Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 10, 2013

Starship Troopers: the Movie and the Book

Calum Marsh has an article in The Atlantic (Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever”), defending the thesis that Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers a “ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism,” a satire that has been misunderstood by critics for the past 16 years.

Marsh believes that Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is “an unsung masterpiece.” I believe that Marsh is wrong on several levels. First, I can’t speak for all critics of the movie, such as the the late Roger Ebert, but I do know that many of us did get the point that Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is satire — the film is not particularly subtle on this point. It’s just not very good satire. It’s also not a very good film, period. It’s full of plot holes, bad science, clunky acting, and cliches. I came to Marsh’s article through this post at Marginal Revolution, and the comments there do a pretty good job of pushing back against Marsh’s argument.

Really, we get it: Verhoeven was trying to make a satire. He failed. The problem is not that his film was too subtle. The problem is that he made a terrible film.

Fittingly, Marsh begins his description of the movie with an error:

Starship Troopers is set in the distant future, when humankind has begun to colonize worlds beyond the borders of our galaxy.

This is the sort of careless error that drives me nuts and makes me question the competence of the author to evaluate science fiction. Say it with me, people: our planet is part of a solar system. Our solar system is part of a galaxy. That galaxy contains many, many solar systems. The characters in Starship Troopers are traveling between different solar systems within the same galaxy — our galaxy, the Milky Way. This is true for most modern science fiction, by the way. The action in the Star Wars franchise takes place within a different galaxy (one far, far away), but all of that action takes place within one galaxy. In the Star Trek franchise, almost all of the action takes place within the Milky Way Galaxy. (Even when the starship Voyager is transported far from home, such that a return to Earth is expected to take 70 years, the ship has merely been transported to another part of the same galaxy.) All of Dune takes place within one galaxy, if memory serves. In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the humans are looking for a new home within the same galaxy as their old homes.

Different solar systems, same galaxy.

(This also gets to one of the stupid plot points in the movie. In Verhoeven’s film [SPOILER ALERT!], the Bugs attack Earth by launching asteroids from another solar system at our planet. This leads me to suspect that Verhoeven and his writers did not have an appropriate appreciation for the vastness of space. Any asteroid propelled at sub-light speeds from another solar system — even the closest solar systems — would take years or centuries to reach Earth. The movie does not reflect this. More broadly, the Bugs in the movie don’t seem to use any technology — Verhoeven apparently made a decision to have everything about the Bugs be biological or natural. This is just one more item where the movie diverges from the book — Heinlein strongly implies that the Bugs, like his human characters, have mechanized weapons, spaceships with faster-than-light capability, etc. In this way, as in some others, Heinlein’s Bugs are like the Buggers in Ender’s Game.)

Marsh appears to speak for a number of fans of the movie — mostly political progressives, like Matt Yglesias, who has called the movie “brilliant — a clever and searing satire of war and nationalism.” As a rule, fans of the movie are not fans of the book. In Marsh’s words, “The screenplay [for Starship Troopers], by Robocop writer Edward Neumeier, furnished the old-fashioned science-fiction framework of Robert A. Heinlein’s notoriously militaristic novel with archetypes on loan from teen soaps and young adult-fiction, undermining the self-serious saber-rattling of the source text.”

I suppose that’s one word for it — undermining. I think betraying would also work.

Most fans of the book think the movie is awful. I could attempt to produce a detailed and trenchant analysis of the book and a comparison between the book and the film, but Christopher Weuve has already done so. I think that he effectively debunks a number of myths surrounding Heinlein’s book, as well as providing a critique of Verhoeven’s film and detailing the ways that the movie Starship Troopers fails both as a movie and as an adaptation. Please, read his article.

For now, I will just point to one difference between the book and film, a difference which, I believe, encapsulates all of the differences between the book and the film. The scene is basic training, where Sergeant Zim, the drill instructor, is instructing the recruits in knife-throwing. One of the recruits questions the utility of learning knife-throwing in an era when armies have nuclear weapons — that is, when “one professor type can do so much more just by pushing a button.” In the book, Sergeant Zim delivers a reasoned discourse that touches on the purpose of waging war and the place of a soldier in the political system. Zim’s response reads in part:

War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him…but to make him do what you want to do. Not killing…but controlled and purposeful violence. But it’s not your business or mine to decide the purpose of the control. It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how — or why — he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people — ‘older and wiser heads,’ as they say — supply the control. Which is as it should be.

(R. Heinlein, Starship Troopers [1959], p. 63; ellipses in original.) I’ll let Chris Weuve describe how Zim responds in the movie:

Zim tells the recruit to put his hand flat against a nearby vertical surface, and with a deft throw of the knife pins the recruit’s hand in place. While the recruit is screaming with pain, the knife sticking out of the back of his hand, Zim laughs and says something to the effect of “because that professor type can’t push that button if there is a knife sticking out of it!”

Robert Heinlein, an Annapolis graduate and former Naval officer, produced a subtle book that advocated an all-volunteer military at a time when the US still had a draft. (Reading closely, it is clear that the novel was written in the aftermath of the Korean War.) Heinlein’s short novel tackles questions of moral philosophy, natural rights theory, constitutional organization, civic virtue, military training, small unit leadership, command psychology, and the place of the soldier in a democratic state. The novel tackles these questions in the context of a superficially juvenile action-adventure science fiction story targeted at 12-to-14-year-old boys.

Paul Verhoeven produced an overwrought, painfully unsubtle and leaden movie that fails as satire, fails as an adaptation of its source material, and fails as a movie.


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