The Problem With Making a Faithful Starship Troopers Adaptation

Ever since the release of Paul Verhoven's satirical Starship Troopers in 1997, some fans have yearned for a faithful adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's novel. But there are a few major reasons we may never get it...

Giant bug in Starship Troopers
Photo: Sony Pictures

This year marks 25 years since the release of Paul Verhoeven’s movie adaptation of the Robert A. Heinlein novel, Starship Troopers. It’s a great movie, although not one that hues tightly to its source material. You could even be forgiven for thinking the director had never read the book or that this was a completely unrelated film which has had the Starship Troopers title slapped on it to sell more tickets.

Because, as it turns out, both of those things are true. Verhoeven is on record as saying he tried to read Starship Troopers but stopped after two chapters “because it was so boring;” meanwhile the movie began as a script called “Bug Hunt at Outpost 7.” Scriptwriter Ed Neumeier even described the original idea for the film as being “a big, silly, jingoistic, xenophobic, let’s-go-out-and-kill-the-enemy movie, and I had settled on the idea that it should be against insects… I wanted to make a war movie, but I also wanted to make a teenage romance movie.”

Neumeier’s quote is a pretty accurate description of the movie Verhoeven would eventually make. However, long before the RoboCop director ever came aboard the project, it almost stalled out since no studio, including TriStar Pictures, took to the idea. At the time, TriStar was the home of producer Jon Davison, who made his bones by producing RoboCop from a screenplay co-written by Nuemeier and which was directed by Verhoven. So when TriStar showed cold feet toward “Outpost 7,” Davison simply sought out the rights to the similarly themed Heinlein novel—retroactively turning the project into a Starship Troopers movie.

Hence when Verhoeven came aboard, the iconoclastic filmmaker set out to send up the very worldview that Heinlein was espousing. In the book, The Making of Starship Troopers, Neumeier described their film’s approach as: “You want a world that works? Okay, we’ll show you one. And it really does work. It happens to be a military dictatorship, but it works.”

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The end result is the sort of movie you can imagine the colonial marines of Aliens Sulaco watching before they decided to sign up (which is fitting, as Aliens director James Cameron had his cast read Heinlein’s novel while on set). Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers presents a shiny, clean-cut dystopia that cheers on the human troops, even as they are doing terrible things, and in case you don’t get the message, it dresses up Neil Patrick Harris in an actual Nazi gestapo uniform. It is a brilliant piece of satire that can stand proudly alongside Verhoeven’s other great slices of sci-fi cynicism, RoboCop and Total Recall

Still one credit that nobody will give this movie is that it’s a text-accurate adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. Which is why almost as soon as Verhoeven’s movie was released, some people have been fantasizing about bringing that version of the book to the screen… But should they?

Recent Attempts at a ‘Faithful Adaptation’

In 2011, fresh off of Thor and X-Men: First Class, writers Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz were hired to do a script for a new Starship Troopers adaptation. By 2013 Stentz was reporting that the script was in. All we know about how that script went down is that by 2016 the writing team behind the new Baywatch movie had been hired to deliver a script of their own. Most recently though, Neil Blomkamp threw his hat into the ring, and as the director of District 9 and Elysium, he might seem long a strong choice to make a movie about insectoid-looking aliens and power armor.

Of course the 1997 movie certainly leaves a lot of untrodden ground for new adaptations to claim. After all, a lot of the most iconic elements of the Starship Troopers novel are left out of the film for a variety of reasons, including budgetary. We have yet to see the titular troopers stomping around in power armor as Heinlein intended. The infantry is deployed in troop carrier landing craft rather than the far more visually dramatic “drop” capsules used in the book. There is an entire alien species called the “Skinnies” that is just plain missing in Verhoeven’s movie.

With modern special effects a good director, the field is still wide open for a sincere take on Heinlein’s novel.

But in making a film that adhered more closely to Heinlein’s vision, any filmmaker will have to deal with the fact that Heinlein’s vision… might not be that great.

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Is Starship Troopers Fascist?

While Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is in many ways a parody of its source material’s worldview, it is surprisingly faithful at portraying the book’s ideology. The memorable scene where a student tells their grizzled drill sergeant teacher that “violence never solves anything,” only to be asked what the people of Hiroshima think of that, is an abbreviated and heightened version of an exchange in the book which sincerely espouses the virtues of violence as a problem-solver.

The book also sings the praises of both corporal and capital punishment while repeatedly taking a step away from the space violence to explain that, actually, it would be really good if the right to vote was only given to those who served in the military. As a consequence, the book has frequently been described as a fascist manifesto.

Even so, science fiction author Ken MacLeod disagrees that “fascist” is the right label for Starship Troopers.

MacLeod tells us, “I don’t think it’s fascist. It is elitist and it’s antidemocratic in that there is a restricted franchise [to vote] rather than a universal franchise, and the argument given in the book for restricting the franchise in this way explicitly does not depend on any special qualities of the people who do have the vote. It is simply that they are willing to volunteer to put their life on the line to defend the society. So it’s nothing like any historically fascist regime.”

MacLeod also suggests the aspects of the book’s worldview that seem most sinister today, such as its full-throated support of capital and corporal punishment, were not that far outside of the Overton window at the time of writing.

“The creepiest side of the book is it defends, rather glibly, capital and corporal punishment, but these were both accepted in Britain almost until the 1960s,” MacLeod says. “So it’s not incompatible with a fairly liberal society.”

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It is true that Starship Troopers, under close examination, falls far outside of the textbook definition of fascism, with its (limited) democratic representation, and a civil society that seemingly enjoys free speech and the right to assemble, if not vote. A keystone of the fascist ideology is also the combining of state and corporate power, yet Starship Troopers shows (on the page) a healthy and thriving business sector that is separate from and, indeed, uninterested in the workings of government.

However, the themes of militarism and the subordination of individual interests for the perceived good of the state and race are felt strongly through the book, echoing favorite fascist talking points, as does the recurring fear of “juvenile delinquency”.

When Heinlein argues that “all wars arise from population pressure” and that “any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand” has uncomfortable echoes of the concept of Lebensraum or “living space,” which drove Nazi territorial expansion.

Even the concept of human rights is mocked: Heinlein’s Mr. Dubois would be welcome on any right wing news channel or tabloid when he claims society collapsed because “the society [juvenile delinquents] were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’”

Indeed, Dubois’ argument that “liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost,” sounds straight out of  Team America: World Police.

It is an old argument, and one the far right is exceedingly fond of, and it works by fundamentally misunderstanding the concept of what an inalienable human right is. A human right is a moral entitlement. You have the right to life. I can shoot you in the head, and you’ll die, but that doesn’t remove your moral entitlement to staying alive.

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In different ways, and for different reasons, Heinlein’s book and Verhoeven’s movie both seek to show us a utopian-seeming society which is underpinned by values that, if not explicitly fascist, are still ones we, and many of Heinlein’s peers, would find horrifyingly dystopian.

Is Another Adaptation Even Necessary?

While purist fans of Heinlein’s novel may be disappointed by the 1997 movie, it has also been hugely influential elsewhere. As previously mentioned, Starship Troopers was required reading for the cast of Aliens, a movie about infantry fighting aliens that definitely have an insectoid quality to them on an alien planet. Since then, we have also seen Space: Above & Beyond, a short-lived but much-loved series about U.S. Marine Corps troops fighting a way against aliens. We also had Edge of Tomorrow (aka  Live Die Repeat) where Tom Cruise is fighting an alien invasion on Earth while clad in a powered exoskeleton.

And if you want powered armor, try Halo, the games and the TV series, which also include drop pods. While we’re at it, try basically any first-person shooter from the last 20 years, and scratch off the paint to find Heinlein’s novel underneath. Then there is Warhammer 40,000, a franchise which claims to own the phrase “space marine” (to the point where Aliens had to credit it for use of the term). Its powered-armored soldiers fighting an intractable war against everyone in the galaxy makes Verhoeven’s starship troopers seem like a bunch of goddamn hippies.

More than that though, Heinlein’s novel, with all its loudly announced political rhetoric, pissed a lot of people off. Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War partly as a response to Starship Troopers’ jingoism. That book has a power-armored infantryman find himself returning home years, decades, and centuries later after each tour of duty due to relativistic time dilation. It has all the tech, bells, and whistles of Heinlein’s book, but with a far more humane message. Indeed, attempts to make that movie have been ongoing since 1988, with Channing Tatum currently set to start in it.

A more comedic rejoinder to Starship Troopers can be found in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. But even ignoring direct responses to Heinlein’s book, it has spawned homages, imitators, and descents, including John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books, John Steakley’s Armor, and Andrew Skinner’s Steel Frame. The big, clunky, military infantryman procedural has grown into a vast subgenre all of its own, and many of those stories are less intercut with controversial political screeds. They’re also, frankly, better plotted and written.

That being so, can you really make a case for an accurate Starship Troopers movie in the 2020s?

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It’s a book I first read in my teens, and it impressed me at the time as it does a lot of, particularly male, teenagers,” MacLeod says. “But every so often over the years, I’ve reread it. It’s one of these damn books where you pick it up to look something up because somebody’s read it and you end up reading the whole book again. And I think that the politics and the civics are really at the heart of the book. If you had something that took that and took the technology, the power armor, and the drop pods seriously, I think it would be possible to make a very interesting movie.”

There is another case to be made for a Starship Troopers movie precisely because there have been so many imitators and responses to the book.

Even if you dislike the book, perhaps it is worth going back to the wellspring the entire subgenre came from to remind ourselves just what philosophy underlies the toy box of futuristic military hardware so much of science fiction likes to play with today. Just as its worth reminding ourselves that Cosmic Horror’s recurring theme of things so alien we cannot bear to look at them is rooted in Lovecraft’s own racism, perhaps it is worth looking at where our favorite power-armored space marines come from, and what they stand for when they are mowing down legions of subhuman aliens.

It might once again prove something interesting to react against.