by Ted Giese
Set in the future, Ender’s Game is a film about a young boy—Andrew “Ender” Wiggin—who is taken from his family to be trained for a war against an alien species. Earth had been invaded twice before by the aliens and barely repelled both times. The story chronicles his passage through military school under the watchful eye of Colonel Graff. Ender is being groomed to be a new Napoleon or Julius Caesar for the human race. As a result, he is constantly tested to see if he can truly be the commander of Earth’s interstellar army.
Anyone who read Ender’s Game earlier in life or even just recently will no doubt cherish favourite parts, characters, ideas, and themes. There are of course nods to these things throughout the film adaptation, but—as is often the case when adapting books to film—certain things are changed: characters are dropped, change gender, or are merged into single characters; and scenes are altered or cut. The challenge then for the writer is to get the story across on the big screen in a way that doesn’t lose the heart and soul of the source material.
While the book has been popular with children over ten years old and with teens, it’s also complex enough for adults and has even been recommended reading for American Marines. Does the film match this range? Is Gavin Hood’s film adaptation as accessible to as wide an audience as the book? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Does this make the movie less enjoyable? If viewers come to it with a clean slate and no past experience with the book, then Ender’s Game becomes a light, popcorn, sci-fi film with a moral message: “It’s not just winning the game (or the war) that’s important; it’s how you win it.” Not a bad moral for anyone— young or old— to consider. In many ways, it forces us to ask questions about our own virtue, innocence and culpability.
“It’s not just winning the game (or the war) that’s important; it’s how you win it.”
That said, having read the book recently, I couldn’t help noticing one thing in particular largely absent from the film adaptation: namely, the religious element. The screen play removes most of this, leaving only one memorable moment when one of the children says a farewell to Ender using the Muslim phrase “As-salam alaykum” (Peace be upon you). This could have been used to great affect but wasn’t fully explored.
Practically all of the book’s “Christian” elements are missing in the film. Is this important? It’s hard to say. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon and has come under scrutiny because of his public comments opposing same-sex marriage in the United States. Did this impact the telling of the story? Card is also listed as one of sixteen producers on the film with his name at the top of the list. What does this mean? Could there be more footage not included in the theatrical release, footage containing more of the book’s content? It will be interesting to find out.
Even with some of the original material removed the question remains how well does the film address the material it has included, namely the training of soldiers and the subject of alien life. A friend who also attended the screening described Ender’s Game as “Harry Potter meets Starship Trooper with a smidgen of Full Metal Jacket (but just a smidgen).” The tension readers feel at every turn in the book is greatly diminished on screen by the film’s use of the more technical-sounding name “Formic” for the aliens. In the book, everyone, from military generals to civilian children, refer to the enemy aliens with a very pejorative term, a term which in some English-speaking countries today is considered very rude and derogatory.
With a PG rating, the film simply doesn’t reflect the book’s relentless nature, the harshness of the violence, the realism of bullying, and the ever-present antagonisms between students and teachers, students and students, and humans and alien enemies. The adaptation could have explored any one of these themes more deeply and by doing so could have improved the film, taking it from popcorn sci-fi fun to thought- provoking social commentary. For example, the theme of bullying is currently a major focus of public discussion. Ender’s Game could have contributed to this conversation in a meaningful way. These missed opportunities inevitably point us to the question of the function that film (or any art form) plays in society: is media simply to entertain or is there more to it than that?
Christians watching the film will face questions about the nature of war, the nature of the vocation of the sword, and maybe even the place of children in warfare. With its moral message “It’s not just winning the game (or the war) that’s important; it’s how you win it.”
Christians will also have to consider what the proper response to bullying is. Does it include violent retaliation or pre-emptively striking out at those who cause harm? Scripture addresses this; as Jesus famously says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mathew 5:38-9).
St. Paul likewise instructs us: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21). These sorts of issues arise throughout Ender’s Game, and so it could be a good movie to begin conversation on the topic with family and friends.
If you find the movie enjoyable, be sure to check out the book. It has more to offer to those who want to dig deeper into some of these ideas. On the other hand, if the book is cherished, well-read, and sitting on the shelf at home, skipping this film may be an equally wise choice.