Gavin Hood's Ender's Game is a surprisingly supple, fairly faithful adaptation of the Orson Scott Card novel; if it fails as a film, I'd say the fault lies as much with the source novel as with the filmmakers.
It begins well enough--the battle school scenes of both novel and movie are easily their best parts, with strategies and mind games clearly outlined, with the fighting given coherence and variety. The novel allows the training more time to develop: we see and feel the growing intensity, we appreciate the increasingly bewildering impossibilities thrown at Ender (Asa Butterfield). You miss that gradual progression in the movie.
There is a change which I think makes for a significant difference: in the novel Ender is attacked in the shower room and immediately after he enters the final training battle; in the film the order is reversed. Where the film seems to be saying that the games, difficult they may be, are nowhere near as difficult or unpredictable as real-life challenges (the shower attack) the novel suggests that real-life challenges occur no matter what the circumstance, and all that matters is keeping one's focus on the game. Scott's thesis is harsher, more darkly ambivalent; the film's feels like Hollywood's usual token moralizing.
Ender still works; despite Mr. Card's well-known homophobia, he does know how to compel one to turn the page--though it might be noted that the novel is hugely homoerotic, the friendship between Ender and his male friends (not to mention the uglier emotions involved in the shower assault (apparently repressed gay desire can only lead to implied rape)) more intense than perhaps Card ever intended.
And then Card's novel falls apart. Ender after his harrowing ordeal graduates to begin...a new training regimen? Battle simulations--glorified video games? What gives? Card's descriptions of the action become more perfunctory, the pacing more arbitrary, till in a final (simulated) showdown Ender is forced to repeat his greatest victory, albeit on a larger scale. End of story, only it isn't--we're shown that besides the lie already perpetrated is yet another illusion and a diametrically opposite truth, yet events proceed so quickly (you can almost feel the wind from the few remaining pages fanning your face) you feel more a sense of anticlimax than anything else (and in fact Card felt the need not just to write several sequels justifying this new development but retell the entire story from another point of view, just to--well, not quite sure why. Sell more copies, maybe?).
As for that final twist...you almost wish Card stuck to his guns and kept to developing the story of a loving yet relentless killer; the novel was shaped admirably towards reaching that end, and the result--a psychopathic genius with heart--seems a fascinating character. And Card didn't have to approve of him! Card could have talked about Ender with just the right hushed tone of horror, as if presenting a Michael Corleone, showing us the difference between the frightened boy that began the story and the assured commander that ended it, how this was not really a contradiction and how much it cost the boy to become this great warrior. A lean, streamlined fable about the creation of a monster--it would have worked fine.
The movie is faithful at first but alas follows the book right off its narrative cliff: a terrific first half, a rather attenuated second, a head-scratching epilogue. That's it? That's all there is?* I want a refund!
* That better be all--the immediate sequel Speaker of the Dead is more narratively knotty with even less action, and would make for a puzzling (not to mention frustrating) picture. Strictly for Card completists.
Cormac McCarthy (one assumes) was asked by the studio bosses: "why don't you write directly for the movies?" And (again, one assumes) he did; he wrote a script to the movie he must have thought Hollywood deserved.
So what did we get? McCarthy's dark vision of the world, only so unrelievedly shadowed it's well nigh inscrutable, with little contrast or variety; an accompanying generous dose of (admittedly welcome) deadpan humor; a mildly amusing setpiece involving Malkina (Cameron Diaz) doing a catfish impersonation on a Ferrari windshield (if she really wanted to impress me she'd use a ping-pong ball, or better yet a banana); an unusual obsession with decapitations (Mr. McCarthy, this your idea of a horrifying death? Really?) and endless philosophizing.
And here I thought Tarantino was long-winded; also thought he was gratuitously sadistic and violent. But McCarthy (with Ridley Scott assisting) has pretty much shown us what a tight-lipped pussy Tarantino really is: in terms of pulp entertainment this is not just more extreme but is as well-constructed and grimly comic a noir as anything I've seen recently (maybe the only picture that comes even remotely close is Oliver Stone's Savages). Scott here abandons the shaky-cam, ADHD editing style used in recent titles (Gladiator; Hannibal; Black Hawk Down; American Gangster) for a less distinct look--mostly glamorously photographed upperclass lifestyle porn, when the screen is not being baked by the merciless desert sun--that serves McCarthy's story well.
McCarthy like Tarantino is infatuated with the sound of his own words; unlike Tarantino he actually has some justification for the love. I've encountered McCarthy's despairing tone in both print and screen before--in Sheriff Bell's lyrical musings on death for example--and it is lovely to both read and hear: Tommy Lee Jones and the cast of this movie delight in the involved syntax and intricate cadences flowing liberally, unendingly from the screen. McCarthy puts some effort into dressing up his plaything as a cautionary morality play, with Ruben Blades quoting from the great Antonio Machado, summarizing the big picture for the eponymous hero thusly: "you want to choose, but there is no choosing...(t)he choosing was done a long time ago" (Tarantino doing a similar scene would probably quote from the great Stan Lee instead).
Well played, Senor McCarthy, well played, though I must caution you that yours is too much of one thing, not enough of the other. A greater writer than you (Graham Greene) once dabbled in the less dense medium of scriptwriting as well and came up with The Third Man; his vision of the world was no less dark but considerably more involved and ambivalent and convincing (you want to ask of McCarthy: are drug cartels both omniscient and omnipotent (if so, wouldn't they have long since taken over the United States?)? Would someone like Malkina remain immune for so long? Would the wary and intelligent Westray (Brad Pitt) be so idiotically oblivious, when the merest mention of 'New Mexico' tripped alarm bells in my own head?). You have played in the (for you) relatively unfamiliar medium of cinema senor and found the waters welcoming, the results much to your liking, but you have not played to the full extent of what I feel are your capabilities; alas your flawed contraption is being praised as excellent, thanks mainly to the lack of competition in a lackluster year. One of the better Hollywood films to come out in 2013. Unfortunately.