A Strong Hero: Ender, not Katniss
Those who praised The Hunger Games for having a strong heroine don't seem to know what strength is. While that movie offers some fine qualities, a strong protagonist is not among them. Being able to shoot an arrow does not show strength; standing up for oneself does.
The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss, a teenager in a dystopian future who lets adults bully her into fighting to the death against other teenagers. That's the whole story. While the adults are clearly the villains, she doesn't dare fight them. Instead she fights other innocents to entertain the villains. Add Katniss to Hollywood's long list of "rebellious teenagers" whose only act of rebellion is to grumble while doing what they are told.
Ender's Game is another story. After years in development hell, Ender's Game was finally produced and released in 2013 because some thought the story was similar to the financially successful Hunger Games. (Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game was a large influence on The Hunger Games books as well as the Harry Potter novels.) It, too, offers a young hero in the future used by adults who have little regard for the young protagonist's interests. Hell, it even has Game in the title. But there's one huge difference: the teenager at the heart of Ender's Game isn't just a protagonist, he's a hero. Ender, not Katniss, shows us what a strong character looks like.
A Hero's Motive
Katniss at your service
Katniss becomes a child warrior because the adults force her. They threaten her family and her community, so she does their bidding. The entire film is about a teenager bowing down to adults she despises.
Ender follows his own conscience and his own will. Ender becomes a warrior for the same reason as the adults in the film: he's a proud citizen of his planet who believes in the cause, is eager to defend his planet against alien aggression, and wants what is right. The adults who use him, represented most prominently by Harrison Ford's character, Colonel Graff, want these things as well; they become his antagonists only because they don't trust the child to do the right things on his own and so they manipulate him. Like many imperfect parents who feel they manipulate their children for their children's "own good," Colonel Graff manipulates Ender for the greater good as Graff sees it.
Notice that while Katniss is bullied, Ender is manipulated. That reflects their difference in strength. Ender is too strong to be bullied or threatened by adults, even by commanding officers. Indeed, it is Ender who threatens them to get what he wants. When he wants to visit Earth to consult with his sister, Colonel Graff says no, and Ender threatens to quit. Graff tells him he can't quit, that "the Fleet owns you now." Nice try. Ender threatens to stop cooperating, knowing it would be a tremendous waste of the Fleet's money to keep Ender in place with him refusing to serve. And because Graff understands this, too, Graff is forced to relent.
After Ender's visit to Earth, when Graff convinces him to re-enlist, Ender tells him, "I need to know you won't block my emails again," and Graff reluctantly nods. What choice does Ender leave him?
Colonel Graff and others manipulate Ender because Ender is strong enough that the only way they can get him to comply is to get him to agree. That's in line with most adult heroes of cinema, but rarely are children or teenagers in fiction allowed to be so strong. Certainly no one cares if Katniss agrees with what the authorities want her to do; she'll do it anyway. Her private opinions and her values have no bearing on the story or on the lives of those in power. But Ender's opinions matter. He makes them matter.
Among the charms of this film are scenes where Ender and Colonel Graff speak to one another, not as an adult speaking down to a child, nor even as a superior officer speaking to an inferior, but speak to one other as equals, exchanging ideas and opinions, learning from one another.
Far from being set in a dystopia, Ender's Game is among the more optimistic science-fiction we've seen. Just as "Star Trek" offered its 1960s audience an optimistic view that one day Americans and Russians and Chinese could work together on the same team, that one day blacks and whites and Asians could stand side-by-side as equals, Ender's Game hints at a future in which young and old might be equally respected and equally valued.
More than a Body
Mazer and Graff consult with Ender
Katniss is valued mainly for the violent skills she can wield against other youths. While Ender proves skillful with his fists and with a gun, he is valued more for his brains. His intelligence is what the military values and what the filmmakers ask us to value as well. In our culture, where youth are stereotyped as stupid, it is refreshing to find a film about a child more intelligent than most action film heroes of any age.
After a fist-fight with a bully, Ender has a chat with Colonel Graff in which he explains the moral and tactical decisions he made throughout the fight. The scene is not played for laughs, nor is it some thoughtlessly-slapped-together scene designed to pander to dumb kids in the audience. The filmmakers take Ender's intelligence seriously and portray it plausibly.
In another dazzling scene, Ender argues with a commanding officer. He takes the officer aside, explains why the officer should change his position, and then offers a plan for the officer to save face publicly while doing what Ender wants. It's a compromise. It's not the humiliating submission that Katniss and most other young characters endure. Nor is it the stubborn all-or-nothing demand most adult heroes would make that would get nowhere in a film that was realistic. It is instead the pragmatic, intelligent compromise of a character strong enough not to bow and smart enough not to insist. This is an intelligent, young character in a film aimed at intelligent, young viewers.
Ender's Game does tell us, of course, that this intelligent youth is not a typical youth nor a typical anything. But the film does not portray typical youth as stupid, either. Indeed, Colonel Graff tells us the military is recruiting children specifically because of their ability to learn faster than adults.
It is not only the hero who makes this film youth-friendly; it is the villains as well. What makes Colonel Graff and the other adults here villains is that, with arguably noble intentions, they manipulate Ender and the others youths, controlling their environment, hiding truths and telling lies, for the purpose of shaping these youths in ways these adults think best. They censor the youths' emails because they fear the youths' families could be bad influences. They deliberately make Ender an outcast among his peers to increase his self-reliance. They lie to our young heroes about the costs of their final game. Colonel Graff is essentially a stand-in for Tipper Gore, for school boards that censor books and require certain attitudes be pushed, for parents who use parental controls on TVs and computers, for all those adults who try to "protect" youth from "harmful influences" and control how youths will think.
And the film rightly recognizes that behaviour as villainous.
Colonel Graff does not brutalize innocent people nor take delight in anyone's suffering. He is a villain because he refuses to respect Ender's right to self-determination. Director Gavin Hood says as much in the DVD's commentary, and even says this is what drew him to the project to begin with: "Part of what's so great about this story is that it's really [a] story about a young person trying to define for themselves what their moral values will be in a world where everyone else has a different agenda."
Ender's Bottom Line
While expensive to make, Ender's Game still turned a profit at the box office, but not as much as The Hunger Games and not enough to encourage a sequel. And it's easy to see why. While most big-budget movies are about high-stakes events, with lives if not planets at stake, Ender's Game is mostly about quieter, more personal things. High stakes are only unveiled at the end, after the climax. Mostly, this is the story of a boy in training. The thing at stake is not a planet nor even a single life: it is Ender's soul. And just as The Empire Strikes Back (the battle for Luke's soul) made less money than Return of the Jedi (the Ewok-infested battle for the galaxy), we can't be surprised that Ender's Game made less money than The Hunger Games.
While Ender's Game lacked high-stakes excitement, it offered two things far more rare: a young hero audiences can cheer, and an exploration of themes relevant to youth. We can only hope to see these elements reappear in more films to come.