How Not To Turn a Novel Into a Movie – Case Study: Starship Troopers

Script Writers are an interesting breed especially if they are the kind that attempt to turn novels into movies.  This is particularly true of writers who deal in science fiction and fantasy script writing.  I have had my share of experiences of heading to a movie that was based on a favorite book of mine but none more disappointing than Starship Troopers.

As I have pointed out in an earlier post, this was my first Robert Heinlein novel ever.  I read it and fell hopelessly in love with it and everything Robert Heinlein’s typewriter produced.  You can imagine my excitement when I saw that Starship Troopers was coming to the movies in 1997.

I was so excited, I completely avoided watching the trailers because I wanted everything to be a surprise.  I went to the theater stoked and left it completely disappointed.  To be fair, the movie did OK enough at the box office to spawn two sequels: Starship Troopers 2 and Starship Troopers 3:Marauder but the fact was they had completely destroyed Robert Heinlein’s work.  The story was changed and to be completely honest the whole movie series was a teenage bloodfest crossed with boobfest.  In fact, the only thing truly Heinlein about the thing was the communal nudity scenes even though they actually do not appear in the novel.  I think the CGI and the naked women saved it.

The problem I had with the thing was the total abandonment of Heinlein’s philosophy which bordered on lampooning Heinlein’s beliefs.  To me, this bordered on sacrilege.  So to future screenwriters I offer my advice to you based on this case study in the form of rules.

Rule #1: Be Humble – there is probably a few reasons why the novel was successful and a million plus copy seller so don’t think you can improve on it.  In fact, if you really want your movie to draw the crowds the closer you make the movie to the novel the better.  I understand their may be things you can’t do in the movie that the writer did in the book, but that is no excuse for not trying to make it work.  The people like the story of the novel so don’t think you are going to improve it.  Looking at the Starship Trooper series, the whole story was almost abandoned.  Rico never really has any love interest in the girl after becoming a trooper.  They date in the book once later, but both of them realize that things have changed.  Only the first movie ends much the same with the capture of a brain bug, but the rest of them are completely new stories.  The rest of the first movie is missing the relationships between Rico and his father, his time in officer’s school, etc.  A lot of the human element was left out of the movie as part of the movie’s mechanism to attack fascism.  Truth is the script writers missed the real theme and it shows.

Rule #2: Your Movie and the Novel Should Have the Same Theme – This is where the movie Starship Troopers raped Robert Heinlein.  Robert Heinlein’s politics in general could be somewhat summed up as conservative as far as military and economics were concerned.  He did support Republican candidate Barry Goldwater for President.  As far as morals were concerned he would probably be considered liberal in the libertarian sense of the word.  He was a nudist and for the most part a non religious person.  He was definitely a believer in limited government.  The movie of Starship Troopers ignored this and seemed to be more concerned in making political statements in the opposite direction. Particularly the movie took aim at the idea of military service being a requirement to vote.  They presented that this would lead to a fascist government.  The book really does not say military service was required but government service.  Rico’s friend for instance wants to join the research branch of government.  What Heinlein was simply posing, and it wasn’t even the main question, was why do we assume a person should be allowed to vote simply because they breathe air.  Ultimately in the third movie, religion becomes the focus.  Heinlein in his books does not really take a religious stance.  Honestly, I simple see him as a person who thought all religions were bunk although he seems to admire people of faith who actually live their creed.  Stranger in a Strange Land makes some pretty bold statements on religion as Heinlein constantly challenges the idea of a personal god or God in that book.  Honestly, I don’t think Heinlein really cared what people believed about the divine a long as they didn’t force it on him.  He definitely viewed religious dictatorship in any form the worst type of government.

The BIG point to be made here is this: The book Starship Troopers, according to Heinlein himself in Grumbles From the Grave in letter to a fan, was asking the serious question: “Why do men fight?” I cannot see that the scriptwriters even addressed the question in the series of movies.  The closest they come is in the second movie and basically their answer was: survival?!?  In the book, the answer is much more complicated.  The fact this question is not even posed and thus not answered, was sacrilege to me.

Rule #3: If the Writer Writes Smartly, Write Your Movie Smartly.  This goes to the technical star of the book — powered armor.  It also goes to the tactics that such power armor would change in a future setting.  This was completely blown in the movie series.  Power armor does not even appear until the third movie and then suspiciously looks like Japanese mechs.  That is not the picture you get when you read the book’s description.  The idea you get is an oversize Iron Man suit with a helluva lot of firepower.  Each trooper had the same firepower as a battalion including nukes. This was what in truth allowed the troopers to go toe to toe with the bugs and survive.  Along with this, the troopers fought smartly with good tactics.  In the movie every solution was not smart tactics but more firepower sprayed in a haphazard manner.  The solution in all the movies seemed to be more men and more guns.  The book did not portray this, but instead showed how mankind’s intelligence and ingenuity could beat superior numbers.  The fact is the screenwriters missed a golden opportunity to have ‘Iron man’  like stuff ten plus years before Iron Man came out.  They blew it.

There it is, my rules to screenwriters who turn novels into movies.  I don’t think it will be listened to however.  Screenwriters seems to have egos too large, politics too liberal and a lack of intelligence to understand the brilliance of other writers. So, here is to hope instead.

2 thoughts on “How Not To Turn a Novel Into a Movie – Case Study: Starship Troopers

    1. Amen to that. James Bond was pretty good in the Sean Connery days. After that, the novels and movies have less and less to do with each other.

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