Ender’s Game- Fear and Hope in the Face of Annihilation
Ender’s Game is one of my all-time favorite books, so it was with some great anticipation that I looked forward to the release of the film. Here, we shall investigate some of the major themes that the film adaptation brings up in its portrayal of this epic science fiction novel. There will be MAJOR SPOILERS for the film in what follows.
Children and Violence
The first and most pervasive feature throughout the film is that of the boundaries crossed when placing children in situations which they should be protected from. It is much like the Hunger Games [I want to clarify: Ender's Game was written long before Hunger Games and so any connections flow from Card to Collins!] in this regard, though Orson Scott Card’s book and the film take it much deeper.
The first and perhaps most poignant example of this is found early in the film, when Ender thinks he has been washed out from the possibility of command and so he no longer has the protection of adults monitoring him to make sure he is safe. He is approached by a group of bullies, but he uses his strong tactical sense to shame them into fighting him one-on-one. Then, he ruthlessly beats down one of the larger boys and continues kicking him while he is down. He does this, he explains later, because he wanted to make it so that his enemy could never come back and hurt him again. The key, for Ender, is to ensure not just that the enemy is unable to fight back now, but that they will be unable to do so ever. This survival instinct leads Colonel Graff to believe that Ender is right for battle school. But it leaves the viewer wondering about justice.
Elsewhere, the film deals rather pointedly with bullying. Ender continues to be alienated by his fellow students and they react with two common bullying tactics: they ostracize him and eventually, one tries to physically harm him. One scene shows how one can break the grip of bullying: by simply reaching out to the one who is bullied. The camera shifts to a top-down view and shows as one-by-one, students begin to sit next to Ender and abandon the bully. If we teach our youths to do the same: to reach out to understand instead of to conform to the pattern of the world and ignore the downtrodden, we could make steady strides against bullying.
The scenes of violence involving the children also do something that very few scenes of violence with adults are able to convey: the complete horror that is involved in such activities. One cannot help but be gripped by sorrow when one sees children reacting violently to each other. Very often, movies are unable to capture the wrongness of violence. I do not think it is far afield to suggest that blockbusters are even worse at doing so. One can imagine the amount of collateral damage wrought in a movie like “The Avengers,” yet the heroes are glorified and the violence justified by the end. “Ender’s Game” incredibly portrays the real awfulness of violence of human against human, and even of human against environment or nature. It is raw, powerful, and gut-wrenching.
The viewer wonders throughout the entire film whether the cost is too high. Colonel Graff and Major Anderson engage in a brief dialogue on the question late in the story. Anderson notes that using children used to be a war crime, but Graff counters by arguing that humanity must do what they have to in order to ensure survival. In a way, his reasoning takes Ender as a foil. Both he and Ender agree upon the notion that the ends may justify the means.
However, the film doesn’t end with that message. Instead, Ender is forced to confront the reality that he has been used–lied to–in order to bring about the utter extinction of an entire alien sentient race. When faced with this truth, he reacts with extreme remorse and anger. Graff tries to reason with Ender, suggesting once more that they struck the enemy in such a way so as the enemy might never strike them back. But Ender suddenly realizes–with horror–that this is insufficient reason to justify his wiping out an entire species. He reacts angrily and is eventually sedated. The viewer is left to reflect upon the sheer enormity of what has happened. An entire sentient race has been extinguished by the activity of a child who was deceived into thinking he was merely playing games.
The child realizes it is horrible; the adults are the ones rejoicing.
From Death, Life: From Xenocide, Hope
I’ve already pointed out the way “Ender’s Game” depicts violence in such a way as to prevent it from being gloried. I’ll admit I was unsure of how I would react to the big reveal towards the end, when Ender discovers that he has been fooled into exterminating the “Buggers” [Formics--the alien race]. I wasn’t sure if the movie would depict it in such a way as to make the audience cheer and delight in the destruction of the enemy. However, I was totally blown away by the way it showed the scene. I couldn’t but be horrified when Ender turned to Graff and the other commanders of Earth’s military and said triumphantly, “Game Over.” I knew the twist that was coming, and that perhaps made it even more horrifying to me. Ender thought he was playing games, but those in charge knew he was not and cheer gleefully in the complete annihilation of a species which wasn’t even acting the aggressor any longer.
That alone would be an incredibly powerful message to leave viewers with, but Orson Scott Card did not write a book[and, by extension, the movie it spawned] that merely shows the horrors of such violence. Instead, the seeds of hope are scattered therein. The very end of the film shows the birth of life from death. One of the “Bugger” Queens has survived, and one egg for a new queen has been preserved. The Buggers had been trying to communicate with Ender, and they succeeded in getting him to find their last hope for preservation. Ender realizes almost immediately what he should do: take the egg to a place it will be safe. The film ends with Ender’s voice echoing the future story: that he would seek out a new home for the Buggers so that they could begin life anew.
“Ender’s Game” is a fantastic film. It is one with powerful messages for today. Yes, it has the moral message against bullying, and people who walk away only with that will have done well. But more deeply–and more powerfully because of this–it also shows the absolute horrors of violence. Harming others is not in any way glorified in this film. Ender realizes the wrongness of his own actions too late. Yet viewers are not spoon-fed this message. Indeed, the story begs to be debated. Do the ends justify the means in this case? Or perhaps Ender is right–understnading is more important. The themes provide much for anyone who watches the film to discuss.
Yet the most powerful message is saved for the very end: Life comes from death. It is brought about by an outsider, using means which could not have been predicted. And that is the most powerful and true message of all. It is a message which Christianity teaches: hope comes from the most hopeless situation, and it comes from the least expected direction, provided by God.
“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card: A Christian Reflection- I analyze a number of themes from the classic science fiction novel.
You may view this post in its original context at J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason.
J.W. Wartick is an M.A. student in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Aside from reading, writing, and thinking about philosophy and theology, he also reads science fiction and military history. He dabbles in fossil hunting and enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee in his free time. He lives with his wonderful wife, Beth, in Minnesota. He writes about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian Apologetics at Always Have a Reason.