- - Thursday, October 31, 2013

The idea at the core of both the book and movie versions of “Ender’s Game” is that to truly defeat an enemy, one must come to know and love that enemy as well as yourself. A version of the same principle holds true for cinematic adaptations of beloved novels; filmmakers must bond with their source material as powerfully as the greatest fans, and also find a way to take ownership of the material in its new form, translating it into something that can live entirely on its own.

With his big-budget translation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 science fiction novel “Ender’s Game,” writer-director Gavin Hood has finally brought a novel that many considered unfilmable to the big screen. Mr. Hood fulfills only half of the adapter’s challenge: He clearly understands the core appeal of his much-loved source material, but he has failed to make it his own.

Instead, what he has produced is a serious and high-minded but ultimately frustrating summary of Mr. Card’s book. It won’t work for people who haven’t read the novel and isn’t likely to satisfy those who have.

Like Mr. Card’s novel, the movie version of “Ender’s Game” is the story of a Ender Wiggin, a young boy picked to train at Battle School — an orbital boot camp for especially brilliant children picked to be the future commanders of Earth’s war fleet. Humanity has already survived one attack by the Formics, a superior race of bug-like aliens. The tactical training program Ender and his schoolmates are put through, complete with simulated zero-gravity space fights between child armies, is an attempt to bring the planet’s best and brightest together in order to ensure victory against a second invasion.

By necessity, the movie trims the book’s story significantly. Mr. Hood excises virtually all of the novel’s geopolitical machinations, including a complex subplot about Wiggin’s siblings manipulating world politics through what is essentially blogging, as well as a related subplot about overpopulation, religious suppression and governmental control.

But the key themes are still sketched, if somewhat more bluntly. And he commendably leaves in several of the book’s weirder elements — in particular, a series of encounters with a fantasy computer game meant to reveal Ender’s damaged psyche.

He also manages to extract fine performances from most all his actors, especially Harrison Ford, who plays Col. Graff, the schoolmaster in charge of making — and breaking — young Ender. Mr. Ford’s long cinematic history as a sci-fi icon adds tension to Graff’s fraught mentor relationship with Ender, who is expected to become a science fiction hero of his own, no matter what it costs him.

What’s missing from the movie version, however, is that sense of brokenness and sacrifice that was so pervasive in the novel. In the novel, Ender is tested to his limits, physically and emotionally, and it is only through his intense personal sacrifices that the book’s final revelations have real meaning. In the movie version, the story is rushed and perfunctory, and the celebrated finale comes across as an obvious twist coupled with a cheap attempt at emotional uplift.

Mr. Hood scatters odd references to key moments from the book throughout the film. But while fans may appreciate the nods, there’s so little context that those unfamiliar with the novel will likely be confused. That’s the fundamental problem with “Ender’s Game”: It tries to please both diehard fans and newcomers alike, but ends up failing both. Mr. Hood clearly loves “Ender’s Game,” and grasps why it has inspired such loyalty amongst readers. Alas, his love is not enough.

★★1/2

TITLE: “Ender’s Game”

CREDITS:Written and directed by Gavin Hood

RATING:PG-13 for violence, language 

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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