Ender’s Game : A Prime Example of How Books Are Better Than Movies

Just over a decade ago, my husband and I worked downtown in the city and commuted together.  We were young, childless, and had more money than we knew what to do with.  As we rode to work together, we listened to books on tape.  One that we ended up loving, despite its place in the science fiction genre, was Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card. I am not usually drawn to science fiction, although I have read some, and what I’ve read I have usually enjoyed.  Dune was also an intriguing book in this genre.  Ender’s Game stands out as one of the best science fiction books I’ve had the pleasure of reading, along with its sequels. ender's game The tale is typically mythic with hints of the hero cycle throughout.  Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a young boy, the third in his family (a child unheard of, for most everybody has just two in this futuristic society), and he’s exceptionally gifted at strategy.  He is watched and tested by higher military officials and accepted into a space combat program.  This is a normal part of life, for the earth had been previously attacked by “buggers,” seeking water and to colonize the planet.  Humans had defeated the buggers, but were now preparing to defend themselves again if attacked.  They had become obsessed with being prepared. Ender seems to be the answer to a lot of the anxiety humans are feeling over the possibility of another bugger attack.  He’s smart, aware, gifted, and able to think about preventing future attacks.  The military officials see all of this through his interactions with bullies and his playing of video games mean to test him.  The rest of the book plays off of this, and we see Ender become highly trained and also highly successful.  However, the military’s definition of success isn’t necessarily Ender’s.

So a decade or so after reading this book, we watched the movie.  Our oldest daughter watched it with us, and while it was true to the book, it lacked something.  I can’t quite describe what, but it lacked what movies usually lack that books have. Perhaps it is engagement through imagination, descriptive detail, or the feeling of being immersed in the story.  Perhaps it is creative language, the inner thoughts of Ender, or the ability to completely understand the world we are expected to suspend our disbelief for in order to become involved in the plot.

As we watched, I kept telling Olivia that she could read the book. I kept reminding her that this was really a book and that the book was better.  I’m now determined to go to the library this week and get her a copy.  I have no doubt she’ll enjoy it, and I’ll feel better about having exposed her to it.  Our rule with Harry Potter has been that she must read the books first and then we’ll watch the movies.  I think this might be a rule for all such productions from now on.

What do you think?  Are books always better than their movie versions?  Are there any exceptions to this?

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92 thoughts on “Ender’s Game : A Prime Example of How Books Are Better Than Movies

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  1. I’d have to agree with you. In my experience, the book is ALWAYS better than the movie or TV movie, or whatever. I’ve done the same things with my own son, and my nephew regarding Harry Potter. Great post!

  2. Books carry more detail and definitely imagination. In the Enders Game movie, the action scenes were more important than the morality behind the story. The book focuses on Enders mental state more and is much more personal. Books can usually be better if only to make you think and to cause discussion.

    1. You have articulated a really important distinction between the two, that I had a hard time putting my finger on. Yes, thoughts versus action. Nice observation!

  3. Movies cannot match the imagination of the reader, nor can they provide the detail. The hero is personified to be more identifiable to the reader, just as the villains and, in my case, femme-fatales are envisioned more like the imagination of the reader. So, my Spenser detective will not look like Joe Montegna who played him in the TV movie. It is interesting when you see the movie first before the book, the character becomes the actor when you read.

  4. I agree with you that 9/10 times the books is better than the film … but I think the Hunger Games movies were arguably better than the books and so were the Twilight movies. Suzanne Collins told a great story, but she isn’t a great writer (she’s good don’t get me wrong, but not up to JK’s magic) and the Twilight books are just, well, bad, so the movies could only improve them. However, you’re right, when a book is incredible and moving and just perfect the movie will never live up to it and you can’t help but compare them!

    1. Yep, I can agree with you on Twilight for sure. I almost put that in my post, but I was embarrassed to admit that I really did like those movies. I guess the hopeless romantic in me likes corny movies rather than corny books. 🙂

  5. I think that’s a great rule. I might impose that in our house as well. Just think how much the vocabulary improves when you read a book vs watch a movie.

  6. I feel a little better now about having that rule around here (most of the time). So many times I have told them we couldn’t see a certain movie because we hadn’t read the book yet. In fact, it was the way I finally got my daughter to read The Giver. I had been trying to get her to read it for a while, because I knew she would love it, but I don’t think she trusted my opinion. When she saw that the movie was coming out, I told her she had to read the book first, so she did. And, she went on to read the three books that came after it. I was happy. 🙂

    BTW, you’ve made me want to read Ender’s Game.

  7. I agree. I did not like the movie much at all. Although, I do think that there are some movies that do end up better than the book. However, those are usually books that don’t have as much depth and character development. I guess the books with more emotion and depth of character don’t translate so well. It’s hard to capture thoughts on screen.

  8. I’m so glad you reviewed and liked it! I bought the set for my son last year but he hasn’t gotten to it yet (still reading Harry Potter). Then I read a review that some of the themes may be difficult for a child? But if you are getting it for your daughter (who is close to my son in age, I think) then it is safe to assume that it has your approval for her age. I’ll definitely remind my son about Ender’s Game as soon as he’s done with Harry Potter.

    I think that books are better than movies in most cases because there is so much that cannot be conveyed visually, though I agree with one of the posters above about Hunger Games. Hunger Games is good on the big screen, and they did a good job of adapting the book.

    1. I liked how they adapted The Hunger Games as well. And now that I think about it, I am not sure what age would be right for Ender’s Game. I think the tough themes have to do with the violence, killing, and war, which Ender is upset about once he realizes what is really going on. However, that is the beauty of the book, that he is ashamed of what he did and works to resolve the conflict peacefully. There is a good lesson in it. Maybe I’ll look up on some other sites about age-appropriateness though. Good thinking!

  9. I think there is a power to spending an extended period of time reading a story, as opposed to a couple of hours in a movie theatre. The mere act of reading means the story is much more internalized. It kind of sinks into you and you own it. Even if you read the story to someone or it is read to you, you are still in the company of the story for a long time, developing a character’s appearance, the way the scenes look, etc. It is exclusively your vision, and one you can share and even compare/contrast with others who have read the same book.

    In contrast, with a film everyone experiences the film maker’s vision and nothing else. The experience happens quickly and you step out of the theatre and go on with your life. There is no opportunity to reflect and contemplate over time. In many instances, the story in a film is also completely overwhelmed by the visuals, which can leave almost no room for contemplation either in the moment or later.

    Seriously, how many people (of any age) walk out of a Harry Potter film and discuss the metaphorical aspects of the story rather than the visuals??

    1. We should conduct a study on your Harry Potter question! I love what you are saying about investing time and therefore more thought into a book. That alone should cause us to recognize, as you say, the metaphors and how we can apply the themes to our own lives. I have done that with movies, but yes, books are wonderful for that!

  10. I think books have that magic of taking you to a ride through your own imagination, books let you built up every detail in your mind, and allow you to get involve and empathized with a character. So, in my opinion, books are better than movies.

  11. I’ve heard that Stardust by Neil Gaiman is better as a movie than as a book, but it’s still on my to-read list, so I can’t confirm or deny 🙂

    I think occasionally, the movie gets adapted into something else entirely from the book, and the movie ends up working pretty well by itself. Notably, The Princess Bride feels very different from the book even though the storylines are the same, and the book includes a lot of endearing detail, like how Fezzik tucks his thumbs into his fists when his dad tries to teach him how to fight. I still can’t put my finger on what that difference is or why I love both equally.

    Forrest Gump is the same way – the book has a lot of differences (like how Forrest becomes a wrestler called The Dunce, and wrestles a guy who goes by The Turd) but for some reason the movie has a different feel and its own charm.

    1. Awesome examples! I love the book and movie versions of The Princess Bride equally as well, but yes, they are different. Both have something special. I haven’t read Forrest Gump, but I’ll take your word for it. 🙂

  12. I loved reading Ender’s Game and was disappointed (as expected) with the film. I agree that it lacked something. Like you said, I think a lot of that was the way the book accesses Ender’s thoughts which the film did not pursue. But I don’t think books are better than movies as a rule. We see so many bad adaptations of great books that we are quick to think movies are always cheap, money-grabbing ripoffs of our beloved books. And there are many examples. But there are many examples of great movies being adapted from bad books. A movie that takes an idea from a book and expands it to something greater than the book alone demonstrated. It’s easy for us to think of great books with bad movie versions. But when a great movie comes out we don’t always check to see if it was an adaptation. It’s a problem of bias. There are great books and great movies and each brings something different to the table.

    1. Yes, this is a great point and a nuanced, well-written argument for the value of both books and movies. Thanks for bringing some evenhanded comments into the conversation, because as a book lover, I tend to give my knee-jerk reaction. 😉

      1. Thank you for the kind words but I don’t know how evenhanded I am with my comments. My movie-lover side definitely gives some knee-jerks. I wrote about this topic in a post a few months ago and in my (admittedly biased) research I found that four of the last seven Academy Award winners for Best Picture are book adaptations including 12 Years a Slave (2013), Argo (2012), No Country for Old Men (2008), and Slumdog Millionaire (2007). Also, The Departed, the 2006 winner, was adapted from the film Internal Affairs (so it’s a movie adaptation of a movie). Obviously, just because a movie wins awards doesn’t mean that the movie “beats” the book but movie adaptations can be done well, very well sometimes.

        1. That is so cool. I had no idea that some of those movies were books first. I guess that promotes the argument that movies might help such narratives to get more exposure and more people will be reached. I think I might want to read 12 Years a Slave. Now I wish I had read it first!

          1. Well 12 Years a Slave is a weird example because the book was written back in 1853. Which is very different from the way YA books are adapted today, sometimes even before the source book series is finished.

  13. I am a lover of sci-fi and have Ender’s Game on my shelf now. I have no interest in the movie though because it received such negative reviews. Generally, I prefer books to movies because my imagination can really go wild. Also, I like your rule about reading the book before watching the movie. I find when I watch the movie first, the characters get fixed in my head as what filmmakers and actors wanted to portray, which may not necessarily be how I would have imagined the character upon reading.

      1. Some of my favorite sci-fi books are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (or any Philip K. Dick, really). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is also good, but a bit hard to get into at first. My most recent favorite is Ready Player One; it is sci-fi/dystopian/adventure fiction, with a target audience of gamers and 80s nostagics. I think it was enjoyable for me because there are quite a few references to the 80s and 90s video games I grew up playing with my brothers. A fun and sweet adventure story, which is also being made into a movie. I’ll have to wait and see if it lives up to the book. I will definitely read Ender’s Game this summer!

  14. I loved Ender’s Game the book! I have not yet braved the movie for fears it will undo my literary vision. I also don’t usually seek out Sci-Fi but Ender’s Game was a marvelous and engaging read.

    The only notable exception that I can think of off the top of my head where the movie exceeds the book is The Green Mile. I’m currently curious to see if The Fault In Our Stars movie is any good because despite it’s rave reviews I didn’t like the book very much. I’m hoping the movie is better in this case as well.

    1. Yes, it was a great read, even for those of us who aren’t drawn to science fiction. I didn’t read The Fault in Our Stars. It seems more for teens, not that that prevents us from reading it, but I just don’t think I’ll like it. Maybe I’ll see the movie…

  15. While I agree with your premise that, in general, the book exceeds the movie, I suspect that the intervening years may have led to a better opinion of the book than you would have now. I also listened to that same (old) audio version, which was very well done, while on a cross-country road trip with my son. We enjoyed it, but on rereading the original and in reading the sequels, both he and I have been disappointed. Now that O.S. Card has gone off the rails, it is even harder to appreciate these stories in isolation. Don’t be surprised if your daughter doesn’t share your enthusiasm for the book.

    I would add “The Shawshank Redemption” to the list of movies that exceed the book/short story. It seems that Stephen King has a penchant for this.

    An excellent post and interesting discussion.

    1. You might be right. It is easy to romanticize books so many years later, and as a young woman then, I probably wasn’t as critical about my reading choices as I am now. Thanks for the warning! And yes, The Shawshank Redemption is another exception. Loved that movie!

  16. The only exception to the book-is-better rule that comes to mind is Lord of the Rings. Pretty nearly equal, I’d say. Card hasn’t gone off the rails, as a poster said. He just got in the way of the Gay Power steamroller that aims to end the careers of those who don’t embrace their agenda with sufficient fervor.

  17. My husband had never read Ender’s Game when it came out as a movie – though I have a copy on the bookshelf in our bedroom. He asked me to sum it up for him, and then we watched. Neither one of us was entirely happy with the movie – but it inspired him to pick up the book. I’d say that’s a good reason to make the movie!

    In general I always prefer the book – I really get into fiction, reading, re-reading and building universes along with the author. But I’ve grown to realize that not everyone relates to books that way. For them, the enjoyment of the plot, character and scene is actually enhanced by the movie. As long as the author is getting his or her due – I say let’s make some movies and show non-readers what they’ve been missing!

    1. I love that this movie inspired him to pick up the book! That is a wonderful argument for seeing the movie first and for the value movie-versions of books have. And I can’t argue with the idea that movies can enhance the experience, for readers and non-readers alike. I enjoy seeing movie versions for sure! Thanks for the comment.

  18. I had a similar experience with my husband. He had never read the books before watching the movie but I had read the 3 books back in high school and loved it. He liked the movie but I didn’t. It did feel like something was missing.

    Books are not always better than movies, but they are most of the time, in my experience. Books have details that movies lack because of time constraints and also maybe sometimes directors may feel that certain things won’t work well on screen. Plus moviemakers force their views and interpretation of the book through their movie and their interpretation may not necessarily be similar to ours, which leads us to dislike movie versions.

    1. I agree. We get so invested in a book through our own brains that it is hard to switch over to what the director decided to envision and to cut. Your comment made me think of The Hobbit movies, which I think are doing a mighty fine job of not cutting details, but then we have three of them instead of one!

        1. Yeah, we just finished the second movie, and my husband was like, “What?!?” He couldn’t believe it didn’t end. I had to confirm several times that, yes, there is a THIRD movie! Are they adding details to the movie? That’s rare. 🙂

            1. Yes, Jackson is definitely adding lots and lots and lots to The Hobbit story. So much that I can barely tell it’s the same story. There are characters with major roles and story lines that aren’t in any Tolkien books that I’m aware of. I’m disappointed that these movies don’t tell a true The Hobbit story but I do like them anyway. They are fun in and of themselves but nothing like The Hobbit book.

  19. You’re so right — I won’t watch the Ender’s Game movie. As for movies that are better than the books they’re based on: Last of the Mohicans (the Michael Mann version), by a mile.

        1. Hi, my name is Charles, and I enjoyed “Last of The Mohicans.”

          Really: Uncas and all that noble savage stuff, fatherly Chingachgook, and that bastard Magua–oh, it was fun to hate that guy. And a hero named Natty Bumppo? If some writer did this story today Hawkeye’s real name would be “Clint Storm” or some such b.s. Bold choice. Now, I’m joking a little, but the thing I dug about Cooper’s book was the way he channeled the big wilderness that was New York at the time–wild, magnificent. I still recall reading this in the summer before 9th grade, and noticing that it was the first novel I’d ever read in which nature and the landscape played an integral part in the narrative. I’ll still take the badge, though, even if I don’t think it’s necessary.

          1. I’m glad to hear that somebody liked it! Have you read Mark Twain’s essay poking fun at Cooper’s “Literary Offenses”? You might get a kick out of that. And if you like landscapes as characters, you’ll love Hardy’s The Return of the Native. You’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t, do. 🙂

  20. I’d say there are rare exceptions where the film is better than the book. Fight Club definitely fits into that category, if I recall correctly, even Chuck Palahniuk said that he felt that the film conveyed the story far more effectively.

    In general though I totally agree, it’s rare that I find a film I liked more than the book. More often I find that I feel they’ve both got their good points, and the film may do some things better, but overall the novel tends to be the winner.

  21. No matter how great the special effects and the how big the budget, movies can never really compare to the books they are based on. Perhaps it gas something to do with the fact that everyone has thrust own mental images of characters, scenes, etc in a book and film maker can’t possibly stay true to the imagination of everyone who has ever read the book. So there will always be fans who are disappointed by the movie version of their favourite book because it just doesn’t agree with the image of it they have in their head.

  22. I always try to read the book before seeing the movie, of course, so the actors’ faces don’t get in the way of my mind’s eye, but I enjoyed watching “A Good Year” (the adaptation of the Peter Mayle book; I think it was intended to convince us, after that phone-throwing episode in an NYC hotel, that Russell Crowe is really a nice guy…)

    I enjoyed the movie, a perfect, light-hearted summer film, and went out and found the book. And I actually was disappointed in the book.

    Hey,it ain’t film noir, but the film’s fun and light and nicely together…the book rambled and veered.

    But in every other case I can think of, the book version exceeds the movie, by far.
    Great discussion!

      1. If you love darkies, the book is for you. Some people hate it. The movie. The movie changed my life. No, not really. But it’s awesome. I felt a little man-crush on Brad Pitt after watching it.

        1. I’ve heard a lot of people say similar things about this book/movie. I guess it is THAT good! And yes, I do like dark films/movies. Depressing books are a favorite of mine.

  23. I think that’s a great rule to have your daughter read the book first before seeing the movie. When my daughters are old enough, I might try that.

    I usually prefer the book over the movie, but the one case where I thought the movie was much, much better than the book is Fight Club. Great movie. I saw the movie before reading the book so I wonder how that influenced my preference but I think the movie is better. I’ve also listened to the audio commentary to the movie that included the author and it seemed like the author and the movie makers were on the same wavelength and really got each other so I’m sure that helped the movie.

    1. That’s a funny one for me, because I read the book, but I honestly can’t remember anything about it. If I ever revisit that story, it will definitely be through the movie!

  24. I do agree that the books tend to be better however still often find much enjoyment out of the movies. With Enders game I saw the movie before reading the book. I still haven’t read it and am quite excited to do so as everyone says it’s better

  25. I really need to read Ender’s Game again, not sure what it was, but… I thought it was just alright (I know! I’m sorry, but it’s the honest truth, maybe I just wasn’t ready for it back then, when I read it), I feel like an illiterate idiot not capable of appreciating a nice piece of writing, when I hear people rave about how good Ender’s Game was.

    Anyway, I just wanted to comment on the argument “books are better than movies”.

    Here’s my two cents… They’re two different media, and I do tend to treat adaptions as their own entity (based on novels or whatever they may be based on) as films and novels have their own set of rules of story telling.

    The strength of films and novels lay in different areas, a story told in words versus a story told in visual cues (and yes, it’s much more complicated than that, but can’t write a whole essay here lol), so it takes an immense amount of skill and perspective to navigate the treacherous sea of adaptation games and in the end… The adaptation has to become a story sometimes told quite differently than in the source material, it needs to be changed to suit the storytelling means of the chosen medium, in this case a movie, for things to simply work on screen, hence the name adaptation.

    So I feel at times adaptations are not given a fair chance and get compared to the source material more often than necessary. That’s not to say there aren’t bad adaptations of novels roaming the movie theaters, lol. I ask myself this while watching an adaptation: Is this a good movie? Could this adaptation even be a film?

    I saw the movie version of Ender’s Game as well, but I can’t comment on it really… I should read the book again to see what the heck I missed the first time around.

    Have a good weekend all!

    1. You probably didn’t miss anything with Ender’s Game. Maybe you have better taste than the rest of us! And I love what you’re saying about films being adaptations, and that they can’t quite be compared to the book because of that. I hadn’t thought of it. I am always scrutinizing movies to how closely they follow the book, and that’s probably the wrong approach. And yes, you could write a whole essay about this. I loved reading your summary of that essay. 🙂

  26. Eragon. The book was horrifically unreadable, but the movie was only abysmally unwatchable. Seriously, the depth of a novel will always trump the breadth of a movie. Of course, I liked Life of Pi better as a movie–it was visually stunning and only took up two hours of my time, whereas I gave up an entire week of evenings to the book only to suffer through a “surprise” ending that anyone could see coming. I like to think of books and the films based on them as wholly different works. The Lord of the Rings movies, for example, were criticized by book fans for the many liberties taken with the script, but despite all that, those movies came closer to my how my imagination rendered the books than I’d ever thought possible. The Hobbit films, on the other hand, have so much added content that the texture of the original story is lost. As a writer, I wouldn’t give two damns about a screenplay based on my fiction, once I was paid. The way I look at it, a movie based on a book is like two different trips to the same vacation resort. Sometimes it rains.

    1. Nice analogy. It is like two different vacations, which is exactly why I love reading and watching the same story. You have explained exactly why they are both lots of fun. I haven’t read or watched Eragon. I think I’ll pass, given your description of it!

  27. This is quite a timely post for me because I have been thinking about this issue and wrote a blog post about it if you’d like to read further about my thoughts on the subject.

    http://thenovelprojectchronicles.com/?p=27

    What gets me is that sometimes movies based on books can be excellent – e.g. atonement, we need to talk about kevin etc – even books that I would have previously claimed to be un-filmable.

    What I’ve started to believe is that it is a directorial skill in itself to be able to take a great book and turn it into a great movie that honours the brilliance of the book itself.

    This is why, I think, we can occasionally get mediocre books that become great movies (The Godfather and Primal Fear I’m looking at you).

    1. I love what you are saying about a director’s part in this, and how sometimes they can make books that seem too hard to make into films become wonderful films. I agree with your example of Atonement. A great book and a great movie.

  28. I think that books are almost always better than the movie. As you know, I’m a Jane Austen fan and so often, the film and television adaptations do not even come close to representing the complexity and fine art of her novels. Of course, some sacrifices have to be made when books are adapted for the screen and I have seen adaptations of classic novels which are very faithful to the book, e.g. the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. But I would always prefer to read the book before I see the movie.

    I think your Harry Potter rule is very sensible. I loved reading the series when I was growing up. I remember the anticipation of waiting for the next book to be released, then the joy of collecting it from the book store and curling up to devour it almost in one sitting. 🙂 They are such great books and Rowling is an amazing story-teller. I recently finished the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, in her series of crime novels. I hardly ever read crime but I made an exception just because she had written it, and I really enjoyed it. I look forward to reading The Silkworm soon.

    1. Your example of Jane Austen books and films is a great one for making the point that books are often better representations of the story. As to Rowling’s new books, I couldn’t get through The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I read an intriguing review of The Silkworm that made me want to try to appreciate those characters again.

  29. This is an interesting question. I missed this post when it came out but saw the link to it on Carolyn’s page. Although I usually prefer the novel version, I know I have seen movies that are better than the novels. The only one I can think of right now is Dr. Zhivago. I tried rereading that a few years ago to see if I could have possibly changed my mind, but I had not. Although I am a fan of Russian literature, it is too turgid for words, but the movie is magnificent!

  30. I definitely, definitely agree with you. I always feel sorry for people who have watched the Harry potter films but not read the books. They are missing out on so much detail.

    I recently read The Silver Linings Playbook and thought it was a lot better than the film, which is saying something, because I really liked the film too.

    My husband laughs at me though as I’m always ranting at him about poor adaptations. The absolute worst is Captain Correllis Mandolin, although Hannibal brings me out in a rage too.

    1. Corelli’s Mandolin is definitely an example of a horrible adaptation! I had forgotten about that one. And yes, those who only watched Harry Potter missed out. Thanks for commenting.

  31. Great post. As a screenwriter and having written adaptations on commission, I think it comes down to what you’re comparing. Books and movies work in such different ways that it’s highly unlikely that a story that works in one medium will be equally good in another. It’s no more likely than a movie adaptation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or a novel adapted from a Van Gogh.

    Try reading the novel that Psycho was based on to see how much worse a novel can be than a movie! It’s almost identical except for five or six small changes – but those changes make all the difference.

    For example, Norman Bates, in the book, is middle-aged and dumpy, a cliche of a character. In the movie, he’s attractive and vulnerable (he’s Anthony Perkins!) and that changes everything.

    1. Great insights. You are so right that they are different mediums. Perhaps it is unfair to compare them, but it is hard not to when they come from the same place. Thanks for joining this conversation!

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