Originating as a short story in 1977 and expanded to a novel in 1985, Ender’s Game went on to win the both the Hugo and Nebula awards for author Orson Scott Card despite controversy over the perceived violence in the book. The issue was not over the violence itself, which was to be expected in a story of interstellar war against an overwhelming destructive alien force intent upon destroying humanity, but that it was children who were being trained to kill, indoctrinated in the belief that any means is acceptable to achieve their goal. In development as a film for over a decade through various studios, it has finally arrived on screen adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, best known for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, pursued by a different controversy.
Beware there are major spoilers in the discussion of the book and the film.
Largely a slavishly faithful adaptation of the book in structure, event and tone, it is the tale of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, third child in a society where two is the strictly enforced norm, his parents allowed further offspring because of the enormous potential shown by his elder siblings Peter and Valentine at Battle School. Despite their aptitude, Valentine’s empathy ruled her out, whereas Peter’s psychotic tendencies made him too unstable and dangerous, and it was hoped that if a third child found the balance between them it could be developed to be the great strategic leader the Earth so desperately needs.
In a graphically brutal reading of the precedent of children’s wish fulfilment literature, Ender survives the scrapes of beatings of school and his elder brother before he is finally recognised as special and praised by all around him before being whisked to the orbiting Battle School, where the process repeats itself numerous times, each with rising stakes as he first becomes an asset to Salamander Squadron then rises to lead the newly formed Dragon Squadron, all the time being closely monitored to see if his performance will qualify him for command school.
In his mid teens, Asa Butterfield is considerably older than Ender Wiggin as written, but among the cast of child stars, character actors and veteran performers there is no weak link in performance, only failings of character. As Colonel Hyrum Graff and Major Gwen Anderson, directly in charge of Ender during his time at Battle School, Harrison Ford and Viola Davis are the adults given the majority of the screen time, he driven, committed and weary, showing one face to his charges and another to his aide, she the only warmth the children know yet constrained by the obligations of military protocol.
Following his appearance as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley is the legendary Mazer Rackham who defeated the first invasion, demonstrating how well suited he is to genre roles which he too rarely takes, though one of his more recent was with Butterfield in Hugo. Given little to demonstrate her dramatic capability is the excellent Hailee Steinfeld, best known for the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit, as Ender’s friend Petra Arkanian, but most short-changed is former Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin, as Valentine Wiggin, whose subplot in the source material provides commentary on the political situation on Earth, here reduced to a three scene cameo.
The film is technically flawless, if derivative, the alien fighters swarming from their mothership in the manner of Cylon Raiders from a Basestar, the simulations of the zero gravity battle room exactly as depicted by Card, though the insectoid nature of the enemy and the school/military academy/deployment structure combined with the 12A rating giving it a feeling of Starship Troopers Lite with aspects of 1984’s The Last Starfigher, released after the short story but prior to the novel.
The xenophobic hive mind is one that is often used in science fiction to depict “the other,” as far back as Quatermass and the Pit and subsequently with the Borg in Star Trek The Next Generation and Independence Day. Sidestepping the likelihood that a species incapable of independent action could even achieve the level of technology for spaceflight, their interdependence being the weakness which defeats them is an overused and simplistic contrivance which reduces the final battle to a video game, kill the top level monster and the game is won, an accusation never so accurate as here, but the dramatic failings are not so troubling as what is left unsaid.
In the run up to the release of the film, much commentary has been made on Orson Scott Card’s open homophobia and his vocal campaigning against equal rights, and Hood has wisely excised all the veiled and extant homophobia present in the novel, the alien Buggers now renamed (as they are in the later books) as Formics, the taunting of classmates now no longer focusing on their perceived masculinity and accusations of orientation (specifically chapter five, but also elsewhere, see also chapter eight for anti-Semitism), but little comment has been made on how the novel switches from homophobia to an unpleasant homoeroticism bordering on paedophilia with gay abandon, dormitories of naked young boys, shower room fight scenes, an older soldier taking a younger cadet under his wing to groom him.
Thankfully one of the few improvements that has been made was the removal of this undertone, another being the understandable decision to raise the age of the cadets. In the novel, Ender is just seven years old, two years younger than Anakin Skywalker, half the age of Paul Atreides, rendering much of the narrative unbelievable and making it difficult for an audience to connect with or be convinced by a child in these situations, but even as a teenager, Ender is lied to and manipulated, told that he is participating in simulations while in fact he is already controlling distant automated war vessels heading to the alien homeworld.
It had been hoped that the film would construct a more satisfying conclusion, but the denouement relies on the spooky action at a distance of the ansible, “the philotic parallax instantaneous communicator“ in the words of the book, a box which the gaping plot hole has been sealed inside in the hopes nobody will notice, combined with a convenient doomsday weapon operated by Petra which causes a chain reaction in any matter sufficiently close to the detonation, be it swarming ships or a planetary surface.
Another narrative quibble is that the justification for the aggression on both sides is that “like us, they appear to have a p
opulation growth rate which is unsustainable,” yet Ender is able to visit areas of Earth that are empty and unspoiled. For all the technological advances surely a better way of adaptation than war would be possible, but typifying Card’s right wing political and religious views, the human right to procreate and wage war on those who are different are the overriding considerations.
Asa Butterfield’s Ender is sympathetic, troubled by the violence and bullying, his conscience coming to the fore in the final scenes when the extent of the lies he has been told are unavoidably revealed, though even then the film does not state that both the bullies who challenged him earlier, Stilson and Bonzo, died as a result of the injuries he inflicted on them, the fear being that were Ender to become humanised he would be useless as a military strategist.
The attitude of his schooling is ruthless: Ender must be taught to fight, and the final end justifies any means or casualties, but the ethic of tricking a child into committing your genocide for you because you’re not willing to is hideous, yet the idea that Graff, Rackham and the others can salve their consciences because they are a step away from the action by having a child undertake it for them is preposterous.
While the novel is comparable to Starship Troopers, it has none of the wit or character of Heinlein, the language that of a children’s book, simple and without depth or nuance with the sentences laid out as plainly as can be, but the violence and the message that aggression is a successful strategy should be disturbing to any reader with sufficient intellect.
The uncomfortable impression of the book is that it is aimed at an older child with a low reading level, and with the film which lacks the satire an adult certification of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, marketed as a space adventure suitable for kids, but even though it was not through his choosing, Ender Wiggin is become lord of the interstellar flies, the repulsive moral vacuum which blackens the heart of those who have conditioned him to be a murderer never addressed nor balanced by his own remorse.