‘Ender’s Game’ director Gavin Hood on why he changed Ender’s age

Oct. 31, 2013 | 3:26 p.m.
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Hailee Steinfeld, left, and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

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Director Gavin Hood and actors Suraj Partha and Asa Butterfield on the set of "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

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Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

endersgame ‘Ender’s Game’ director Gavin Hood on why he changed Enders age

Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

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Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

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Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld attend a promotional event for "Ender's Game" in San Diego during Comic-Con International on July 17. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images)

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Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield attend a promotional event for "Ender's Game" in San Diego during Comic-Con International on July 17. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

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Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld speak onstage during Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 18. (Joe Scarnici / Getty Images)

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Director Gavin Hood onstage during Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 18. (Joe Scarnici / Getty Images)

“Ender’s Game” hits theaters Friday, bringing Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi tale to the big screen for the first time.

The movie is based on Card’s 1985 novel about a young, extremely intelligent boy who is recruited to attend Battle School and groomed to become a commander in a war against aliens. The book was critically praised, winning the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel, and became extremely popular, especially among children who read it in school.

Given its time limitation, the film adheres rather closely to the events and themes in the 324-page novel. But some of the book’s fans have expressed concern online about several differences and key details, including compressing the book’s timeline, leaving out the political activities of Ender’s siblings back home and altering Ender’s age — he was 6 years old at the beginning of the book but is portrayed onscreen by 16-year-old Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”).

Hero Complex chatted with director and screenwriter Gavin Hood about how he decided what to trim, what to keep and what themes were most important.

Be warned: Some spoilers lie ahead.

Hero Complex: The film was pretty faithful to the book. Were you a fan before you made the movie? When did you first read the book?

Gavin Hood: That’s very kind of you. Thank you very much indeed, because it’s a complicated book, and I’m a fan too. I didn’t read it until five years ago. It was sent to me by my agent. I grew up in South Africa, so though it was very popular here in the States, it was not something I had come across before…. I read it, and I said, wow, I really, really like the idea of a story aimed at young people but that is also fun, and has got all these fabulous battle room sequences, and we can do something visually really exciting with this. But it also has some ideas that young people might enjoy talking about afterwards. It’s not just a good guy takes on a bad guy and wins. This is a young person who’s complicated, who is in a sense struggling for his own moral identity. And having been drafted into the military myself when I was 17 and found it quite an intense experience, and being taken far away from home, and having people yell at you and encourage an aspect of your personality that was more aggressive and which was not something your mother would have encouraged — there were a lot of these themes that I related to.

I just thought as a parent as well, with young children, it’s not often you can send them to a movie that I hope they can have a really good time watching and have fun relating to their peers, because not often movies are made for that tween audience. So many times it’s teenagers who are already 19. So that’s both its blessing and its curse in a way. But I think it’s a blessing because younger teenagers don’t have a lot of movies about them, and those are years where you really are transitioning from girl to woman or boy to man, and you’re having these struggles with your own capacity for compassion and your equal but opposite capacity for aggression or anger, so I liked those themes. I liked that idea.

HC: So you decided to adapt it.

GH: I went in and pitched a take on how I thought we might bring the book to the screen, which essentially involved the thing that was probably obvious — we have to narrow the time period. Because if we go from 6 years old to 13 at the end, if we were changing actors on the audience, they would find that very disruptive to their viewing experience. You essentially need this complicated kid who has this full range of emotions from kindness to aggression. He’s not a perfect kid. How will you find that in three or four actors? So that’s the reason I thought we needed to compress time.

I also knew that to bond with Ender, we’d probably need to be with him all the time, and although I love the idea of Demosthenes and Locke in the book, and it was incredibly innovative in 1985 when it was written, today most people are on the Internet blogging or Facebooking or Twittering. So although it was very very innovative then, it’s something we do now, and frankly from a cinematic point of view, it’s the hardest thing to make look visual. People sitting at a computer writing philosophy, which works beautifully in the book, is less cinematic. So I thought, we’ve only got two hours to tell the story, Ender is a complicated kid, I’m going to have to compress so much anyway, so let me focus on his journey, try and do justice to his complicated nature, and the twist, and at the same time try and render the battle room at Battle School, which is such a great space, as beautifully as possible, and give the fans that as a beautiful space. And then the simulation cave at the end, when you also have the problem of, “Oh God, this is a kid playing a computer game. What do I do? Sit him at a computer?”

So I thought I’d put my energy into trying to make those two big set pieces — the battle room at Battle School and the simulation cave, as I call it now, on Command School as visual as possible, and just stick with Ender. And there’s a couple of scenes obviously where Ender is not in the scene, and that’s scenes between Graff (Harrison Ford) and Anderson (Viola Davis), but then, of course, they’re talking about him. So it’s all about trying to get inside the mind of this young boy. Because the book so beautifully describes what he’s thinking and feeling, and in the movies, it’s harder to do that. So the way you get a sense of what he’s thinking and feeling, I think, is by being with him and holding on those reactions, those moments when you feel he feels betrayed, and letting the actor give you through reactions what he book beautifully describes in prose.

Director Gavin Hood and actors Suraj Partha and Asa Butterfield on the set of "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

Director Gavin Hood and actors Suraj Partha and Asa Butterfield on the set of “Ender’s Game.” (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

HC: Why was Asa the best fit for the role? He’s a lot older than Ender at the beginning of the book.

GH: It was very tricky. We auditioned all over the world. We tried actors from age 7 all the way to age 14, and the younger actors, even though there were some really good ones, it was very hard to find an actor that could be both awkward and shy and withdrawn at the beginning the way Ender is, a bit of an outsider, and yet by the end come through with this moment where he says, “You lied!” And this roar comes from this boy who’s now a man and literally stops someone like Harrison Ford in his tracks. Some of the younger kids would go, “You lied!” [in a high-pitched baby voice], and it just didn’t work. And I was sweating. Fortunately when Asa came in, I think we caught him just at the moment when he was on the cusp of becoming a young man, but he’s still a boy, and we shot in sequence, to help him and frankly to help us, because he grew 2 inches even while shooting. The challenges were all a bit more daunting than we probably realized when we started…. We needed a highly intelligent actor who’s also intrinsically compassionate and empathetic, because you can’t really fake that, and is slightly geeky because he’s not a jock, and yet is believable as someone who can throw a punch when he has to. I think we were just very lucky to find Asa, who is highly intelligent, genuinely humble and could do the physical work in the wires, because we also had to do put these kids into wires, and they had to do gymnastics to achieve the stuff we needed for zero gravity — a lot of demands for a young actor.

Asa Butterfield stars in "Ender's Game." (Summit Entertainment)

Asa Butterfield stars in “Ender’s Game.” (Summit Entertainment)

HC: There is one relationship that played a big role in the book and even spawned some sequels, and that’s Ender and Bean. In the novel, Ender treats Bean the same way Graff has treated him, but you decided to take a different route in the film, making them fast friends from the beginning. What inspired that choice?

GH: Part of what’s so tricky in a film that’s two hours long is how many themes can you effectively explore. And my feeling was that the essential idea that you come away with at the end of the book is that Ender has become a leader who listens to not only other people on his team, but even to his enemy. He doesn’t during that game. In the game, he gets caught up in the idea of wining no matter how, because from an ego point of view, his mission is to prove himself to Graff, and he just wants to show that, “I don’t care what you throw at me, I can do it.” And what he comes to realize is just because it’s a game doesn’t mean you can do whatever you like.

The thing that’s most interesting to me is the idea that Ender has to come to grips with his own nature and not blame anyone else. Through  the whole movie, he is torn between the compassion he has, which is embodied in Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and his capacity for aggression, which is embodied in Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak). And for a long time, he justifies using whatever aggression is necessary to win a game and prove to the adults that he can do whatever they need. He says to Alai (Suraj Partha) at one point, “This is what they want.” And Alai is shocked by the way he attacks the giant in the mind game. He says, “You killed him, why? Why’d you do that? Why so much aggression?” And Ender rather guiltily looks at him, and he says, “That’s what they want from us. Follow the rules, you lose, choose violence, you win.” And you see in that moment, Alai just doesn’t think that’s cool, and Ender feels guilty for a moment.

But then he succumbs to it again, even in the final game, because in his mind, a game is a closed system. When a game ends, you win or lose, but the way you win doesn’t play into the next game. But in real life, the way you win does play into the next game. We’re remembered in sports or in war or in business not only for what result we achieved but for how we achieved it, and people begin to respond to us not only based on whether we lose but on how we won or, frankly, how we lost. And I think that’s a tricky concept. It’s important for me that Ender at the end is not only saying to Graff, “I’m upset because we did something immoral.” He’s also saying, “We did something strategically stupid.” He says to Graff, “Are you sure we’ve killed every one? Because if you haven’t, you’ve just strategically given us a terrible reputation. That’s not only morally wrong. It’s also strategically silly, because now our enemy will show us no mercy. We’re no longer people you can negotiate with. We’re just those genocidal crazy people.” That’s fine in a game where the enemy is dead, dead, dead, dead, finished, I won the game, isn’t that cool? But in real life….

Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield star in "Ender's Game." (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in “Ender’s Game.” (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)

That idea is tricky because in a book, you stop, you reflect, you read again, you go back. A movie’s just shunting you along through a two-hour experience. So to answer your question, the hard thing about making movies from books is deciding what points can you effectively make in a movie for an audience that’s watching it as a one-off, nonstop experience. And I thought that that idea of Ender taking personal responsibility for how he’ll live his life going forward, and his struggle with the duality of his nature was important, and I thought if I stopped there and also have how he starts to treat Bean, I might muddy that central theme. You know what I mean? How much can you put in?

And I want to say this: The book is the book, and it should be, and it’s always going to be the book. And there’s so much in that book. And the movie is the movie. And they’re two separate things. I don’t in any way want to suggest to anyone that our movie can replace the book. It can’t. They’re two separate mediums trying to look at and doing the best they can with their different tools. I can do things the book can’t do, and the book can do things that I can’t do.

Read part 2 of this interview here: ‘Ender’s Game’ director talks sequel, Orson Scott Card controversy

— Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+


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7 Responses to ‘Ender’s Game’ director Gavin Hood on why he changed Ender’s age

  1. Annette Everett says:

    I just saw the movie and enjoyed it very much because I did not expect it to be a retelling of the book. The book stands alone. I expected the film to give me some great visuals, which it did very well! I noticed small things that I missed, and I missed some of the large themes too. But visually, which is why we go see a movie isn't it, it was stunning.

  2. Duane Hutchison says:

    I enjoyed the movie very much. The visual effects were absolutely perfect!!! The real glaring issue that I had was how condensed the timeline was. It definitely did not need to be 6 years like in the book, but should have been stretched out to 12-18 months. Having all of the events take place in 30-60 days is not realistic and some of his development as a leader is lost by cramming everything in such a short time frame.

    The time frame could have been stretched out through some simple conversations that mention how much time has passed and some events that could have taken place. Or even a montage showing events that let the viewer see how Ender is growing as a leader and military strategist.

    Lastly, Bonzo was miscast. The kid did a good job but he was just too small to give the right feeling of Ender being afraid of him. Bonzo needed to be more physically domineering.

  3. Michael J Williams says:

    I'm excited, but the Demosthenes scenes wouldn't be very difficult to do a rendition of with some small cut scenes of them in a command centre. So I'm pretty disappointed in him from that perspective. All the same, still super pumped to see what he does with the game and the end.

  4. Naomi says:

    Omg the movie was amazing and I think Enders kinda cute. The movie had that different feel to it like a teenager going to military school and that the mind games were so weird. In my opinion I think the director should make more movies like that. If we're to compare the book to the movie I would say the director did a pretty good job. I liked how instead of getting a six year old ender he instead just got a pretty cool sixteen year old. ❤️💛💚💙💜

  5. tasemi says:

    I first read this book about 8 years ago, i became excited upon first hearing they were going to be making a movie about ender's game, this book is an all-time favorite for anyone in my entire family. having said that, the movie turned terrible crushing some of my dreams about what it would be like, as my brother described to me

    "Ender's Game if it were to be described in the form of a chicken.
    De-feather, remove all of the meat that a story line would normally provide. De-bone, so there is no reference to a time line, and no structural support of any of the characters. Throw away all of the fat, stories with humor are overrated anyways. Leave only the cartilage, than smother them in feathers and feed it to your audience, this way the flare can cover up the fact that aside from the name, whoever made this movie clearly based the story on a single sentence from each chapter. Way to strive for just under mediocrity. Good news however, this movie was still a better watch than Dragon Ball Evolution."

    i agree with him. only see this movie if you are not too into the book.

  6. whatyoufound says:

    The movie kind of upset me? I mean yeah, the movie is separate from the book, and it will never be easy to shift this kind of story into a different medium. However, I think the movie completely missed all the important lessons and parts that the book had to offer.

  7. Stuart says:

    I will not deny that it would have been difficult to re-create the story on film, yet I believe it was possible to capture the books essence and stay true to the book. Gavin Hood failed. A good director would not have said to himself, "How can I tell this story in two hours", but rather "How can I tell this story." As too the short, restricted period of time the director gave himself, I saw too many wasteful scenes taking away from the precious time that could have been used to bring a fuller story to the screen. I also disagree with Hood's assessment that character development could not be formed as well with using four actors versus one. There are several good movies that have been made that proves Hood's choice was a wrong one on that point.

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