfield stars in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: kharmer@deseretnews.com Twitter: harmerk

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