Review: Ender’s Game: Adaptation from Text to Screen, by Ashley Nicholson

InterviewsThis week on Words, Pauses, Noises, we’re taking  a look at a slightly different type of artistry. Most of what is posted on WPN centres on our own creative endeavours, but there are endless types of creative works. Adaptation for example, takes someone else’s work and translates it to another medium, such as the stage, screen, or a combination arts. This week’s piece features a review of the film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s most famous novel Ender’s Game by our very own Ashley Nicholson. There is much to say about turning such a well-loved novel into a film.  The room for error is immense, the balance of pages to screen time is treacherous and the substitution of storytelling for special effects is all too tempting for a big budget filmmaker such as director Gavin Wood. To its readers, Ender’s Game is much more than all of these things.  If you count yourself amongst the legion of fans this book has accumulated, read this review to decide whether or not seeing the film will enhance your love of the story or steal a piece of it forever.

Ender’s Game: Adaptation from Text to Screen

By Ashley Nicholson

While studying in Kingston, there was a course I took that taught us about the intricacies and absurdities of adapting arts into different mediums. Perhaps the most important lesson I took away from Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Art of Adaptation’ course was that in order to take a book and transcribe it to the screen, you have to remember first and foremost: the screen is visual. An author’s intent is to build a picture for the reader, a richly textured world with characters we can see, hear, and connect with. On the screen, the character is brought to life by facial expressions and dialogue instead of internal monologue. In the text a character frowns, deep in contemplative silence while we, the readers, follow their thoughts. The actor must convey this internal debate physically and through dialogue. So too the director must set the tone using colours, camera angles, and music.

Having said this, we all know that the movie adaptation will never be completely faithful to the story presented within the book. It just can’t happen. Inevitably there are too many subplots or extraneous characters which are all unnecessary details to a visual audience. That’s just the way it has to be in order to fit 150 pages into 120 minutes. Take for example the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It is a story about a child becoming a soldier. It is a messianic tale with a massive political and philosophical debate raging at the heart of it, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The story revolves mainly around super-smart children— and I do mean children, Ender Wiggin is six at the time he is chosen to go to Battle School. Once chosen, these children are taken to a space station and trained to be soldiers and commanders through the use of technology, strategy, and a certain amount of ruthlessness. It’s Lord of the Flies in space, with the children then going on to fight an actual war.

I loved this book growing up, I still enjoy it in fact. When I heard it was being made into a movie, I groaned and sighed and at the same time was elated. I knew that the basic ideas would translate— childhood ending too soon, the burden of purpose, expectation, war, and isolation. What I also knew was that the battle sequences, already thrilling to read in the book, had the potential to be utterly amazing on the big screen. I was not wrong. Visually, Ender’s Game is stunning. Zero-G training battles, the interactive videogame that Ender plays, and the aliens and their worlds are all beautifully and creatively rendered. That said, the story itself is disappointing.

Understandably the screenwriters and director took out the extremely political subplot, even though it explained much of the reasoning behind the ruthlessness of the government. There is a certain amount of that which could have been slipped in easily, but where the machinations of fearful men were so cleverly written into their speech and actions, in the movie they are blundered through frankly disappointing dialogue and bland acting. Instead of allowing the message to unfold within the action, we are preached at. We know that of course war is bad, racism is bad, xenophobia is bad, child soldiers are bad… but we don’t need to have it told to us repeatedly. In fact, the only thing that’s said to be ‘good’ in this movie is the ‘little guy’ facing up to the ‘bad guy’.

A major portion of the book’s plot is the series of battles Ender experiences. With the progression of each battle he is forged into the soldier and commander he has to be. I understand, à la Kevin MacNeil, that the limitations of adaptation require a compromise between plot and visual interest. I don’t understand why the director didn’t use the battle room scenes to further the plot as well. Come on! Battles! Such a visual medium for character growth! As it stands, the battles, while fun to watch, lacked any deeper meaning besides being a great visual stunt.

I give the director and the actors due credit: I enjoyed this film. As a movie it was engaging and lively. It had great graphics and battles. It had the basic tenants of the plot from the book. Coming out of it, though, I found I could only describe it as preachy, inconsistent, and superficial. As a writer, I can only hope that should I ever score a movie deal, I remember my own advice: divorce the book and the movie. They can never truly be the same.

It seems that Ender’s Game is a testament to the fact that not every story is meant to be made into a film. While the film studio was busy seeing dollar signs and Harrison Ford’s star power raking in an audience, the true fans of Orson Scott Card’s beloved novel are left leaving the cinema thankful that one of their favorite novels wasn’t completely ruined. Still, there’s no denying the fact that the special effects couldn’t replace the brilliance of the original plot.

As writers, when we read, we look for deeper meanings and underlying themes. When a book is adapted to the screen sometimes our writer-selves wonder how those themes could have been so lost in translation. However, there are many different aspects to the art of adaptation and no matter how faithful a film tries to be, there will always be differences. Is there a favourite book or story of yours which has been taken to the screen? Did you find it to be an accurate portrayal, or something altogether different? Share your thoughts with us!

Stay tuned for more work, and a special announcement, from Words, Pauses, Noises!

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2 thoughts on “Review: Ender’s Game: Adaptation from Text to Screen, by Ashley Nicholson

  1. I can’t recall any book-to-screen adaptations that I’ve personally read myself, but I do notice the discrepancy between mainstream Hollywood and books. Literary writing in particular operates opposite to what I perceive as mainstream modern Hollywood, and if I had to identify the major differences in values, I’d say:

    Literary vs Modern Hollywood:

    Character Development vs Plot Development
    Realism vs Exaggeration
    Surreal vs Shock Factor
    Foreshadowing vs Plot Twist
    Dialogue vs Catch Phrases
    Multiple Underlaid Meanings vs Obvious Singular Message

    Now I say Modern Hollywood, because back when special effects couldn’t carry a movie, films operated on the same values as books.

    I can’t help but wonder if Ender’s Game would have translated better from book to screen a few decades ago, before CGI and big budget special effects became the norm. I’m not too familiar with Ender’s Game, but from what I gather here, Ender’s Game sounds dependent on its delivery and not the surface story.

    I’m planning to read Ron Rash’s Serena and then watch the film adaptation to observe the effects of book-to-screen adaption myself. I’m hoping to read well, and then watch well, but I’m not too optimistic about the film based on my experiences with modern movies.

  2. We agree that perhaps Ender’s Game would have been better interpreted if the emphasis hadn’t been on the CGI, but would there have been a desire to see such a politically minded film in this day and age otherwise? We don’t see many films of the ‘Malcom X’ type, nor of the ‘Citizen Kane’ sort these days, not by a long shot. Long, verbal films are out of vogue, which is utterly sad.
    The special effects in Ender’s Game didn’t make up for the slashing of plot, but they were, indeed, impressive. Having seen other major Book-To-Film productions as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Harry Potter’, and even ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and ‘Jurassic Park’, there’s just a realisation that a visual audience has to be entertained in a different way than a cerebral audience. Where an author can assume that their audience is following a train of thought to a certain extent, a director knows they must grab their audience’s attention from the snack cart or the person sitting next to them.
    We’ve not read Ron Rash’s Serena, but we do hope that it makes for both good reading, and a good movie. Do let us know what comes from it!

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