Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is a 1997 American military science-fiction action film directed by Paul Verhoeven and stars Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, and Neil Patrick Harris. It is an adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name. The movie drops the viewer into the middle of a battle between humans and an alien bug species as a reporter is giving news on the progress of an ongoing war. It is complete chaos and the Earth’s military is being quickly killed off by the bugs, including the reporter and his cameraman. After this, the movie jumps back in time one year, to before the battle where the audience is introduced to Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick) who are high school seniors in Buenos Aires. The four high school students all end up deciding to join the military after graduating high school, with Johnny and Dizzy heading to Mobile Infantry basic training, while Carmen becomes a starship pilot and Carl joins military intelligence. Johnny performs well in basic training and is soon given leadership over the soldiers in his group, but after an accident kills one of his men, he decides to leave the military. As he is about to go, the training base gets word of an attack from the aliens, which included the destruction of his home, Buenos Aires, and the deaths of his parents. This prompts Johnny to stay with the Mobile Infantry and service in the war against the bugs. In this blog I will be looking at the use of female characters in the adaptation and how the film dealt with themes presented in the book.

In the book and the movie, the main character is Johnny Rico and the plot follows his journey from the end of high school to his eventual commanding position in the Mobile Infantry. For the most part, this character and his progress through the story doesn’t change between mediums. However, it is with the side characters that the biggest changes can be seen. An example of this is with Dizzy, as in the books she is only referenced in the very first chapter, and it is because she is one of two people that died during a mission that Johnny’s platoon was a part of. In the movie though, she is one of the characters who has the most screen time after Johnny. The thing that was the most interesting though is the fact that she was basically given the personality of Carmen in the book, who was flirty and popular with the boys. Dizzy, like book Carmen, had liked Johnny in high school but neither ever got to be with him during that time, though for different reasons. It isn’t until film Dizzy and book Carmen meet their Johnny’s again once in the military that their relationships start to change. Carmen, on the other hand, became Johnny’s girlfriend in the movie and seemed to not totally understand the effect she had on men; whereas in the books I got the impression that Carmen was very aware of how her presence affected people. In the film, she actually breaks up with Johnny after they have been separated for a while after joining the military, which is what leaves room open for his relationship with Dizzy. I find this character change interesting because it allowed the movie to have two main female parts where the book only had one, Carmen. Also given that the book was written in the 1950’s and it is a military action story, it isn’t surprising that it didn’t focus a lot on the female characters. In WWII there were female pilots so Carmen’s role as one makes sense in the book, but during WWII women were not used in the military as soldiers on the ground fighting in battle. So the idea of a woman in mobile infantry probably wouldn’t have seemed possible, and though the character is mentioned in the book as in Johnny’s platoon, Dizzy is a man. I think This choice to swap the character’s gender makes sense and shows a good foil for both her male counterpart, Johnny, and then the other main female, Carmen.

When looking at the society of the book, though it is sci-fi action, there are definitely some critiques of the United States and humans in general. Though the reader has to remember that this critique is of society during the 1950’s and at least in part because of WWII. With this in mind, the novel is set roughly 700 years in the future, and Earth is run by the Terran Federation, which is a world government in the control of the military. The society is quite far from that of the United States democracy, which, when brought up by characters, is argued to be a highly flawed form of government which was responsible for the destruction of the U.S. Instead they have a society that is more closely related to Starship Troopers is one of my top 10 favorite movies, which for many may seem strange given its campiness and cheesy special effects. But it does some really interesting things storytelling wise and the characters all have strong development throughout the movie. Even for those that get less screen time, like Johnny’s high school friend Carl who is gone for half of the movie, the viewer can see and understand how his character has changed, and more importantly why that change has happened. My personal favorite character in the movie is Dizzy, so when reading the book it was shocking to find out she was one, a man and then two, never mentioned again. Though the books did give me more appreciation for Johnny’s character as the reader can more fully understand his emotional struggles through the story, and not just his physical one. Though I probably wouldn’t have thought to read or have even known about the book if it wasn’t for the movie, it was definitely an enjoyable and interesting read. In my next blog, I will be looking at the 2013 zombie movie, Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine, and based on Isaac Marion’s book of the same name.  or liberalism, where the military is all powerful and the only way to be considered a citizen in the society, meaning you can vote and work in the government, is to complete a term of service in the military. The book explains the Earth’s society and government gradually over the course of the book, but never in a way that just tells you these things. When the information is given to the reader it is always in response to something that has happened to the characters or as a result of the plot. The book is narrated by Johnny, so whenever something happens that is in relation to how the government is run, the reader gets his thoughts on the subject. In the movies, because the viewer doesn’t get Johnny’s internal monologue, it is harder for the film to get the details of how the society is run in an understandable way. Like other films like this, some of it comes with dialogue or just has to be inferred by the viewer, but Starship Troopers also does something that is really interesting and unique. In between certain scenes, small informational videos are shown giving extra details to the audience, but what is cool about these videos is that they break the whole fourth wall and act as propaganda trying to get the viewer to serve in the military. They show what the military is doing, the government officials as they make important decisions, and even short ads for the citizens of the Terran Federation. When the propaganda videos play it isn’t because a character is watching them, it just appears on the screen, and the first time it happens it can be confusing for the viewer. It is a very helpful way to get important information into the movie, but it also isn’t boring narration, which often comes with the complaint about ‘show don’t tell.’ This choice from the filmmakers is brilliant and it is something that I don’t recall ever seeing in any other movie, and it fits with the concept of governments when they are at war as propaganda, which is one of the biggest ways countries bolster support for a cause.

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Starship Troopers is one of my top 10 favorite movies, which for many may seem strange given its campiness and cheesy special effects. But it does some really interesting things storytelling wise and the characters all have strong development throughout the movie. Even for those that get less screen time, like Johnny’s high school friend Carl who is gone for half of the movie, the viewer can see and understand how his character has changed, and more importantly, why that change has happened. My personal favorite character in the movie is Dizzy, so when reading the book it was shocking to find out she was one, a man and then two, never mentioned again. Though the books did give me more appreciation for Johnny’s character as the reader can more fully understand his emotional struggles through the story, and not just his physical one. Though I probably wouldn’t have thought to read or have even known about the book if it wasn’t for the movie, it was definitely an enjoyable and interesting read. In my next blog, I will be looking at the 2013 zombie movie, Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine, and based on Isaac Marion’s book of the same name. 

—Jo Spangler, Film blogger.


Jo’s Bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.


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