Ender’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.
The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.
The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.
Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.
Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.
But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.
Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.