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Why We Never Got To See An Ender's Game Sequel

Over 10 years ago, Gavin Hood's ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine") ambitious political science-fiction blockbuster "Ender's Game" crashed into theaters, decisively bombing at the box office after earning a paltry $125 million (against a sizable production budget of $110 million). Despite failing commercially and drawing polarized reviews from the critical community at the time, some have categorized the film as a cult classic in recent years.

It's easy to see why even a middling adaptation of Orson Scott Card's acclaimed novel would entertain. The story — which follows a young child named Ender (a teenage Asa Butterfield) as he struggles to hone the vicious military principles taught to him while maintaining his own sense of morality — fundamentally asks interesting philosophical questions about imperial warfare, human emotion, and legacy. Even if one reasonably disagrees with the conclusions it draws, the ideas it presents are engaging enough to pass.

Both the film and the novel end on a devastating yet distantly hopeful note that would appear ripe for sequel opportunity. And yet, chances of a direct sequel seem astronomical as of writing for a host of intractable variables — from an ill-fated planned sequel to the fact that the story's author remains mired in controversy.

Ender's Game bombed at the box office

Hollywood is a business, and people tend to forget that at times. Studio executives would love to make whatever movies they want, but they have to make sure they'll make their money back ... and then some. So when "Ender's Game" grossed a mere $125.5 million worldwide against a production budget of $110 million, that showed Lionsgate that audiences weren't willing to put up with an "Ender's Game" franchise. Variety even called it one of the biggest box office bombs of the year. That's partially why the studio canceled any plans to complete the series.

There are countless reasons why a movie would flop at the box office — bad casting, marketing, tired story, etc. But for this particular film, Orson Scott Card's opposition to homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage led several people, especially those who were on the fence about seeing "Ender's Game," to boycott the movie altogether. We don't know how much of an impact the boycott had on the movie's box office take, but there's no denying that in a politically charged climate, any negative press against a film like "Ender's Game" couldn't have helped.

There were budget constraints

Budget constraints are an ordinary occurrence in Hollywood, but it's rarely a good thing when it happens. For instance, 20th Century Fox kept the budget low for James Mangold's "Logan" because the director and Hugh Jackman wanted the film to be rated R. While that ended up working in their favor, a studio usually constrains a movie's budget if it doesn't seem like the film will be as successful as initially hoped. That rings true for the would-be "Ender's Game" sequel.

The first movie had a production budget of $110 million, a fairly typical amount for a sci-fi flick, but the sequel might have seen that number dip below the $100 million mark. Gavin Hood originally wanted to film the first and second movies back to back, but Lionsgate wasn't up for that much of a gamble. "It's a pity on many levels because that cast was all there, the sets were all there, we should've shot the two movies back-to-back," Hood told Hypable. Lionsgate's stock getting downgraded ahead of the first movie's release surely couldn't have helped Hood's ambitions for a sequel.

Young adult novels are a tired trend

Before superhero movies fully took over Hollywood, each studio was attempting to launch its own young adult franchise in the vein of "Harry Potter" and "The Hunger Games." Some were successful, but most weren't. If they'd adhered to the source material more closely or didn't cut scenes and alter various subplots of the stories, they may have had more luck. At this point, young adult adaptations are a tired trend that audiences no longer seem interested in paying for. 

Most of the top-grossing young adult adaptations so far have come from three franchises: "Twilight," "Harry Potter," and "The Hunger Games." Other YA franchises did moderately well, but none were as overwhelmingly successful as those three. Young adult adaptations can succeed if budgets are kept low and the movies are marketed properly. Unfortunately, every studio wants to believe they're sitting on a gold mine, so they go full-steam ahead with the first installment, which leaves little room for expansion in the sequel.

The studio is considering a TV spinoff instead

There are several novels in the "Ender's Game" series and even more in the "Shadow" and "Formic Wars" series. Just like with "Harry Potter," an argument can be made that the franchise could work better as a television show instead of a feature-film franchise. Whether that's true for "Harry Potter" or not is something that remains to be seen, but it would make sense for "Ender's Game." The first two novels in the series unfold over a few years, which would allow audiences to see Ender Wiggin go through school and eventually fight the Formics.

Shortly after the movie was released in theaters, Variety reported that the studio was pondering a TV spinoff instead of a sequel. Since there were issues getting the necessary money for the first movie and it didn't do so well at the box office, it makes sense for the studio to look at other options. Unfortunately, there haven't been any updates on the TV front since that report in 2013, so who knows if it'll even happen.

The planned sequel would retread old ground

As early as the planning stages of "Ender's Game," director Gavin Hood actually had a clear idea for a sequel in mind. He originally pushed to film two movies simultaneously — one being "Ender's Game," and the other being "Ender's Shadow," an interquel that takes place during the events of the original story. Instead of being told from Ender's perspective, however, it's told from the perspective of young Bean (played by Amaris Knight in the film). Hood recalled to Hypable (with seeming levity) that he was essentially told to "shut the f*** up" by Lionsgate concerning this request, as he barely secured enough of a budget to make one film, much less two at once. As Knight later told the same outlet, Hood had even begun writing the script.

But — like other "Ender's Game" sequel novels — "Ender's Shadow" works better in concept as a novel than it ever would as a film. Even though there are some reveals about Bean's true role in the events of "Ender's Game," the story's purpose as a recontextualization of the previous story emphasizes psychology above plot. As engaging as this might be to read, taking this approach to a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster could potentially alienate casual fans, which would in turn make the prospect of this interquel commercially unattractive for producers.

The actors are too old for their roles (and perhaps too famous)

Even ignoring the issues of revisiting the exact same story, the most glaring problem with an "Ender's Shadow" adaptation is the fact the entire cast has completely aged out of their respective roles. Over a decade has passed since "Ender's Game" was released in theaters, and Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, and Aramis Knight are simply too old to believably play pre-teens (even if "Sex Education" somewhat miraculously proved that Butterfield can still pass as a highschooler, at least in earlier seasons).

Even if Lionsgate and the cast were to consider a sequel, could the studio afford it? Hood made no secret about having difficulties obtaining enough money for "Ender's Game," as well as having his idea for filming "Ender's Game" and "Ender's Shadow" shot down. If he was having trouble getting $110 million in 2013, he's not going to be able to get enough money now. This is especially true considering Butterfield and Steinfeld's exploding star power, with Steinfeld specifically benefitting from multiple successful franchise outings (thanks to "Bumblebee," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," and the "Hawkeye" series, she was the second-most-popular female actor in 2021).

Then there's the adult cast, which includes A-listers like Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis. Getting this group together with Steinfeld, Knight, and Butterfield would be a feat of Hollywood scheduling magic, and would likely require more money than Lionsgate would be willing to cough up.

The ending of the Ender's Game film doesn't set up its other sequel story

Both the book and the film adaptation of "Ender's Game" end the same way. Having successfully completed his final "test," the titular character is horrified to learn that he was not participating in a mere simulation, but an actual battle. His decisive and devastatingly effective military action results in the xenocide of the Formic species and the destruction of their home planet. In both versions, he is ultimately entrusted with the last Formic Queen egg, thus taking on the responsibility of ensuring their future. Only in the book, however, does Ender's career take a surprising but fateful detour.

In the original story, a guilt-ridden Ender chronicles the death of the Formic species in a book titled "The Hive Queen," which he writes and publishes anonymously under the alias "Speaker for the Dead." After his dying brother discovers Ender as the true author and commissions his own unflinchingly candid biography, a new tradition is born in which a "Speaker" eulogizes the deceased in a nearly identical manner.

This sets up the central conceit for the sequel novel "Speaker for the Dead," which sees Ender unravel a complex mystery as he prepares for this new sort of traditional funeral. As author Orson Scott Card noted in an introduction to "Ender's Game," "Speaker for the Dead" was originally the story he wanted to write about, and only began developing "Ender's Game" as a means to establish the characters and concepts necessary to write it.

Orson Scott Card has called Speaker for the Dead unfilmable and unwatchable

Given the astoundingly bleak ending of "Ender's Game," it's unlikely to shock readers that "Speaker for the Dead" is just as horrifying at points. According to Orson Scott Card, the sequel is even darker and more violent — so much so that he has gone on record protesting its adaptation into a feature film.

During a question-and-answer panel at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in 2013, Card said he couldn't imagine anyone making "Speaker for the Dead" into a movie, describing it as "unfilmable" before explicitly stating, "I don't want it to be filmed." He explained his protestations by pointing out the novel's distinctly un-cinematic structure and gruesome violence. "It consists of talking heads, interrupted by moments of excruciating and unwatchable violence," he stated. "Now, I admit, there's plenty of unwatchable violence in film, but never attached to my name."

Production company Chartoff Productions acquired the film rights for "Ender's Game" from Card back in 1996 for a tidy $1.5 million. It's unknown if this deal was only for the first book or the entire series — or if any rights acquired have since, through some legal clause, reverted to Card. In any case, if the rights for "Speaker for the Dead" weren't bundled with the original purchase of "Ender's Game," Card's severe hesitations could spell trouble for any future negotiating.

Card is toxic to the series' potential

Legal logistics aside, it would ironically benefit the potential adaptation somewhat if an "Ender's Game" sequel were made against Orson Scott Card's wishes, given that his public persona is so toxic that it arguably hindered the box office potential of the "Ender's Game" movie. Ahead of its release, activists called for a boycott of the film, and there were even picket lines outside some screenings. This was in response to Card's outspoken views on homosexuality and gay marriage, which — to put it delicately — are way less forward-thinking than his novels.

Card, often citing his devotion to Christianity, used his pen to outline in great detail his disgust with the LGBTQ+ community and wrote extensively in support of American legislation to deny them the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples. His stances include (but are by no means limited to) the beliefs that children should be protected from "anti-religious" rhetoric in schools, that marriage should be constitutionally defined in heteronormative terms, and that the U.S. government should be overthrown if gay marriage were legalized.

All of these stances have been criticized so frequently that Card's name will undoubtedly remain synonymous with homophobia and hateful rhetoric for the foreseeable future. If a sequel to "Ender's Game" were made, the fact that Card would benefit financially would likely elicit the same public outcry that another infamously and prolifically anti-LGBTQ+ writer drew — and an "Ender's Game" sequel doesn't have the same mitigating pull that a return to the "Wizarding World" does.