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?