- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Best Defense guest movie critic
There are only four military science fiction (sci-fi) stories which consistently get mentioned as must reads in the ‘military’ world. I’ve ordered them in my assessment of precedence: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and the less-known but still significant Armor by John Steakley. All of these books are notable because they don’t labor long over the actual combat. Instead these books focus on the characters/soldiers who spend much time in preparation and then briefly engage in combat — and what happens afterwards. It’s the humanity, frailties, and ethical questions which propel each of these stories.
Ender’s Game was one of Card’s first successful efforts as an author. First published as an award-winning short story in 1977, the book won Hugo (1986) and Nebula (1985) awards for best sci-fi novel. The book birthed a successful series following Andrew “Ender” Wiggin and one of his key lieutenants, Bean. The book was added to military reading lists (e.g. the Marine Corps 2011) and a previous edition included in its foreword a letter written by an Army aviator.
Without spoiling the story, Ender’s Game is primarily about how a child, “Ender” Wiggin, is selected to attend a futureworld military academy because of his intellectual prowess and no-nonsense morality. Through several years of preparation, Ender is trained to kill and to lead fellow children and an international fleet against an interstellar insectoid race (the Formics or “Buggers”). This war is couched as a struggle for survival, and Ender becomes the prototypical ‘last hope’ for mankind.
There’s much to enjoy and contemplate in Ender’s Game. The obvious first ‘physical’ layers include boot camp training, collective training, fingerspitzengefuhl understanding of a three-dimensional tactical battlefield and the use of virtual training/simulation for Ender and the other trainees. Then there’s another ‘mental’ layer of philosophy, politics, and power struggles — which primarily occur back on Earth. Finally, for me, the most compelling questions arise from the ‘moral/ethical’ aspects of the story. These aspects include: the use of deception, the misunderstandings that drive the story and the war against the Buggers, the leadership and philosophical quandaries (e.g. utilitarian use of children for their innocence, cultivating hatred and violence, employment of genocide as an ‘only’ alternative, among others) posed.
As for the movie, this is the screen foray of a book ‘they’ (including Card) said couldn’t be filmed — but ‘they’ say that a lot. I’ve had worries since the first trailers were released.
The actual movie does just an okay job of balancing its desire to provide popcorn entertainment while suggesting tough questions without really delving into them. Unfortunately, concessions for time and (likely) the need for a PG-13 rating ultimately undermine the movie. The movie cycles far too quickly through events. It also infers too much in the relationships Ender and those who surround him enjoy. In the book, Colonel Graff is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than an epic taskmaster and Machiavellian. In the movie, Harrison Ford’s Graff enjoys Ender’s progress a bit too much. There’s far too much smiling. Likewise, Ender’s relationship with another older child, Petra, is almost distorted into a budding romance in the movie. This is sure to please the teen audience, but undermines the desperate nature of what transpires in the book. Which leads me to the most critical error in the movie.
By the end of the book, Ender is exhausted and desperate. He just wants the ‘training’ to be over. Ender’s team, which he communicates with but does not see (unlike in the movie where they are all co-located), is similarly exhausted. The long isolation and never-ending battles take its toll on all of the children. When Ender contemplates an unthinkable act, he asks for guidance from his instructors. This is the penultimate moment in the book, and its omission in the movie is really tragic. Ender does get a good line though; he recognizes that “the way we win” is as important as winning in the first place.
Generally, the movie was just a few degrees off, but (as any orienteer would know) that course miscalculation ends up at a much different place than the intended destination. The movie concentrates almost exclusively on the ‘physical’ at the expense of the ‘mental’ and the ‘moral.’ The film hints at the current zeitgeist questions of the morality of drone warfare, the importance of the Internet as a medium, and network centric warfare. But ultimately a great book comes out as something much less on the screen. I highly recommend the book but can only give a marginal rating to the movie. Rent it.
[BTW: Much has been made of Card’s politics. I’ve ignored them as irrelevant to the merits/demerits of the book(s) and now movie.]
“Hunters,” a frequent commenter on Best Defense, is a combat arms Army Reserve Component colonel and something of a sci-fi buff. He believes himself to be nowhere as warm and approachable as Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff.