Director Gavin Hood wasn't really familiar with Ender's Game when his agent gave him Orson Scott Card's novel about a young boy named Ender (natch) being trained as a war commander. He didn't realize just how the project had eluded many in Hollywood before him.
"My agent sent me this book and said, have a read," the South African Hood told us in an interview this month. "I read it not having a clue. I know it's very well known in America, but I didn't know of it, and I responded very strongly to it. Partly because I was drafted myself when I was 17 and these feelings of what it was like to be dragged away from home were very strong in me."
While Ender's may have appealed to Hood for personal reasons, it's also a novel that—at least on the surface—seems to fit into the current trends. Though Card's book was published 1985, it has the young adult label that now so frequently puts dollar signs in the eyes of studio executives. Like The Hunger Games, which has its second film installment debuting in November as well, it deals with the morality of young people in war.
A movie version of the story seemed destined for the dustbin. Matt Patches at Grantland chronicled the attempts to make the film stretching back through the late 80s and 90s. Though ultimately, Summit Entertainment, which made the Twilight films, would co-produce the film, Warner Bros. acquired the rights back in 2002 and was looking to make a film with Wolfgang Peterson as the director. At one point Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were attached to write the movie. Card—who was protective of his work—also took stabs at the screenplay. (Card, ultimately, has proven a problem for the film as his anti-gay writings and work for the National Organization for Marriage sparked a boycott. Hood has repeatedly taken a stand against Card's personal views.) In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Card said he didn't want a "tough-hero action film," but envisioned a movie "where the human relationships are absolutely essential — an honest presentation of the story."
Perhaps that's why Hood's adaptation idea finally won out. "My approach was essentially to say that I would want to stick with this young character, in almost every scene of the film, because the book is so much about what he's thinking and feeling," Hood, who also penned the movie's screenplay, explained. "And that is a difficult thing to translate to the screen. I felt that unless we stuck with him in almost every scene of the movie...we would not feel watching the movie what the book made us feel, which is an intimate connection to the inner struggle that this young character is going through."
Though a movie adaptation of Ender's has always made sense—the book garnered critical acclaim, has legions of fans, and is a bona fide best-seller—the text itself presents challenges for filmmakers. It's a story mostly about strategy and isolation, which starts when its hero is six. There's a subplot about Ender's sister and brother influencing the government with their anonymous essays. Hood solved those problems by condensing the timeline to Ender's tween years and doing away with his brother and sister's alter egos, Locke and Demosthenes.
Another problem the film inherits from the book is that, while it's a story about war, it focuses on training. Students like Ender fight in a weightless battle room with weapons that freeze opponents. In the story's climax Ender is, essentially, playing a video game. There isn't much hand to hand combat. In the instances when Ender does go blow for blow with another person, it's disturbingly real, with upsetting consequences. "The only jeopardy that really exists is emotional," Hood said. "Usually in these kinds of films the the kid or the soldier is on a real battlefield. He might really lose his head or really be shot and so you have the possibility of real physical pain or even death that you're fighting against. Here, the only thing you're fighting against is the expectation of adults and your own ego." So, Hood told us, he tried to build up Ender's "ego moment," which "sets him up for a terrible fall." He also thought about how he could make those video-game like simulation battles the "coolest video game ever."
Despite all the heady themes, Card's book is a rollicking read and Hood still wanted to make popcorn entertainment, not to mention the fact that Summit wants the film to rake in the cash. "I want young people to have two things out of this movie: I want them to have a really good time," he said. "You go to a movie, have your popcorn, have a great time, watch some really cool effects, but I hope that they’ll be able to talk to each other afterwards about some of the ideas in the film and say, hey, man, before we go to war do you want to think about this? Do you think this is right?"