2023 March 01 • Wednesday
Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers has always been a favorite movie of mine and now that I’ve read Robert Heinlein’s original novel, I have new respect and admiration for the work that went into the adaptation.
The movie is a splashy, colorful pulpy melodrama that flits through several genres: sports story, love story, school story, father-son conflict, coming of age, space opera, a story of new recruits and training and of course war story with its contingent action and camaraderie.
Dressed up as war propaganda, the movie is actually on a secret mission to subvert itself and satirize war and propaganda. The paralells it had to real-life history and current affairs always seemed crystal clear to me but were apparently unnoticed by many at the time of the film’s release.
The movie comes up with a group of high school friends and follows them as they join the military, go different ways in some cases, make new relationships and eventually reunite after much experience and personal growth.
This is already a lot more than the book does. The main character is still named Johnnie Rico but he has no personality, very little personal history and no especially significant relationships, with the exception of his father, who appears as a blip on Rico’s radar three or four times. Rico’s dad is a very different character in the book than in the movie (to the extremely limited extent he qualifies as an actual character) and to be fair, practically the only time Rico shows an emotion other than fear (before dropping into combat) or disgust (at the Bug enemy) is when he expresses love for his father.
Typical of the book’s embarrassing and simplistic machismo is that Rico’s father finds all of his problems to be cured by joining the military. Before that he was a Harvard grad and a wealthy businessman. It probably goes without saying that this unlucky lot in life made him so unhappy that he went into therapy. And what could be a bigger waste of time than therapy? No, Rico’s dad (I don’t remember that he had a name—a name is about as much character writing as Heinlein does in this book and I guess Rico’s dad didn’t merit the effort) is there to prove that a boy is never too old to become a man.
Nothing is ever said about why the war is being fought in the first place. There’s even a third alien race whose presence is just confusing. Rico never wonders about anyone’s motives, friend or foe. There’s also a random more or less superhuman character dropped in near the end of the book. The movie’s finessing this out of nowhere figure into the intriguing role played by Neil Patrick Harris is a typical improvement.
Starship Troopers the book spends most of its time describing Rico’s military life: the training, the hierarchies, the protocols, the uniforms, the combat, the communications, the duties… Heinlein seems to love it.
When Rico isn’t giving us incredibly detailed accounts of his daily life, including the hours the canteen is open, for instance, he spends probably about a hundred pages on fairly unexciting prose that focuses on military technology and its uses.
The troopers essentially all have Iron Man suits. There’s a surprising lack of descriptive writing in this book, and your first indication of this comes early on, when Rico launches into an extremely long monologue about his suit, but announces upfront that there’s “No need to describe what it looks like, since it has been pictured so often”.
Okay then. There won’t be descriptions of what anything else looks like either. It’s a simplistic and didactic book, with whole chapters in which Heinlein presumably uses characters as his mouthpiece to share his thoughts on society.
(He did this even more blatantly in Stranger in a Strange Land.)
What he seems to be saying is that military society is an ideal society and that the reason twentieth century society (Western society—other cultures don’t exist for him as much more than a wisp of Orientalism) will fail is because we start disdaining corporal punishment.
There are probably quite a few people who would agree with Heinlein about this and everything else he has to say. His point of view is certainly presented wth finality and an air of having already been proved several times over.
But the actual world of this book is even more simplistic than this very simplistic vision for social order. Religion is not a factor in anyone’s decision making and neither is bigotry or class resentment. There is no corruption. Governments are apparently not making deals with powerful business interests and overthrowing other governments for the mutual benefit of state power and corporate profit. How the messy world of 1959 ended up as Heinlein’s multi-planet federation with absolutely no internal conflict whatsoever is elided almost completely.
In the movie this actually works since the audience’s information comes from state-controlled media or characters whose knowledge derives totally from the same media. The book is narrated in the first person by someone with no personality, no curiosity, no interests and almost no emotions.
If Heinlein were a different person, he could have nudged this book just a bit to make it into something that we could quite reasonably discuss as being similar to Camus's The Stranger.
But no. On its own merits, the book Starship Troopers doesn’t rise much above the level of propaganda or slightly better than average pulp science fiction. The movie aimed much higher and hit its target.
The first line of the book is “I always get the shakes before a drop”.