The Ender's Game Movie Is Secretly a Defense of Millennials

The beloved book's children-versus-adults premise takes on new relevance in film, where it dispels notions that youth today are entitled, technology-dependent narcissists. 

Summit Entertainment

Ender’s Game has always been about generational conflict: An international military organization takes gifted young children and trains them in a totalitarian environment in order to prepare them for the invasion of an alien species. Strip away its visions of a gamified zero-gravity future and sci-fi invasions, and Orson Scott Card’s 1985 book tells a quintessential children vs. adults-who-are-jerks-and-just-don’t-get-us narrative. Or, as Ender puts it in the film: “Why should I respect someone just because they outrank me?”

The book has reached canonical status in part because that theme becomes newly relevant for each wave of children who come across it. That same cyclical renewal applies to generational discord in our non-fictional world. Older generations trying to control a younger one that wants to reject the status quo is nothing particularly new.

But when viewed through the prism of the contemporary, general themes can become specific and topical ones. That’s why writer-director Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game adaptation feels like it’s not just children vs. adults—it’s Millennial vs. Baby Boomers.

A stigma, most recently exemplified by Joel Stein’s controversial Time magazine cover story “The Me Me Me Generation,” has developed around the group of people born approximately between 1980 and 2000. They’re hounded by the perception that they are “lazy, entitled narcissists,” financial drains on their parents, and exhibitive of unjustified confidence and unorthodox thinking that makes them affronts to Boomer models of career paths and workplaces. Even Millennials virtues that have the potential to “save us all” (as Stein put it)—like their tech prowess—are frequently treated as problems that need solving.

You can see a similar attitude in the adult characters in the Ender’s Game film, most notably Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). Graff speaks of Ender (Asa Butterfield) and his peers as “the world’s smartest children [who] are our best hope,” conceding his generation needs “young men like [Ender], people who handle complexity better than adults.” Nonetheless, he still views the children as incapable of realizing their own potential without his assistance. Every step of the way Ender is managed and supervised, his gifts steered and conformed solely in a direction that benefits Gaff’s purposes.

It is, in a sense, a Boomer fantasy: The youth succeed directly because their elders facilitate it. Or, to put it in more direct terms: Millennials can only save us all if their elders save Millennials from themselves first. Google the generation and you’ll see that fantasy spread out over pages of articles (with titles like “Here’s How to Deal with Millennials Who Aren’t Ready to Face Real Challenges”) advising Boomers what Generation Y is doing wrong, and how they can be fixed, helped, or controlled—as workers, consumers and people.  These authors—like Graff in Ender’s Game—believe the world’s potential saviors can only excel under tight Boomer control.

That’s a scenario Millennials understandably bristle against. So the conflict between Ender and the adults who manipulate and betray him in Ender’s Game should resonate easily for them. Members of “The Screwed Generation” (as Newsweek named them) frequently feel as The New Republic put it: Boomers betrayed Millennials’ futures by “bequeathing [them] a society more ‘in debt’ than ever before … ecologically, financially, politically, culturally.” There’s certainly that sense in the film’s narrative: Ender faces a hopeless world on the brink as a result of the actions of his elders. Graff may talk casually about wanting to provoke “frustration” and “rejection” in Ender, but the child doesn’t need to be made to feel that way. He already does. As do Millennials who are facing bleak job prospects, financial uncertainty, and the negative stereotypes they are contending with.

Ender resembles Millennials in other ways, too. He is innately comfortable with tech gadgetry. He is perpetually connected to and through digital devices. He sees email as an inalienable right (the film calling it email, which the book doesn’t, is a telling contemporary update), fills downtime with games on a tablet synched to his subconscious, “hacks” computer consoles to send text messages to fellow students during class, and learns best through video not reading. He—to paraphrase a Toronto Star article—not only thinks outside the box, he doesn’t even know there is a box, and demonstrates a leadership style that (even more so than in the novel) supports free-flowing brainstorming without hierarchical boundaries.

What makes Ender’s Game a true Millennial story is that it sees these as valuable attributes. Boomers tend to represent Gen Y’s virtues simultaneously as faults (Millennials are great at tech! Millennials are narcissistic and distracted workers because of tech!) but the film understands the impulses behind them. Technology is presented not as an indulgence, but a highly useful tool Ender wields to achieve productive results and self-exploration—not narcissism. When Ender feels outraged that Graff revokes his email privileges, the movie presents the hero’s anger not as lost entitled access to technology. He’s upset that he’s lost what he uses the technology for: meaningfully connecting with people he cares about.

Millennials will likely be happy with the portrayal. They, after all, played a major part in propelling Ender’s Game to its canonical status. This adaptation honors the text they grew up with while heightening the generational conflicts in it, going even rougher on the adults. Graff is presented with less remorse and doubts than his novel counterpart, and Sergeant Dap is not the motherly figure described in the book. He is used primarily to accentuate one moment, when Ender tells Dap that one day he’ll be his commander, and Dap will have to salute him—which eventually happens. In that instance, the fantasy fulfillment the film offers is unmistakably a Millennial's.

Same goes for the thrill of seeing the young children excel together in the Battle Room. Here, the adaptation tones down both the child-on-child violence Ender is forced into as well as its consequences. What’s more, Petra, Bernard, and Bean are all made friendlier, creating a version of Ender’s Game that accentuates the importance of same-age cooperation, of the value of the younger generation helping its own members—because the adults won’t.

All these elements contribute to the sense that the film is on Millennials’ side, and tweaked Card’s text to that end. In that way, it offers a refreshing, empathetic, entertaining counter to the articles about the problems with Generation Y. Whereas previously readers have deeply understood the hero of the Ender’s Game novel, it’s now Ender’s Game that understands them.