Editor's note: This story includes spoilers. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, you may want to skip this story.
To discuss the moral framework of the “Ender’s Game” movie, I have to discuss how that movie ends. So be warned: Spoilers lie ahead.
I’ve wanted to see “Ender’s Game” on the big screen since I first read the book well over two decades ago, yet I’m glad they waited until now to make it into a film. The battle room sequences that seemed unfilmable when the novel was written were perfectly realized in this adaptation, and they were the highlight of the film for me.
The movie loses something at Command School, partly because the reality of Battle School gives way to spaceships that could have been pulled from any number of high-grade video games. Of course, that’s to be expected, as Ender thinks he’s playing a game.
I was worried that they had telegraphed the ending when Harrison Ford’s character, Col. Graff, sees a readout on the screen that says the human fleet is only 28 days from the home world of the enemy. In the book, we know war is imminent but not how imminent. If it’s coming within the month, then doesn’t that mean Ender needs to be deployed right away?
I thought it was obvious, but I was watching the film with my 12-year-old twin boys, who hadn’t read the book, and they insisted afterward that they never saw it coming.
In any case, that’s a quibble, really. I was engaged throughout the film, and, up until the very end, I couldn’t think of anything I would have done differently if I had been the one adapting such a dense and complex novel into an audience-friendly blockbuster.
But here’s my problem, and I think it’s a fairly big one.
In the book, it’s not just that Ender discovers the game is real; it’s that he makes contact with a Formic queen who helps him see what happened from the enemy’s perspective. Ender then writes the enemy’s story as a book that helps all of humanity realize that the slaughter of the Formics was a horrific thing rather than something to be celebrated.
Ultimately, it is Ender who ends up calling himself to account when he anonymously writes and publishes the book. That adds weight to the enormity of his burden, which is what is missing from this film.
In the movie, Harrison Ford’s role is beefed up to make him a greater foil for Ender. That makes for a clearer cinematic narrative, but it ultimately lessens the impact of what Ender has done, since all of what happens is so clearly Graff’s fault and not Ender’s.
In the book, Ender is shocked when he discovers the truth about the "games" but believes, along with everyone else, that it was a necessary sacrifice. Only when Ender has conversed with the Formic queen and published "The Hive Queen" do others begin to question the morality of what happened.
Yet in the film, Graff knows all along that the Formics aren’t attacking and that he’s engineering the pre-emptive slaughter of an entire species.
It may seem a subtle distinction, but it’s enough of a difference from the original material that it weakens the film considerably, perhaps fatally. Ender’s encounter with the queen is still in the movie, but it’s rushed and incomplete. In the book, it’s the whole point of the story.
That said, I still think the movie is a noble effort that is well worth your time. Almost every book is better than its film adaptation, and it’s not an easy thing to transform something from one medium to another.
The good news is that they got most of it right, and it’s certainly a step up from your average space opera. It’s just not quite as many steps up as an “Ender’s Game” movie ought to have been.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico. He writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.