I watched Ender’s Game today. It was adapted for the screen (from Orson Scott Card’s novel) and directed by Gavin Hood, who wrote and directed Tsotsi a few years ago and has directed Rendition and X-Men Origins: Wolverine in the interim. There’s a lot of potential in the story — in short, a young boy is trained in tactical warfare as humanity’s last hope against a hostile alien force — but a couple of key things keep the film from succeeding: its visual blandness and its weakness as an adaptation.
The visual blandness is apparent early on — everything looks like generic 2010s sci-fi, all blue lights and CGI buttons — but it becomes worse once the story follows Ender to the battle school that’s orbiting Earth. The school’s centerpiece is a massive zero-gravity where squadrons of young trainees engage in battle games using stun pistols and blocky props, and it’s in this room where Ender’s skills as a leader and thinker are supposed to start to shine. Yet Hood never matches his visuals to his characters’ dialogue or experiences. For instance, as a way to make sense of the confusing weightless room, Ender and his team decide to pick one wall as “down,” so they always have a way to orient themselves. That’s a really neat idea, and one with loads of potential for visually showing us a version of space and combat and action that we haven’t seen before. Yet Hood never visually illustrates this, nor does he do anything with the idea beyond letting two characters mention it to each other one time. Most of the sequences in this battle room are as choppy and direction-agnostic as most other modern action movies, despite the fact that the story is all about perspective and control. In other words, Hood never executes on the concept, which makes it kind of pointless to include. The first inkling of his indifference shows up when Ender and some other kids take their initial shuttle from Earth to the station, and Ender points out with a laugh that there’s no real up or down in space, talking with another character about how their ideas of “horizontal” and “vertical” become purely subjective. It’s a neat idea that’s not even borne out a little in Hood’s visuals, and the rest of the film is similarly lackluster.
Even worse, though, is the way the film feels choppy and incomplete, the way the worst adaptations do. Now, every movie adapted from a book must out of necessity compress and alter the literary story. Books are media of introspection, while films are driven by visuals; you have to radically change one to make it work for the other. Yet the adaptation also has to stay faithful enough to the book’s core for it to actually qualify as an adaptation; i.e., you would not turn Ender into a 1940s gumshoe who’s out to solve a mystery. The movie’s going to be the heart of the book, but it also has to be smooth and strong enough to stand on its own. You have to pare down the book’s beats to their emotional core, then build back out to get to the screenplay. And there are so many weird ideas, dead-end characterizations, rushed bits of looped dialogue, and clumsily edited transitions in the film of Ender’s Game that you can’t help but feel Hood is trying to do way too much here. He’s lumbering under the weight of the book, not telling its central story. Great adaptations aren’t impossible, either. One of the best of the modern era is L.A. Confidential, which trims about 500 pages of novel into just over two hours of screen time without ever feeling clipped or insubstantial. That film hewed to the three men at the heart of the story and worked out from there. Ender’s Game, though, feels like Hood tried to shoot everything in the book and found himself suddenly, on page 100 of the script, up against a wall. As a result, it’s a bumpy, almost random little movie that asks us to accept that the main character has become a gifted leader and good friend to his comrades while giving us almost no opportunities for that to play out on screen. It feels like it’s trying to be two or three movies at once — Ender’s emotional journey, Ender’s tactical development, Ender’s place in a galactic conflict — and as a result never feels like a single movie of its own.