Starship troopers: from the page to the screen

It did not win the Academy award for special effects after a 1998 nomination, but the director and screen-writers truly deserve a special award for creating a C- movie out of an A+ science fiction classic. These are the first impression prompted after watching the movie, within a few short weeks of completing the book.

The first fatal error they made is trying to improve on Robert A. Heinlein’s original story. Granted the book about a future militarist/libertarian society at war with an alien civilization itself is extremely controversial and perhaps not the easiest to transfer to the big screen. It is strange that a work held-up as breaking the mold in science fiction, by eschewing “escapist adolescent fantasies” in favor of a very rough and gritty world view, becomes a movie with more flash than substance, shedding the hard philosophy and leaving behind the carefully doctored ultra-violent battles scenes as the  only redeeming virtue.

Some of the plot departures may have been unavoidable. In the book, the identity of Rico’s staff sergeant is hidden from the reader until the end, even as he plays a pivotal role in the final battle against the bugs. Of course it turns out to be familiar character, but in the movie this would have been difficult to hide when the director is obliged to at least include voice-snippets if not actual images of the character. But other substitutions make no sense: Rico’s unit, the “Roughnecks,” is commanded by his civics teacher who is long retired from the military. Rico has not one, but two competing romantic interests. And the most jarring contradiction, far from being an average “grunt” with no special talents– intended to prove that an ordinary solider can accomplish remarkable things, quite inline with Heinlein’s libertarian worldview– Rico starts out as an accomplished athlete,  a dashing, dapper gentleman with a girlfriend also serving for the Federation army.

Hollywood has not been kind to Heinlein. Philip K. Dick inspired a series of more or less successful movie adaptations. Some strayed very far from the original, and not always by choice: after all Minority Report, Paycheck and We can remember it for your wholesale (which inspired Total Recall) were short stories, not exceeding a few dozen pages. Developing that into a blockbuster necessarily calls for some imaginative extrapolation. By contrast Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was remarkably true to the dark-vision of Do androids dream of electric sheep? and Richard Linklater captured the harrowing drug-induced madness of A Scanner Darkly. Sci-fi fans can only hope that Heinlein also deserves a second chance.


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