A Defense of Starship Troopers the Novel (and Why the Film is not Misunderstood)

Starship_Troopers_-_movie_posterLast week Calum Marsh wrote a piece in The Atlantic praising the film Starship Troopers as “a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” He dismissed the classic SF novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein, calling it “old-fashioned science-fiction…notoriously militaristic novel” and even criticized Rifftrax for not understanding “that Starship Troopers already is funny—and smart” (I actually saw the live show and noticed several references by the riffers to the film’s attempt at satire so I am not sure if Calum missed the references or else did not see the show). He finished by saying “[g]iven enough distance even the most fervently reviled movie may one day find its legacy resuscitated, earning decades later its long overdue acclaim.”

Now, I saw the original film on my 13th birthday with my friends. For a group of teenage boys, the nudes scenes, humor and gore quickly made this one of our favorites. But I grew up, matured and eventually read the book it was based on (actually the film was well into pre-production before the book was optioned and the director admits to never finishing the novel). I do understand the points Marsh is trying to get across. The film is a satire of militarism, fascism and any other isms you can find. Nothing stopped, however, the creators from making the movie they wanted. What must be considered is the fact that they chose to include the name of a book from what appears to have been done only out of the interest in the name recognition (much like World War Z). What Marsh fails to realize is that the film will now forever be associated with the name of book and forever color people perceptions about it, especially those who never read or understood the novel.

For those who haven’t read the book, it is a first person narrative told from the perspective of Filipino Juan “Johnnie” Rico (the Rico in the film is played by someone of European descent) and his time in the Federal Service with the Mobile Infantry. In Rico’s world the Terran Federation is a limited democracy where only those who enter the Federal Service are allowed to vote. Although decried as a fascist state by some critics, the Federal Service is not strictly military and anyone regardless of race, creed or physical fitness can join as long as they show a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way for the rest of humanity. Essentially, Heinlein was arguing that democracy would be better served by those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice instead of those who have reached an arbitrary age limit.

You don’t have to agree with Heinlein’s vision (I certainly don’t because I would be disenfranchised in the Federation) but to dismiss it as right-wing fascism is like saying 1984 should be banned because it promotes communism (and some have tried to make that argument). George Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) actually was a socialist and used his famous dystopian novel as an attack against the Stalinist Communism that spread across Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Orwell was differentiating between good and bad versions of socialism, just as Heinlein was giving his opinion on versions of democracy based on who got the franchise.

From the scenes in the classrooms where characters discuss the morality of the Federation with the teachers standing in for Heinlein, we learn a little bit about his values. He believed in social responsibility, was strongly anti-communist and critical, from references in the novel, of the handling of the Korean War. That last bit doesn’t make him that much different from the commentators who criticized the American government for the handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the continuing War on Terror. Critics have also accused Heinlein of glorifying the war, but I would argue at the very least that as a veteran he glorified military service, something that we do see today as recently as last Sunday with football teams decked out in camouflaged uniforms to support the troops. Plus, this Monday is Veterans Day in America.

troopersbookThe book does have it flaws (we don’t exactly know if there are any other rights, besides voting, civilians are denied), but if this book had been made into a film it would have been a cross between Iron Man (Mobile Infantry fight in heavily armed and armored exoskeletons in the books, not the bulky plastic body armor of the film’s soldiers) and Full Metal Jacket (at least the first half of the film). Instead, however, we got a silly satire on easy targets (anyone can make fascists look bad, they did it with Hogan’s Heroes in the 60s) and ignored good source material. If this film has one legacy is that it represents the last gasp of an old Hollywood assumption that the audience will never take genre fiction seriously unless it is satirized (Scary MovieThe Big Bang Theory, etc.). Avatar, the Marvel film series, the Harry Potter franchise, the Lord of the Rings and Nolan’s Batman series (all on the list of highest-grossing films) should have dissuaded them of this, but we have to keep vigilant against the use of name recognition to drive in a crowd (again World War Z).

I will give Calum this: Starship Troopers the film would have made a great political satire…if they kept the name Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, but they got lazy. They didn’t make the best film they could make or the best adaptation of a book, they just made a film and used cheap trick to draw attention to their project. In the future, read the book you optioned so at least you understand what you are talking about. If you don’t like it, however, or even understand it, then don’t make a freaking film about it. Or else, make a film about a book that disagrees with Heinlein’s beliefs in Starship Troopers, like The Forever War.

And don’t call it a “smart” satire. A smart satire would at least have the decency of picking a different name. Those critics who lampooned the film were right in the end and there views are more likely to stand the test of time.

(Special thanks to my friend and author Matthew Quinn for bringing this article to my attention and making some points I stole borrowed in this article. Go check out his author page on Amazon.)

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  1. Late comment; I just found this article. Regarding the last comment by Gene Mierzejewski, IMO, flamethrowers would be about as ineffectual as the automatic weapons used in the book. One of the reason a flamethrower works well on humans is that we have a soft, pulpy outside, including our main sensory organs. Set that on fire and in a matter of seconds a human is incapacitated.

    The “bugs,” in contrast, have exoskeletons, which can withstand more heat than skin; even when cut in half they are able to fight for a while. On fire they could continue fighting long enough to reach those flamethrowers and incapacitate them. (It seems logical, anyway.)

  2. I agree. Their rifles were little more than M-16s. I remember thinking, when they used a nuclear grenade, “Why don’t they do more of that.” I thought the same when the aircraft strafed and slaughtered a vast field of bugs.

  3. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t able to sit through the whole movie. My son decided to start watching it while I was in the room, otherwise I wouldn’t have even bothered trying. I don’t have a tolerance for bad cinema (which means I don’t watch many movies). And I purposely avoid most SF adaptations. Lynch’s Dune was probably the last straw for me.

    If they had wanted to do a Starship Troopers satire, they would have been better off making a movie of Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero (see my review for Amazing Stories here: https://amazingstories.com/2013/06/scide-splitters-bill-the-galactic-hero-by-harry-harrison/ ). Interestingly enough, Alex Cox, director of such movies as Repo Man, is filming a Kickstarter funded version of Bill the Galactic Hero at the University of Colorado (visit the kickstarter site here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/alexcoxfilms/alex-cox-directs-bill-the-galactic-hero ) It is due out at the end of next year. I actually have high hopes for it because it is not driven by the Hollywood need to generate gobs of money by satisfying the lowest common denominator in audience tastes.

    To me the only decent versions of Starship Troopers are Heinlein’s novel and the song on the Yes Album (unrelated).

  4. ‘…anyone can make fascists look bad, they did it with Hogan’s Heroes in the 60s…’

    Wasn’t the point of Starship Troopers to make fascism look good, albeit ironically, though?

    ‘… they got lazy. They didn’t make the best film they could make or the best adaptation of a book, they just made a film and used cheap trick to draw attention to their project.’

    Directors not reading source material is not unusual. They are, after all, hired to direct the screenplay. The most important thing is that a film’s writers read, and hopefully understand, the source material. Ed Neumeier said he’d read the novel 13 years prior to writing the script – presumably he also read it whilst adapting it, or else he has an exceptional memory! IMHO even a cursory viewing of the film shows that Neumeier understood the source material, enough to produce a different take on it, rather than using the title as a cheap trick.

    Are there any sources for the ‘Bug Hunt on Outpost Nine’ story? The Wiki article mentions there was a writing team, but Neumeier is credited as sole writer. Wiki sources an article from American Cinematographer, but AFAIK the article does not mention the story. Any help in sourcing this is greatly appreciated!

    1. No, the point of the book was not to make fascism look good. The point of the book was the examination of the role of personal responsibility within any governmental system and an examination of the consequences of raising personal responsibility to primacy within one governmental system. The Arachnids, by contrast, had removed the personal from their society (consequence of their evolutionary history) entirely. Both systems were equally capable – but clearly humans are more suited to one system than the other.

      There is also a heavy-hand of western democracy vs eastern communism built into the story; free men vs communistic robots. (I don’t know if your grew up during the cold war, but I suspect that this aspect of the book does not resonate as well with readers who did not.)

      And there is the central question asked by the book: should voting in a democratic society be a birth right, or should it be earned? Heinlein’s “western” culture is one in which anyone CAN have the vote, but it is a vote that must first be earned through service. And service presumably instills in the individual the concept that the safety, progress & etc., of their society is a matter of personal responsibility – not some abstract vote once every four years if you want to – kind of thing.

      Most people who review and discuss this book overlook or miss the passage in which it is explained that non-citizens are not “second class”; they are in fact freebooters who are given every right, every opportunity and every protection equally with those who are fully-fledged citizens. Very analogous to a minor citizen in today’s democratic societies – you can’t legally discriminate against them, disadvantage them, abuse them. They can’t vote, but they are citizens.

      (Verhoven’s movie goes a long way towards perpetuating the book’s perception as glorifying fascism by turning one aspect of the book 180 degrees away from the original presentation: in the movie, citizens are bombarded daily with propaganda designed to get them to join the service, buy into the state-myth, become a drone in the military machine. In the book, great pains are taken to DISCOURAGE citizens from joining, participating, etc. The recruitment centers are all manned by soldiers wounded (often horrifically) in battle who present themselves without prosthesis – living testimony to the likely consequences of joining and serving. The society does not want everyone to have the vote – only those who are truly motivated to want to earn it. Anti-vote earning sentiment is entrenched among the non-voters (who it is implied make up the vast majority of the citizenry) – why bother earning a vote when it is absolutely not necessary to being a successful, productive member of society? This position by non-citizens is equated with the Arachnid’s own biological communism. Such people are one step removed from becoming such themselves.)

      Another thing often over-looked by critics of the book (usually writing in response to the movie) is Heinlein’s seminal character of the “competent man”. Rico is that character – growing into the role (as many of Heinlein’s juvenile characters do in novels like Starman Jones and Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky, etc). If the “system” Rico lived under were inherently bad and unjust, he would be rebelling against it. Given Heinlein’s service in the Navy and his work during WWII, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that “fascism” as a political concept is viewed by Heinlein as inherently bad and unjust. Instead, Rico embraces it – after several long expository sessions in the classroom that explain to everyone (reader included) the concepts upon which the society is based.

      If you buy the idea that a truly responsible individual is one who sees their society as a reflection of their own ideals and who viscerally understands the “golden rule” and its application, then you can see that what is often presented as fascism is anything but; the individual is the state and the state is the individual ‘sounds’ fascistic, but only when you divorce the individual from the equation.

      https://starshiptroopers.wikia.com/wiki/Starship_Troopers_(film) for some references to Bug Hunt…

      1. Hi Steve,

        Sorry, I was referring to the film rather than the book regarding making fascism look good. I don’t regard Heinlein’s novel as depicting much of a fascistic society, and definitely not ironically!

        I agree with you in the most part regarding Heinlein’s intentions, and I didn’t feel that Heinlein was outlining an ideal society (as far as I can remember, it’s just a society that currently works, and would be abandoned if better ones were thought up – although obviously this could only be done in practice by citizens already invested in the current system). As a result I’m a bit unconvinced that Rico would be rebelling if he found the system unjust, although that’s entirely my own interpretation. Perhaps it’s the whole taxation without representation thing, as somebody has to pay for the Federal Service, which must be quite bloated as it can’t turn away those who want to enlist.

        I agree that the film’s use of propaganda is not in keeping with the book, although at least part of it was kept (Michael Irons’ composite character lectures without the use of a prosthetic arm, and the recruitment sergeant is depicted with one – the Service isn’t worried about discouraging applicants, much like the book).

        Many thanks for the link you posted, but it’s essentially the same information as the wiki article, which might possibly be inaccurate.

        AFAIK Neumeier approached Jon Davison with a treatment called ‘Outpost Nine,’ which told the story of soldiers stranded on a planet full of dangerous insects, and was pitched as an SF treatment of a WWII story. TriStar weren’t interested, and Davison – who wanted a film about soldiers fighting bugs- found that the rights to Starship Troopers were available, which made all the difference to TriStar. Neumeier – who had read the novel well before this – then wrote an adaptation, which TriStar accepted, and he and Davison pitched it to Verhoeven as a story about kids going from school to fight bugs in outer space.

        As far as I can see there was never a writing team ignorant of Heinlein’s novel, nor was the film well into pre-production when the novel was optioned – it hadn’t even been greenlit at that point. But I may well be wrong about all this, hence my interest in the ‘Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine’ story.

        1. In looking for more information regarding the “didn’t read the novel” stuff, I came across this on the TCM website: “Whatever else it is, which is plenty, Paul Verhoeven’s eye-popping 1997 epic Starship Troopers has to be the most misunderstood and underappreciated sci-fi blockbuster of all time. Based on a pulpy, dogmatic Robert A. Heinlein novel first published in 1959…”

          This, along with other things I’ve found make it seem to me as if there are competing definers out there, one group trying to elevate the novel over the movie, the other (as in the above) trying to elevate the movie over the book. I’m obviously in agreement with the former group – the film was horrible; I’ve created better battle scenes by setting up a bunch of green army men on the floor and letting the cats have at them….

  5. Very nice analysis, Matt. No matter how you cut it, the movie was a huge disappointment to anyone who’d read the book first. The thing that drove me crazy was the extremely ineffective machine guns that the producers provided the troopers. After the first clash with the Bugs, the troopers (in a more realistic scenario) would have been armed primarily with explosive devices and flame throwers to take out the hard-to-kill enemy.

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