Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s continued guide to young adult book-to-film adaptations.
If the Formics attack and it’s up to a group of kids to save the world, you better know who’s fighting for mankind’s survival.
In the November 1 release Ender’s Game, Asa Butterfield stars as Ender, a young boy who’s plucked from his family on Earth and shipped off to Battle School in space to train to join the International Fleet (IF) and defeat the Formics. Ender may get more attention than most, but Battle School is loaded with combat prodigies, some of which he’ll need if he expects to pass his final exam.
While on the film’s NASA Michoud Assembly Facility set in New Orleans, Movies.com had the opportunity to talk to producer Linda McDonough, director Gavin Hood, Butterfield and his costars Hailee Steinfeld (Petra), Moises Arias (Bonzo), Aramis Knight (Bean), Conor Carroll (Bernard), Suraj Partha (Alai) and Khylin Rhambo (Dink) about bringing the team of young heroes to life.
In Orson Scott Card’s book, Ender is just six years old when he’s taken to Battle School and is in his teens at the end of the narrative. Hood immediately pointed out, “Well, that’s your first obstacle. Do you cast a six-year-old and then an eight-year-old? What do you do?” After committing to one actor and compressing the timeline, the focus then shifted to finding the perfect Ender. McDonough recalled, “Ultimately the most important thing was who’s giving the most believable performance as Ender and so we adapted the age to the actor we thought was best.” Even though they did audition six year olds, in the end, McDonough professed, “Asa gave everybody chills when he came and auditioned for the first time.”
Ender’s Game doesn’t merely chronicle a young boy’s hero’s journey or deep space adventure. Not only does it put Ender in some physically dangerous scenarios, but his intellect, state of mind and emotions are pushed to the brink, too.
Hood cited his own experience being drafted as his way of connecting to the material. “I was drafted when I was 17 years old into the military and in many ways felt a lot of the things that I think Ender felt about, ‘Well, I’m being forced into a place, I’m in this military environment that seems crazy, I’m a long way from home.’” He added, “I think the themes that are great in this book about friendship, identity when placed under pressure and in an institution that encourages sometimes your more aggressive side and rewards that, all of those powerful themes in Ender’s Game, I think it’s why the book is prescribed to the Marines at the Marine Officers Academy training here in America.”
As for Ender’s more physical moments, Hood insisted they are all PG-13 appropriate. “It’s not gratuitous action whatsoever. It’s not about whether it’s violent or not violent. It is all 100% true to his character and the idea of the story.” He continued, “But man, you do not get better than Asa when it comes to this physical performance and this fighting style. He is the next breed of actor that we’re going to see. And I’m talking about actor, not action star… I’m talking about someone who’s gonna deliver and make your gut twist and turn.”
One of Ender’s most vital allies at Battle School is Hailee Steinfeld’s Petra Arkanian. Like Ender, she was recruited at a young age, but by the time Ender arrives at Battle School, she’s already well assimilated and a member of Salamander Army. Steinfeld explained, “I think what’s so great about Petra is you see her relationship with Ender kind of evolve through the course of the story and in a way that she kind of sees a lot of herself in him.”
Even though True Grit made her an Academy Award nominated actress, Steinfeld admitted, “I think with True Grit, everything was put in place so perfectly, I was able to just kind of show up and everything was at my finger tips.” She continued, “For me, what I’ve learned is I’ve been able to have such an incredible imagination with this.”
As the leader of Salamander Army, Bonzo isn’t thrilled when he’s forced to give up a prime player so a new recruit could be placed under his command. Rather than train Ender to be part of the team, Bonzo isolates and threatens him.
Arias laughed and admitted, “I get cast a lot for mean characters. [Bonzo] is all about honor and he wants to be the best of the best, and he’s threatened by Ender instantly.” Bonzo is an extremely jealous student, so when Ender steps in and threatens to ruin his reign, Bonzo fights for what he’s earned. Arias joked, “I think especially when Ender comes in, he just wants to be the bigger guy - even though I’m six inches shorter. You don’t really see that in the book, but I guess I’m bringing the Napoleon to the character.”
Even though Arias noted that “there’s no happy moments for Bonzo,” Bonzo’s rivalry with Ender does open door to some of the film’s most profound themes and messages. McDonough said, “One of the themes in the book and in our adaptation is when you engage in a game, when is it a game? When does it become more than a game? What are the consequences of having been in competition with somebody else?” Arias added, “It’s a book that really teaches you discipline. It really lets you see what the world really is. It doesn’t really censor it in any way.”
Alai ventured off to Battle School with Ender so, when they arrived, they became Launchies together. Ender immediately takes note of Alai’s intellect and often collaborates with him while trying to learn the ropes in the Battle Room.
Even though the script doesn’t delve into Alai’s life prior to Battle School, Partha suspected, “There’s also sort of a religious backstory or a spiritual backstory to my character as far as being from the Middle East, maybe having to stifle his religion to become part of the military and things like that. I definitely researched into that kind of culture. I looked at a lot of that as well to sort of think about that in those religious terms, and that comes in the film, too.”
When asked who in the cast is most like his or her character, Knight immediately exclaimed, “I’m sure all of us from reading the book, we picture each other in our minds and really, it’s almost spot on. Like little Alai baby over there, exactly like Alai!”
Even though Ender’s first encounter with Dink Meeker involves some bullying, Dink joking, “Salamander’s getting babies now,” ultimately, he realizes and honor’s Ender’s worth. Dink is also one of few students who’s skeptical about the Battle School curriculum.
Rhambo explained, “[Dink’s] whole thing was the bigger picture, was to save a world worth fighting for.” As Rhambo pointed out, throughout his time in Battle School, Dink is constantly questioning, “What do I believe now?”
Bernard is also part of Ender’s launch group, but unlike Alai, Bernard strives to isolate Ender from the rest of the Launchies, making Ender’s first weeks at Battle School particularly unpleasant.
We don’t see much of Bernard outside of his early altercations with Ender, so Carroll joked, “No one knows my first name.” He continued, “My last name’s Bernard and no one knows my first name, or where I come from. I’m just Bernard.” When challenged to pick a name on the spot, Carroll blurted out, “Vladimir!”
If you’ve read additional books in Card’s Ender’s Game series, you know it’s highly unlikely that, should the film franchise continue, they’ll tackle the books in order. Unless the filmmakers devise an original story to continue Ender’s journey, it’d make most sense for the films to continue with the parallel novel Ender’s Shadow, which involves some of the same events from Ender’s Game, but from Bean’s perspective.
Even though McDonough said this film ends where the book ends, the filmmakers did make a push to give Bean a bigger presence. McDonough said, “Because Bean has more importance in the later works and that’s sort of part of what we call Orson Scott Card’s Ender-verse, we wanted to set the stage for Bean having a bigger role in this film. We thought about, at one point, can we do two movies at the same time?” The idea of a Bean TV series also came into play, which producers considered could run while Ender’s tale continued on through additional films.
But for now, the focus is purely on Ender’s Game. While discussing how he prepared for the role, Knight recalled, “Right after I booked the movie, I wanted to learn more about Bean rather than just knowing he’s a hard-shelled cool dude, so I searched him online and I was just reading a bunch of different things about him and I learned that his real name is Julian Delphiki.”
Even though Bean’s a “cool dude” and Knight seemed to be one himself, Knight admitted he had a tough time connecting to the character because unlike Bean, he’s having a wonderful childhood. “In Ender’s Game I really need to take that into perspective on how I treat them and how I conduct myself in the Battle Room and all that, and it’s tough because, obviously, I’ve had the perfect childhood. I’m a little softie inside. But Bean is different. He’s tough, but I love being him.”
You can catch all the Battle School students in action when Ender’s Game arrives in theaters on November 1, 2013.
The YA Movie Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday.
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