Starship Troopers

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (Putnam, 1959)
Paul Verhoeven (director): Starship Troopers (TriStar, 1997)

The trouble with movies is that they fit only a short story. You can make a terrific movie out of a short story, but I have never seen a movie made of a novel that was at the same time good and faithful – most movies made of books fail in both.

The novel Starship Troopers chronicles the evolution of a high-school kid into a mobile infantry officer in a world which had seen modern democracies fail and be replaced by a veterans’ rule (veterans of also noncombat and civilian service, not just military) – Juan Rico gets in just to impress a girl, and maybe to get to vote some day, goes through boot camp, makes combat drops from orbit as a private and then as a NCO, gets opted for officer training and by the end of the book is a competent officer, helping his old drill sergeant who had found the prize. Along the way we get political sermons (now I know where John Ringo got his tendency to have characters lecture on politics!), some interesting characters and just a hint of romance.

The movie paints in broad strokes and primary colors. The first half of it is in fact a fairly decent redesign of the book as a movie, though I did not like at all how much in the face the romance (and two interconnected love triangles!) was played. Johnnie Rico gets in to impress a girl, goes through boot camp, makes some combat drops – And then it transforms into a horror movie (and loses any resemblance with the book). They make a combat drop, Lieutenant Rico drops his mission and goes rescue his girlfriend (the two triangles having been – eliminated by now) and totally misses his old drill sergeant finding the prize. Allegedly, the director never finished reading the book. Well, it shows. In the book, Rico would have been hanged by the neck until dead, dead, dead well before the end of the movie just for striking a superior officer; in the movie, everybody just shrugs it off.

The book is an enjoyable military story, the founding father of a subgenre consisting of lots of newer books; the movie is just silly.

If you have seen the movie, read the book. Don’t bother the other way around.

19 thoughts on “Starship Troopers

  1. I haven’t read the book yet, but I have seen the movie.. So, I think I have to find that book somewhere.. I didn’t even know that there was a book, until now. Thanks <3

  2. > the movie is just silly.

    Fascism meets cheesy teen schoolkid soap meets vicious aliens from outer space. It’s a subversive, one of a kind, black comedy. A work of genius.

  3. I suppose there might be some point in seeing the movie without having read the book, after all :)

    Though I woulsn’t call it fascism, despite the imagery, and the militarism. Fascist politics is quite different.

  4. Well, I think that fans of any book that has been made into a move need to set appropriate expectation about what is going to happen. It is rare that authors get to have much influence in the production of a film, in which many people are expresses their own creative agendas.

    I think the film stands on its own merits, ultimately it is only weakly related to the book and really acts as a vehicle for Verhoevens commentary on facism. Listening to his commentary on the dvd spells it out in capital letters.

    See the film, read the book. Enjoy them both. Think about what messages they are trying to convey.

  5. I wasn’t planning to make this review one more “see how they ruined the book in the film” lament, but I see I failed.

    The Finnish cover text for the DVD said it well “– has been influenced by novels written by the sf giant Robert A. Heinlein”. I was really looking for how they were going to handle the Roughnecks lieutenant and the drill sergeant; I was sadly disappointed in that they took away everything that was good about those relationships.

    Still, I was planning a favorable review of the movie until about halfway in – it lost most credibility for me at the fight scene. When you use flogging to punish boot camp mistakes, are you really going to shrug off a direct challenge of the rank system at wartime?

    It would have been better if it had been a standalone film, not tied by name and reputation to the book.

  6. A thing I forgot to mention: both of these works are new to me. I’ve been reading Heinlein recently, and finished the book earlier this week, and watched the movie tonight (earliest opportunity after reading the book). I, of course, had lots of preconceptions of both works (due to both being rather famous), but while the preconceptions about the book turned out false, in the movie’s case they turned out to be true.

  7. The first time I saw Starship trooper, almost 10 years ago, I hated it. I thought it was a silly blockbuster with gazillions of insects that only serve the pretext to visual effects.

    Having seen it again more recently, my conclusions were:
    * This movie is absolutely excellent. It is a very nice satire about our own society.
    * I was too young to really understand it at the moment.
    * Looking at how the critiques were bad 10 years ago and how they evolved, it looks like the society was not ready to accept such a satire at that moment either.
    * This movie was visionary. The way some things were treated (like wars, or the Internet) looked ridiculous at that moment; now it looks much more realistic. Which is scary, because it means we have become completely accustomed to this way of thinking.

  8. I never really got Heinlein as a SF great. Mainly due to the order I read him. I enjoyed his young adult titles in my early teens but then I tried his later works and found him boring and rambling on philosophically from a weird, weird place. That meant that all his middle work just seemed to me to be pretty lackluster prose with half formed Utopian ideals.
    As for the book and the movie Starship Troopers I find a pleasing symmetry in on one hand the Heinlein political pamphlet and Verhoeven doing his own propaganda. Btw, Verhoeven he produced a much more faithful adaptation in the Roughnecks animated series. That one is pure gold.

  9. The director did not like or agree with the themes of the book- that’s why he made the movie as a parody of what the book took so seriously.

  10. Dan: I disagree completely about the follow on animated series. I’ve seen the entire thing, and it completely misses much of what made the novel appealing. In the novel, the Mobile Infantry is highly trained, very skilled, and an invaluable part of the military forces. They call themselves grunts, but they represent the need for intelligent direction in the conflicts being engaged by the military at large; the enemy simply couldn’t be destroyed by bombing at a distance. The MI of the novel is a professional operation that values and relies on each member doing their job with skill and thought.

    In contrast, the movie and animated series takes the position that the MI is full of simple, expendable grunts. They are to be thrown away in useless, arbitrary actions without any thought to their effectiveness or their lives. The MI here is a bunch of know nothing children with fancy bang-bang guns.

    Beyond any plot points missed in the novel (acceptable in an adaptation), the complete change in atmosphere about the relationship of the MI to warfare and civilization is most unwelcome.

    Also, it wasn’t so much that Heilein cashed in: he’d been dead about a decade when the film released. It was more Voerhoven cashing in on another franchise. The movie’s original name was _Bug Hunt_ and took on the Heinlein franchise as a way to market the movie an increase its appeal. I guess it worked as more people know the movie and are often surprised (and unwilling to read) the novel.

  11. The interesting thing is that the movie (the first half, anyway) is a rather close match with the book. How does that happen if the book was not a factor when the film was being scripted?

    In any case, a lot of my disappointment with the movie probably came from that: the movie started out in a way to make me expect it to be a retelling of the same story.

  12. My view is that the animated series did the right thing by throwing out Heinleins fairytale Utopian political musings. The book is full of straw man argumentation. It reminds me of the inane bloviations of Ayn Rand. All my opinions of course.

  13. I’ve read some of Heinlein’s novels, but not this one in particular. I’ve found them in general to be entertaining, and have some interesting ideas, but the political commentary a bit naive. I loved Verhoeven’s movie, however. It thought it was really well done how it showed a happy totalitarian regime, tongue planted firmly in cheek. I didn’t get how everyone was just brushing this off as a monster flick.

  14. In what way the ST regime is totalitarian? All evidence I see is the imagery and the propaganda, but that’s not enough for that verdict IMO. For example, I did not see any evidence of a secret police disappearing people, of any fear against expressing contrary political opinions, nor of any personality cult. Sure, it’s not a modern democracy, but there are many shades and colors between totalitarianism and modern democracy.

  15. “Rico would have been hanged by the neck until dead, dead, dead well before the end of the movie just for striking a superior officer;”

    Only if he’d been stupid enough to bring the subject up himself in front of the CO while said officer was trying to let him off, while teaching him a lesson, with administrative punishment. :-)

  16. Dan: I think you missed my point, but I’ll weigh in with an opinion about the “fairytale Utopia”. I’d argue the essentials of Heinlein’s “political musings”, in my opinion, boil down to two points: first, individuals that serve the common good have more right to determine the fate of society than those that do not, and second, public service is a choice left to individuals (he rails against conscription in military service in other works). Everything else (the bulk of your strawmen) is a simply a grunt trying to understand why he’s a grunt and why he continues to fight. I suspect much of that narrative is tinged with Heinlein’s biography, but I have not real proof of that.

    I’d argue his political musings in ST are not fairytales and not Utopias. First, we have modern governments who coerce public service as a requirement for citizenship. Two friends of mine have performed such service: the first was a fireman in Denmark, the second a soldier in Romania. I’m not an expert in governance, but I know there are several such arrangements around the world. Unfortunately, for my friends, their service was compulsory, not voluntary. However, the point about voluntary service was witnessed by the US military after Vietnam and our military has been composed of volunteers since. So, the central tenants of his novel’s political arrangements are not so fantastical.

    Second, the world of ST is not a Utopia. Heinlein’s novel is a tale about one person and his involvement as a low level grunt in an interstellar war. All the real political and societal musings are left out, so there’s not much basis to assume the world is really a much better place than ours. The political musings discussed in the novel serve to point out that the society works and has seen significant stability, not that its the best or even significantly better than our own times.

    Outside of ST Heinlein does build Utopias, but he also tends to tear them down in subsequent works. The two I can think of most readily are the Compact after the defeat of Nehemia Scudder and Luna after the Loonie Revolution. The Compact basically restricts violence between individuals and is seen as the solution for a live-and-let-live utopia to flourish. Unfortunately, the revealing of the Howard Families basically destroys this central tenant of the civilization overnight as Humanity goes into a bloodlust to learn the Howard’s secrete of longetivity. The Loonie government starts out much as one would expect given it’s parallel to the American Revolution, but then “devolves” into a bog-standard overbearing government, much like the one it replaced. As a side note, the one Heinlein character to experience all of that is the little girl from _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_. She’s also the grandmother in the _Rolling Stones_ and the female protagonist in _The Cat Who Walks Through Walls_.

    I’ve been pretty long winded, and I’m trying hard not to bloviate (I’ve yet to tackle Rand, but I can smell the bloviation miles away). I hope you at least find what I’m saying interesting.

    My real point from before is the sheer difference in tone between the novel and the movie and animated series where it concerns the MI’s attitude to their missions. In the novel, the grunts feel they’re an integral part of the war effort and know they’re important. In the move, and especially the animated series, the grunts express more feelings of exasperation at the missions on which they’re sent. Rico gets more despondent and depressed as the animated series continues. In the movie, he expresses this at Flore’s funeral (pardon the paraphrase): “I’m MI, dying is what we do”. That single sentence is anathema to everything in the novel. You don’t have to see the novel as a “fairytale Utopia” to pick up on this.

  17. I didn’t even realise the film was based on a book (which I now intend to read). But I think sigfpe is right in that the film (in a few ways) is definitely a satire and has a certain dark comedy to it, in particular regarding the media (and how it reports on “the war”). eg: the cameraman is filming the invasion, he gets munched, and the other camera is watching it (and this is viewed by millions)… also the broadcasted “tips” on how to kill the bugs (aim for the center), etc, etc.

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