Starship Troopers: Book vs Movie
I’m a little late this morning, and I have no other excuse than that I’m still recovering from a busy week. I have no excuse because I didn’t write today’s post. Instead, I shamelessly begged for it from my friend and budding-writer-with-great-promise Jason Fuesting. He made the mistake of mentioning what his final paper for a class was, and I pounced. I wanted it. You see, I love the book, but have never seen the movie, and now I will never need to, because Jason’s comparison fulfills any need I might have had to do this for a blog post. Thanks, Jason, for sharing your paper, and for having taken the time and effort of doing this.
Originally published by Robert Anson Heinlein in 1959, Starship Troopers has been considered by some to mark the beginning of modern Military Sci-fi. Just shy of forty years later, director Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation hit the screens in late autumn of 1997 and with mixed reception. Of the major critics, Roger Ebert said “Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans” and pointed out that the film was “one-dimensional.” (Ebert) Less formally, the film received a 63% overall rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Personally, I saw the film the day of release and, despite the differences between it and the book, I remember enjoying the film greatly at the time. However, more than twenty years have passed since I have seen the film or read the book, so to provide a fair comparison I obtained copies of both formats and revisited them.
Taken in a vacuum, the film itself is passable for its time. Despite being released in November, the film clearly fits the summer action film niche and summer action films are not frequently known for in-depth intellectual dialog or for exceptional acting. Verhoeven’s work does not disappoint that expectation in the least. What effort is evident in the film remains focused primarily on either the fight scenes, particularly in special effects and explosions, or in finding ways to justify having the actresses expose some amount of skin in some form or fashion as frequently as possible. As such, Verhoeven’s film comes off not too dissimilarly from what one might expect of a Michael Bay film, except less subtle in every way.
Cinematography, editing, and score were not exceptional, but quite passable. The film remained fast paced and for multiple scenes camera placement complimented the special effects and other elements quite well. The effects themselves were as I remembered, great for the time period. As far as the individual components of the film in terms of film making are concerned, outside of the acting, the film is quite well done. As for the acting, what I remembered as campy and otherwise forgettable as a teen turned out to be far worse than I remembered.
When one steps back out of the vacuum, the film ultimately falls apart entirely on writing. Many would likely ponder how a summer action movie that has managed to succeed on the other points could ultimately be deemed a failure based solely off a feature movies of its kind almost universally ignore. For Heinlein fans, the film is unequivocally a thumb in the eye. From that perspective, the director took the author’s creation, fed just enough of it through a sausage grinder to get the flavor out, mixed in his own recipe of inanity, and laid out the resulting abomination in precisely the exact opposite direction. For those not particularly attached to Heinlein’s novel but still fans of decent writing, a multitude of plot holes and grave inconsistency errors abound, all of which were introduced by the writers meddling in Heinlein’s construct like children run amok.
Amok is sadly an understatement. The film and the book are two wholly different entities. A Joking comment along the lines of the script used by Verhoeven being the result of the soulless Hollywood machine itself parodied in Robert Altman’s 1992 film “The Player” might be closer to the truth. Simply put, Verhoeven’s script shares names with the book.
In the film, the main character, Johnnie Rico (played by Casper Van Dien) eagerly joins the military with his friend Carl (played by Neil Patrick Harris,) Dizzy (Dina Meyer,) and Carmen (Denise Richards.) Before shipping out, the audience sees that there is definite love conflict where Rico wants Carmen, but she’s more interested in a guy she just happened to meet the night before at their last football game, the opposing team’s quarterback. Said guy also just so happens to enlist at the same time and be assigned orders to the same pilot school Carmen is. Similarly, Dizzy wants Rico and is insanely jealous of Carmen. Post-enlistment we find that Dizzy transferred to be in Rico’s training unit. Rico eventually cracks under pressure and calls his parents to tell them he’s resigning. While on the phone, an asteroid sent by the bugs hits Buenos Aires, killing his family and millions of others. Rico changes his mind about resigning, finishes his training, and they go to war. The film winds onward, detailing Dizzy’s attempts to get Rico to pay attention to her, Carmen sending Rico a ‘Dear John’ letter as she’s decided she liked the other guy better, all interspersed between multiple combat scenes. Dizzy and Rico end up in a unit lead by his former high school teacher. By the end of it Dizzy and Carmen’s love interest is dead, but the surviving characters are miraculously responsible for finding the bug’s weakest link, the bugs that control the hive mind. The film ends with the surviving characters gleefully telling the audience to “Enlist now!”
Differences abound. In the film, Carl is a nerdy kid with psychic tendencies who enlists into the intelligence branch and goes on to be instrumental in winning the war. In the book, Carl is somewhat instrumental in dragging the main character into the service, but he is an electronics wiz who gets placed in the Terran Research and Development division, stationed on Pluto and ultimately dies early on in the war when the bugs destroy the station he was on. Similarly, the love triangle in the movie never happened, nor was the main character, Rico, featured in any sort of sports game, major school event, or anything similar. Carmen was a classmate he’d befriended and had a crush on, nothing more. Dizzy as portrayed in the film did not exist, the print version was a guy Rico met in boot camp. His film rival, the quarterback, never existed. He never meets his high school teacher again, though they do swap letters. Similarly, his drill instructor does not purposefully bust himself down to private in the book in order to go back to the front. In the film, his father is very anti-war, and extremely anti-military. In the book, his father ends up joining the military after Rico’s mother is killed by the asteroid while visiting Buenos Aires. A little more than half way through the book, Rico has a chance encounter with his father and there’s a heart-to-heart moment where you find out exactly why his father was angry in the book.
When I saw the movie the first time, I had a friend of mine who was a military buff. He had a number of questions about the film, as the director’s vision for how the Terrans fought made no sense to him. My friend asked, “Why is it you never see tanks in the movie? Why did they use air support only once? Why were they using World War I style mass infantry charges and dumping huge amounts of ammunition at the enemy instead of anything resembling real tactics?” Even as an open minded person, the director’s apparent ignorance of basic military concepts broke his suspension of disbelief. He could not understand why the mobile infantry, essentially a bunch of airship dropped light infantry, were sent in alone with little better than flak jackets and machineguns. To him, it was nonsensical. I pointed out to him that in the book, the mobile infantry did not use tank support at all because they were the tanks. The MI used powered armor which allowed them far more mobility and lethality than a modern tank. Such oversights and alterations by Verhoeven are common. The film continually digs itself deeper in a hole by inserting content and ideas the author never discussed or omitting important points, ideas, and events that were part of the book to the point that even other fandoms can’t ignore it, even history buffs.
Early on, the film’s writers change a mention of Carthage into a reference to Hiroshima despite the change completely invalidating the point being made, much less completely missing the original message in the book. The differences are legion and an exhaustive review of every change would be further belaboring a point already amply clear. The differences in the writing, however, do add up to the overall theme of the movie, which completely corrupts the theme of the book.
In the early scenes, Heinlein portrayed Rico’s enlistment as a near thing. He wasn’t sure if he was going to do it as he’d basically played along following Carl’s lead and decides that he isn’t going to do it when his father bribes him with a vacation trip to mars. He ends up caught between Carmen and Carl when they drag him to enlist and he goes along with it. In the movie, the same scenes play out as if no thought was given and that it was a wholly joyful occasion.
Thematically, the film plays very hard on the idea that the Terran government was right-wing, and that right-wing entities are all fascist, despite little or no evidence existing in the book to make either assertion. Verhoeven goes the extra mile to paint anything and everything dealing with the Terran government as fascist, from the uniforms all being based off Nazi army and Gestapo uniforms to inhumane and ultimately insane treatment of anything and anyone who gets in the way of said government.
The film plays off the disastrous initial assault on Klendathu as a result of corruption and war profiteering, while in the book the character is never quite sure what happened beyond finding out that the initial planning was far too complicated and depended on far too many things going exactly correct. Murphy did not disappoint. Combined with inaccurate intelligence on the bugs, disaster was assured. As a simple soldier at the time, there’d be no way for him to actually know what really happened.
Ultimately, the book’s message is one that stresses responsibility, personal, to one’s family, and to one’s nation. Heinlein repeatedly highlights how military service is not easy, that life is a lot harder than we think it is when we’re young, how war is not the cool thing most children believe. Verhoeven steadfastly ignores every bit of that and takes every point Heinlein made and twisting it to its opposite: war is great, service is so easy any idiot can do it, the military is filled with unthinking robotic idiots and evil right-wing fascists, and the only people who are held responsible are the ones who get caught without an excuse. Instead of a story that is more or less a post-hoc biography of a soldier, complete with his regrets, Verhoeven’s adaptation is little more than modern actors in remade Nazi uniforms acting out nonsense between scenes further adapted from Nazi propaganda films. Verhoeven is so over-the-top in his use of Nazi imagery and defacing the concept of patriotism that his attempted smear against the right-wing gets lost in the noise.
The film is offensive on multiple levels. First, as a veteran, the book is easily realistic science-fiction that carries multiple very pertinent messages and warnings, especially in today’s society. Many of these were messages I needed to hear when I was younger, but I had neither the maturity nor the experience to truly understand at the time. Second, as an author, I am utterly horrified at the wholesale gutting the film makers and their writers gleefully engaged in and the complete mockery of their creation. The idea that one of my prospective works could receive similar treatment sickens me. Third, as a Conservative leaning libertarian, Verhoeven’s film lampoons ideas central to the survival of any state, left leaning or right, and does so in such a poor fashion that it fails at being even amateur-level propaganda. Admittedly, hyperbole is a valid tool; however, when using hyperbole one must ensure both that one’s point is valid and that the use of hyperbole does not destroy your message. Verhoeven fails on both accounts.
Verhoeven’s defense of his film is simple and forthright, his film is satire and his message, “war makes fascists of us all” (Verhoeven). Essentially his stance is, as it has been on other films of his, anyone who dislikes the film clearly doesn’t understand it. At first blush, a generous analyst might deem this defense plausible, but the director’s defense is rather inadequate. The man admits in another interview, “I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring” (Smith). How can one satirize something they never bothered to completely experience much less understand? That is how you get nonsense like Verhoeven’s perfect Aryan Johnny Rico from Heinlein’s Juan Rico, revealed near the end to be a Filipino. Surely the writers knew, but did the director?
Ultimately, Verhoeven takes a message needed badly by so many today, with their safe spaces and trigger warnings, and turns it into the film equivalent of those same children’s tantrums, a film so poorly written that only Mystery Science Theater 3000 could find use for it. A better director would have used Joe Haldeman’s “Forever War,” an excellent book in its own right. Haldeman makes all the points this film bobbled in “Forever War,” but using it would have meant going without all the Nazi imagery that Verhoeven is evidently fond of and not butchering an outstanding work in the process. Verhoeven’s film is surely satire, but I do not think he realizes the joke is on his side. It is a sad commentary on our society, where intellectual laziness and bigotry are shielded behind self-aggrandizement and a lackluster defense of “It’s a joke.”
Ebert, Roger. “Starship Troopers Movie Review (1997).” All Content. Ebert Digital LLC, 1997.
Web. 3 Dec. 2015
Verhoeven, Paul. Audio Commentary. “Starship Troopers” Dir. Verhoeven. Buena Vista
International, 2007. (DVD).
Smith, Adam. “Triple Dutch.” Empire. Empire Magazine, 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.