Why 'Starship Troopers' May Be Too Controversial to Adapt Faithfully

Starship Troopers Still - Photofest - H 2020
Courtesy of Photofest
The newly announced reboot is said to be more faithful to Robert A. Heinlein's original book, but is that a good idea?

Already the news that Columbia Pictures is planning a new movie adaptation of Starship Troopers, the sci-fi war story published by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959, has divided social media over whether or not it's a good idea. The conflict isn't just over the amount of love fans have for Paul Verhoeven's 1997 movie, however; it's also about whether or not the world needs a Starship Troopers movie right now.

The concern of some is that any movie that attempts to stay more faithful to the original Heinlein (as this new version from Fast & Furious producer Neal H. Moritz is planning on) is doomed to be, at the very least, as controversial as the source material. Despite being not only one of Heinlein's best-selling titles and winning the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960, Starship Troopers has been decried as promoting fascism and being racist in its creation of a society where democracy has been severely restricted and warfare against the alien "bugs" comes with its own coded terminology that hews too closely to real-world racism for many.

That the first movie adaptation of the book escaped such charges speaks to two factors. Firstly, attitudes in 1997 were different to the degree that there was far less sensitivity towards these matters, for better or worse. (Personally, I lean towards the latter, but opinions vary.) Secondly, and more importantly, is the fact that Verhoeven's Starship Troopers was anything but faithful to the novel, discarding massive elements of the book's mythology — sorry, those who wanted to see the power armor — and ramping up some of its more outré parts to create something that's as much political and social satire as it is a science fiction action movie.

Given the controversy surrounding Starship Troopers the book — and, to be blunt, some of the flaws of the book itself, which reads much like polemic with (too) many scenes taking place inside classrooms with characters expressing the author's militaristic worldview to the reader as if they were one of the students — it's difficult to imagine a faithful screen version of Starship Troopers finding much success with modern audiences. Indeed, the very prospect seems oddly reminiscent of Ender's Game, a similarly beloved — and controversial — sci-fi novel that received its own movie version in 2013.

What doomed that movie wasn't just a boycott organized in protest of original author Orson Scott Card's anti-gay views, but the fact that, as a movie, it was so faithful to the 1985 novel that it seemed out of step with contemporary audience needs. In the increasingly charged political environment of today — one in which charges of fascism have been raised in connection with the current Republican presidential nominee — it's difficult to imagine that a similar mix of controversy and outdated material would escape a similar fate.

Of course, the movie has yet to be made — or even written — which allows for any number of changes to be made to safeguard the future Starship Troopers against such trouble. (I don't envy screenwriters Mark Swift and Damian Shannon in attempting to do so, but they do have experience of sorts, having updated Baywatch as a vehicle for Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron.) The question then becomes: in updating Starship Troopers to make it more acceptable to today's audience, can it still manage to remain faithful enough to Heinlein's original to please the existing fan base?