4 Facts You Should Know About Ender’s Game
In anticipation of the upcoming release of sci-fi action epic Ender’s Game, the cast and crew sat down at MCM Expo’s London Comic Con panel to discuss the challenges of turning such a well-loved book into a big-screen spectacle. Director Gavin Hood, producers Bob Orci and Gigi Pritzker, the young stars of the film Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, and movie legends Sir Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford were all in attendance to talk about the much-loved story, the revolutionary special effects, and their complex characters. Here’s what you need to know!
1. It’s based on a sci-fi classic.
Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel set in a futuristic version of Earth threatened by the invasion of an alien race follows a young recruit, tactical genius Ender Wiggin, who is enrolled in Battle School and taught the arts of war to help defend the human race. The book has garnered a legion of fans around the world and is part of school curriculums in the US. Ender’s Game producer Gigi Pritzker was one of the first people involved with the film project: “I had a nephew who read the book a long time ago and loved it, and this was a boy who had a hard time reading. I decided I needed to read it as well and it was a terrific book.” Producer Bob Orci was also a huge fan of the book: “I loved that it didn’t talk down to me, that it celebrates intelligence, that it has complex themes and adventure.” Turning the book into a film, however, was nowhere near as easy as they’d hoped.
2. It was known as the un-filmable film.
“I’m hesitant, in the presence of Harrison Ford, to say that something in science fiction couldn’t be made.” But director Gavin Hood admitted that limitations of special effects technology were one of the biggest obstacles to bringing Ender’s Game to the big screen for many years. Sci-fi legend Ford agreed: “One of the best things about science fiction is that it exceeds human imagination. A human story set on earth has a limited scope and look. When you get into the future, it broadens. And this book did imagine, 28 years ago, things like the internet, touchscreen technology, drone warfare – things that exist today, for better or worse. There’s a lot of wisdom in the book.”
Portraying these forward-thinking technologies on screen is easy today, but Hood was quick to state that translating a good story to film is always a challenge: “We’ve gotten to the point now where visual effects are so good, they can be used – or abused. You can slam visual effects all over a movie and audiences can go ‘that’s really cool, but is there a story in here at all?’” Ford used Star Wars as an example of how balancing visual effects with good storytelling has always been a key to success. Talking about the “horse-drawn effects” of the late 70s, he said, “You had to put bits together and create a physical prop. Now you can do it all in a computer. Both methods work, [but with CGI] there’s the potential to overpopulate the screen, to confuse the viewer. I am convinced we’ve not done that here.”
The spectacular battle sequences, zero-gravity action scenes in the Training School, and advanced technology were a visual challenge that go hand in hand with an intricate story about warfare and human nature. Authentically adapting that story for a new medium offered a whole range of other challenges too, which Sir Ben Kingsley talked about: “The novel is an internal process, but what we have to do here is massively externalise what’s going on in people’s minds and imaginations – and what they’re struggling with.”
3. It’s got heart.
Keeping that vital human touch in a film of epic scale influenced the casting decisions too. Asa Butterfield, best known for his roles in The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas and the Martin Scorsese blockbuster Hugo, bagged the lead role of Ender Wiggin after submitting – in the words of the film’s director – a “phenomenal” audition tape. Opposite him, in the role of Petra, is Academy Award-nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld.
As recruits of Battle School, Ender and Petra have plenty of impressive action scenes, which involved lots of green screen work for the actors – not to mention scenes re-creating zero gravity. “We had quite a few weeks, before filming, of practising,” Butterfield explained, “and then we had an astronaut come in to show us what it’s really like to be in zero gravity. And then when we finally got up there in the suits, giving our lines, we had such a blast.” When asked how long they were filming on wires, Steinfeld quipped, “Oh man, to the point where we realised we look really funny upside down.” It’s this playfulness between the leads that was invaluable, not just for the actors when filming, but also for the relationship between the characters to develop on the screen.
Steinfeld talked about the friendship between Ender and Petra: “When you meet Petra, she’s been in Battle School for a while. And when she meets Ender, he’s instantly shut down, constantly doubted by everyone else at Battle School because they think, ‘How is he going to catch up with us, we’ve been here so much longer and worked so hard?’ – especially when the mentors are already saying he’s the best of the best. And you can assume [that Petra], being one of very few girls in Battle School, got quite a bit of that too. So when they meet each other they’re not looking for anything but friendship. They’re placed in a world where they don’t know who they can trust, so they find that in each other.”
4. It has an all-star cast.
The cast includes veteran screen actors in equally complex roles. Harrison Ford plays the manipulative Colonel Hyrum Graff, whose zeal to conquer the invading armies makes for some morally dubious decisions. “The character I play is both manipulator and mentor, seen through Ender’s eyes as a strict instructor. When I play a character I’m not interested in deciding for myself if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. He’s a person charged with a certain responsibility – a fictional responsibility – but also a responsibility to play the part in the story.”
Whilst the responsibility to the narrative makes Graff an ambiguous and intriguing character, Ben Kingsley’s role is much blunter and darker. “He’s like a flying spear. A simple, destructive machine,” says the actor. The role Kingsley plays is as striking visually as any of the effects in the film: a warrior with startling facial tattoos. “[Although Mazor Rackham does have an] ancestral philosophy in the tattoos – it’s all the generations of warriors from the Maori tribes of New Zealand that he’s descended from – he’s simply a hard-edged, pure fighting machine warrior, who’s almost mythologised for his warriorhood.”
Two more Academy Award-nominated actresses, Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and Viola Davis (The Help), also star in the film. After years of working to make the film a reality, Pritzker thinks the talented cast is a sign of how well the film works: “When you have material this good, you attract talented people all sides of the camera.” Ocri agreed, saying that when he’s asked why he decided on a particular actor for a role, he says, “You don’t decide on them, they decide on you. So yes, it’s all about the material.”
Ender’s Game hits cinemas on the 25 October. Take a look at the trailer below!