Saturday, March 11, 2017

Why The Ender's Game Movie Failed

Somebody just read that and thought, "it didn't fail, I liked it!" They're probably coming up with reasons it was a good movie to try to prove me wrong, but they know there's just something off about it that they can't put their fingers on.

Let me help you with that. The novel was not a middling-good novel that barely broke even. It was a phenomenon. It's in every school library. It was put on military required reading lists. It won the double crown of Hugo and Nebula when those meant something the year it was released and shines so bright it overpowers everything else Orson Scott Card wrote, including its also double-crowned sequel. Fans were reading it and saying, "now this should be a movie" and putting it on top of their personal this-should-be-a-movie lists since it was released in 1986. To put that in perspective it's way older than me. And I'm an old man.

This is a AAA+ story. It was in development hell for so long some people said it was unfilmable. Maybe it is. I've got some ideas about it though.

Failure #1: It's too clean
Earth is fighting a war so intense that they've managed to put a Two-Child Policy on the United States. Things are strained. Ender's family lives in a cyberpunk apartment. Battle School is an old, old institution, and kids are hard on buildings. Look at the fanart I led with. Look at the scuffs on the walls, the polished but worn battle suit. Now look at Ender's brand-new uniform in the movie.
Earth is so strapped for resources that they're running population controls but they can afford shiny new everything. And that's not just in the military, things are Apple-aesthetic clean glass everywhere. I'm not buying it. It would have been easy to put worn-down uniforms, not patched and holed, just battered, on those actors, a piece of visual storytelling that raises the stakes and makes you feel like Earth's got a problem, that they're not just playing around. Their user interfaces are all hand-swipey motion-detection. I want to see clunky failure-proof boxy keyboards, not get distracted by Ender writing a letter with some kind of one-handed... whatever that was.

Failure #2: It's too short
Some of this may come from how dense Card managed to make this novel. There's a difference between the way novels and films carry information. A film can put huge amounts of info through in visuals without eating up time, which is the pulse of film, as you can see in Star Wars or Alien's used, battered futures. No need to tell us they're not elites there. A novel can try to be a movie and describe everything, eating up words (which are the pulse of novels), or it can use tricks to help the reader form a mental picture while using those precious words to fill in background details films have to eat up time to portray.

I'm not sure there is time in a feature film to carry across everything that makes Ender's Game work. The Giant's Drink establishes his psychology. Peter and Valentine show his alternatives. Rising through the ranks shows his adaptability. The battles in Dragon Army show his genius. We're still a long way from the civil war on Eros that establishes why Ender has to leave and accidentally find peace. I'm not sure why we would try to stuff a novel into a feature film. The feature film is a short story format.

Failure #3: It's skimpy on details
If we're going to see things through Ender's eyes we're going to need to see them completely. He's a deep thinker and the novel shows his thought processes. These aren't easy to show on screen, but it's possible. The highlight of the novel is Ender's career in the Battle Room game. We get to see his strategies, how he trains his army, how he wins every time, and we learn to respect him, not just because adults are shaking their heads and saying he's a genius. Look at that fanart again, that well-lit room. You can tell what's going on there.
Film Battle Room has clear windows to space, lots of dark spaces. The battles are chaotic, lots of pew-pew. We don't get to know his lieutenants (we don't in the novel, but every time we see them we see their distinctive names so we're not lost). We don't get to watch thought processes. Well, maybe there wasn't time to do that. I don't know, I don't know if I'd trust the director to frugally use screentime because

Failure #4: There's an origin story
How on Earth can you trust an audience to understand we're scared of an alien invasion without blowing your budget on fighter jets getting blasted out of the sky? Gotta have action first off so you won't lose your audience. What, it might not make it real? Might not raise the stakes? You put an American kid who gets bullied for being a third child in a beat-up uniform in a worn-down space station and audiences will get it. But I wouldn't trust the director to understand what makes the story tick because he puts Ender on an FTL starship for the final battle.

Failure #5: There's FTL
This failure encapsulates the general failure of the film on a science fiction level. Ender's Game is science fiction and it is a novel in a marriage so tight you can't pull any of the elements out. "The enemy's gate is down." Ender's psychology, his ability to adapt his perspective to the most favorable way to see things, to make him most likely to win, is tied into the freedom from constraints suggested by freefall. It wouldn't make sense if Ender arrived at Battle School and had all his commanders telling him the enemy's gate is down. For them the enemy's gate is forward, because they're relying on what won the last war, and Ender's only concerned with winning so he won't have to fight anymore.

"It's called the ansible." It's a sciencey-sounding word, we immediately know what it means in context even if we haven't read Le Guin. The adults are keeping secrets from Ender the entire time, he knows it, but there are a few things that are constants. The speed of light is one. As far as he knows Earth has been gathering its fleet in the Oort cloud waiting for a commander, who is going to go with them to destroy the buggers, separating Ender from his family forever. The simulations can't possibly be anything but simulations while this knowledge holds.

Card's been setting up this reveal, too. Early on the kids realize that there are more battle rooms than they've been told about. They can't figure out the principle behind the "hooks" used to pull obstacles around the rooms, or how they stay in place. The International Fleet has gravity control, and they don't tell anyone because they don't think they need to know. That they also have FTL communication is something Ender suspects, because he suspects everything, but even as he comes to know the buggers through combat he's got plausible deniability before Graff breaks physics just to hurt him again.

In the movie? Time for command school. No time to introduce black-painted Eros with its battle scars and raised ceiling, to show the reaction of the tug pilot when he finds out it still exists and he shouldn't know that (because adults keep secrets from everyone), we have to put Ender on a starship with warp drive and swoop him off to the front lines.

How is he not going to know? How is there any impact in this twist? It's impossible for any Ender's Game story to have any kind of power without faster-than-light communication being first established as impossible. The film tries to wave the science away, to count on us to just believe that because things are futuristic we'll have gravity manipulation and FTL. That's not how fiction dependent on science works.

I don't think Ender's Game is unfilmable. Maybe it is now, with the one attempt a financial failure and OSC's star long set. I think it would make an excellent film (long-form, 6-8 hours) if it could slow down and if it could establish itself. It's just too bad Academy Award-winning filmmaker Gavin Hood had no idea how to put it together.


  1. Good grief, what is wrong with these people?!

    So glad I missed this now.

  2. I really, really wished for Ender's Game movie to succeed. Having seen it I think they screwed up big time. It would be better if they filmed it as a psychological crime drama, similar to those English detective series. It would bring out Ender's thoughts, insecurities and dilemmas, because that's what made the book so good.