Ender’s Game: Show Don’t Tell

enders-game-movie-poster

Ender’s Game – 2013

Director Gavin Hood
Starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin
Screenplay Gavin Hood based on the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

One cannot underestimate how badly I wanted for this venture to succeed.  After the heaping of vitriol the producers of the film withstood from those who felt that the book should be punished for the author’s faith views, one couldn’t help but root for the underdog.  The book is a masterpiece, only surpassed in the science fiction genre by the two that followed it.  It took years to get author Orson Scott Card’s buy off on an adaptation of his work, as most people who attempted it tried to make Ender older and give him a girlfriend.  Card would not settle until Gavin Hood presented his vision of Card’s Enderverse.  Most fans of the book (like me) accepted that if it worked for Card, it was worth a shot.

There have been many book series made into film series in the last few years.  Using The Lord of the Rings as a starting off point, it seems like a new series starting off every quarter.  One annoying trend with the more successful series has been to break the last book into two films.  It got ridiculous when Peter Jackson sliced The Hobbit into three parts, especially when the first part is such a bloated mess that went farther down the inside of a mountain than it did on a map.  After seeing the way the story for Ender’s Game was pared down, one can’t help but wonder if they should have divided this densely packed story into 6 parts.

That a lot of Ender’s Game takes place in the protagonist’s head is a daunting task to overcome.  They cast the right actor in Butterfield to play the contemplative, calculating and heartfelt protagonist.  His work on Hugo alone made him the choice, even if he was older.  There is action, but it is not an action film.  It is a story about morality, preparation, breaking down and building up.  The journey for the Andrew Wiggin is not an easy one.  There is no quarter given and there is only the faintest ray of light.

There are considerable swaths cut out of the story.  Some are easier to understand.  Peter and Valentine’s storyline is mostly dialogue and descriptions of opinion pieces.  As riveting as the literate version is, it would not translate well on the big screen.  The battle school had to be pared down a bit from the book.  Maybe they could cut a little of the dream sequences and video game.

Hood took out a lot, though, and really took it too far.  He made a point to verbalize some of the major plot points, but failed to adequately follow up on them by showing us what was happening internally within Ender.  He could have done this with Butterfield’s eyes alone.  Even more, we get word from Graff (an adequate, but somewhat muted Harrison Ford) and Anderson (a perfectly, if cross-gendered cast Viola Davis) what they want to have happen with the prodigy, and then we see things that are counter-intuitive to the expressed goals.

The scenario that best shows this is Mazer Rackham.  In one scene, he tells Ender that he is the enemy.  In the next scene, he’s as chatty as Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Millenium Falcon.  If it weren’t for his reading of the dialogue of the book, the character is an interesting one.  He is not given enough time to flesh out the full dimension of the character that the book had time to show.

In order to get much out of this version of the story, one would have to connect dots that are only very quickly inferred and barely exemplified visually.  The acting feels choppy and inconsistent, as if they are acting out portions of the story, and not a whole tale.  As we move through, it feels less like a movie and more like a puzzle to piece together.

Some characters are completely wasted.  Bean deserved to be more than a helpful buddy.  Peter, the future Hedgemon, no less, get’s one scene.  And no one ever wonders the significance of Peter forcing Ender to play the bug.  Then there are the Formics.  Such a beautiful enemy.  They deserved a voice that was more than the clicks that they were allowed.

There are some excellent points to the story that make it into the film.  First of all, the character of Anderson is actually improved as Viola Davis’ counter representation of Graff’s cold calculation.  The surprise of the last battle is held in tact.  It’s amazing, because I could almost guarantee it would have been drummed out by the test audience.

Ender’s Game is a noble effort.  It attempts to hold true to the ideals expressed by the author.  Telling us why characters do the things they do in the midst of decent action special effects is not the same as letting the characters and the filmmakers demonstrate the same.  When it arrives on video, perhaps there will be some more scenes to help flesh things out.

As it stands, the film feels like the Pink Floyd Greatest Hits collection.  Lots of great songs that lose their context when not played within the original album.

(*** out of *****)

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