Ender’s Game has a soft spot in my heart because it hold’s one of the truly best emotional journeys within its pages. The pinnacle of a coming of age story, it’s the best book for boys or really anyone who needs some personal empowerment. Ender proves to be the epitome of a leader and his team is a perfect example of what happens when a group comes together under that leadership. Orson Scott Card will never write as good a book again.
Ender’s Game also stands as one of my most traumatizing book experiences ever, due to reading its companion book, Ender’s Shadow. That book was smarter than its own good – ruining any plans I might hold for reading more stories in the Enderverse. I’ll get to why it was so traumatizing later in my post. (First I read the sequel called Speaker For the Dead and was underwhelmed to say the least. This has led to a long and fraught relationship with book sequels that I still struggle with today – that is another post.)
These followers to Ender’s Game don’t change the book’s prime status as a sci-fi classic. Now a movie version of such a beloved story is a dangerous prospect which is probably why it’s been kicked around movieland for so long. How can one film do justice to the powerful emotional and physical journey within the story? How can it mimic the time intensive character growth that Ender experienced?
Gavin Hood attempted to do so. Whether you found the film cheer worthy or spit worthy is your own dilemma. For me, Ender’s Game was satisfactory, if not completely satisfying. In the end, I found having read the book was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I knew what was going on, I understood the depth behind the casually thrown in plot points. A curse because the adaption was so poorly executed, or rather it could have been so much better.
I am by no means a fan purist. A strict adherence to source material is not a hard and fast rule I hold sacred. Ultimately, the audience wants to experience the story found in the book. The exact same path doesn’t need to be taken to get to the end. I do believe in three rules that, if followed, will maintain the integrity of the said source material. And by so doing, maintain what fans loved about the book.
#1 – Keep the Character
Asa Butterfield was a stellar casting choice. Whomever found and proposed him ought to be crowned as a casting hero. For those who thought the movie at least decent – it can all be laid at Butterfield’s feet, whether you agree with me or not, it’s true. He knew the character, understood the emotional journey and embodied it. I can say with confidence the movie had a character, Ender Wiggins, at the heart of the story (if you disagree, see next paragraph for my reasoning). The problem was everything else.
In a movie a character is embodied by an actor. When that actor does his job then a character is born. At the heart of a story is the protagonist or the lead character. So it’s important that the protagonist’s growth through the book mirrors the growth in the plot of the movie. In other words the physical plot can change, but the same points must be met in the character’s emotional journey. This makes pacing a very sensitive issue; it’s oh so much easier to fudge pacing in a book compared to a movie.
The events chosen to show Ender’s emotional journey didn’t have enough meat to support Butterfield’s wonderful acting and emoting. Despite how it seemed, it wasn’t as easy as mastering a video game for Ender to become a master strategist and leader. Yet the events in the movie were so simple-minded that it seemed everything came really easily to him. There weren’t even enough events to show the great length he’d come nor enough character interaction to show the pressure he was under to never fail.
Pacing becomes a problem in a movie when the plot doesn’t adequately mirror the character growth. An actor can do his job and the protagonist can still seem like the problem. In reality, the adapter lost track of the fact the plot should support the character growth, not just be exciting moments of action or special effects lifted from the book. Without these supporting events a character is just a person acting and not a protagonist.
#2 – Maintain Character Affect
The horrid pacing problems aside, the movie would have been loads better if not for the second problem: a protagonist is a protagonist because they affect those around them.
By the end of the movie Ender has a team that he trusts and that trusts him. This is essential for the minute timing that must be followed for Ender to execute his elaborate battle plans and win the war. We never really got to see how those particular kids were chosen to be on his team, nor why they in particular were chosen. Ender’s team just suddenly “became.” The fact is Ender had zero time for a love interest. Yet only Petra was focused on.
By throwing all the secondary character development at Petra instead of at Bean, arguably Ender’s right hand man, we never saw Ender’s affect on those around him. We never saw him unknowingly create his team through his powerful leadership abilities. This circles back to the same problem with the character – the events chosen for plot didn’t support protagonist/secondary character interaction.
What would have helped was a strong secondary character cast. Bean, according to that traumatizing sequel, is as strong a leader as Ender, no stronger (hence my trauma!) As Ender’s rival, Bean constantly provided the pressure Ender needed to keep excelling. In reality, Bean was Ender’s greatest ally funneling his to greatness, he even chose the kids around Ender. We haven’t even talked about Ender’s “best friend” Alai, Crazy Tom, Dink or Carby. All members of Ender’s team.
Relationships make plot more powerful. The secret is to make each plot event show these relationships while also furthering the story. By developing Ender’s team members as a whole, and particularly leaving out a love interest (in the book his sister, Valentine, was the sole recipient of his love) we can see the affect Ender has on his world. And thus see why his journey is worthy of our attention.
#3 – Stick to the Point
Finally, we can have a character, we can understand why we should follow them, but it’s all moot if there’s nothing guiding the story. When adapting a story from book to movie form, it’s particularly important to find the main point of the plot. It should either follow the same lines as the original story’s point or be at total odds with it. This is to create a path for the protagonist to follow. It’s more than simply deciding how you want the movie to end, it’s creating an arc of events that support the entire story.
For example, Pretty Woman was meant to be a dark look at prostitution. We all know and love it for a light romantic comedy where Vivian’s role as a sex trade worker is simply a means for the couple to meet. Rather than an in-depth commentary on the sex trade, her job as a prostitute was only a vehicle in the movie, it had no serious message to it. While the tone of the movie changed (from hard-hitting to light and uplifting), the point of the story stayed in line with the original.
To slightly change the course of a story changes the arc of the story a great deal. Many of the so-so movies in Hollywood are a result of shifting the point of a story a few degrees. It doesn’t really matter whether you follow the point or head in the opposite direction, it just matters that you stick to the line the source material created.
Some books, like The Hunger Games, have really simple and obvious points. This makes choosing what to keep and what to strip away easy for the writer of the screenplay to determine. Many readers/watchers liked Catching Fire, the movie, more than the book – that’s because the thread pulled was the best point in the story and shed the author’s meandering directives.
The story in Ender’s Game wanted to show how a young boy, a mere child, became a strategist and leader, directing his team to win a war the adults could not. When using source material, especially source material with such depth and elongated time frame, the adapter has to find the best thread to pull out and showcase in the movie form. If you read an overview of the viewer reviews a pattern quickly emerges – the movie tried to make its point but failed miserably.
Two events in particular stood out to me as incredibly underutilized. The few battle room scenarios were too short to support Ender building emotionally to a breaking point. So for the sake of the movie either cut the earth break or beef up the battle room scenes. The second event was Ender meeting the bug in the end. It was terribly anti-climatic, giving a face to the enemy after beating the enemy. Instead, I propose Ender should have awoken from a dream, very similar to that ending scene but pared back. There he receives the queen from the dying bug. This hints at the main thrust of the story – Ender will be the buggers’ murderer made possible through his great love of the enemy.
Part of the trouble was the battle room was not designed well as a visual environment to show the battles. As the focus of the movie and the main way to show the team coming together you had to be able to use that environment over and over. You had to be able to see what was happening clearly and distinctly. As a major production flaw (after the bad secondary casting) it isn’t readily apparent as a problem, unless of course, you understand the point of the story.
Another difficulty in making the point of the story was the battle school happening so fast and being out of balance with the command school. Ender’s physical arc through both schools had to show how he grew as a leader. Show why other intelligent strategists and tacticians would follow him without question. Whether he found sexual love didn’t matter to the story, what mattered was his team loving him. He was always a smart kid, much is made of him being the perfect cross of his brutal brother and loving sister. Now we need to see him learn to use the pieces, i.e. his team.
So you understand what the point of Ender’s Game is, right?
Of course you do: show Ender Wiggins learn how to be a true leader and maneuver his team into place to save the world.
Maintaining the protagonist is all about what plot events are chosen to showcase the character. Developing relationships fleshes out how the audience should feel about the protagonist as a person; this happens in the plot events. Driving the entire plot should be a solid story point built around the protagonist. By following these rules, the source of Ender’s Game would have been found within the movie version. There’s a reason a book is loved, it only makes a story more powerful to find the same is true for the film.