‘Rico, what’s the moral difference – if any – between a civilian and a citizen?’
This question that Radczek asks during the Civics class towards the beginning of the movie, is the key difference between the intent of the book and message of the film – but we’ll come back to that later.
Starship troopers was released in 1997 and was directed by Paul Verhoeven (who also gave us the original Robocop and Total Recall) and adapted into a screenplay by screenwriter Edward Neumeier. The movie did well at the box office, grossing $121 million worldwide, and since it has amassed a large cult following. 3 sequels were also made, but with lesser budgets and even lesser interest, the films did not do as well as the original.
It’s the original I would like to discuss with you today, and how the two minds who adapted this story from its source material came to very different conclusions about the world in which it is set.
THE SOURCE MATERIAL
Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in 1959 and used the book to express his political vision. He was an anti-communist liberal and these views are strongly prevalent throughout the novel.
The social democracies of the Heinlein’s world fell apart due the self-indulgent policies of radical parties and government handout’s, causing society to spiral down into a Clockwork Orange style dystopian future full of ultra-violent gangs terrorising everyone.
Order was restored in the form of The Terran Federation, a constitutional republic that places a huge emphasis on civic virtues and duties.
The United Citizens Federation Flag
In the Terran Federation, all people are civilians, until they make the conscious decision to become citizens and when they make that decision, they are put through a process of evaluation depending on which area they choose. Starship Troopers focuses on the military path to citizenship in a time where Earth is at all out war with a species of giant bugs hellbent on wiping out humanity.
The bugs, in both mediums, are brainless drones whose sole function is to engage in combat. ‘Brain bugs’ exist also however, meaning that the species is controlled by a tiny minority of intellectually gifted bugs, who order their inferior subordinates into the fight against humanity. The bugs were a clear allegory to a communist state in structure, but I would point out that having an entire social class of the population being dedicated to war and nothing else, would be a utopian dream for any fascist government.
THE INTERPRETATION OF FASCISM
‘Something given has no value, when you vote you are exercising political authority – you’re using force – and force, my friends, is violence; the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.'
This quote is lifted pretty much word for word from the novel and I believe it to be one of the scenes that led Verhoeven to create the movie in the style that he did, being that this scene appears at the very beginning of the novel (the part Verhoeven actually read).
Robert Heinlein, 1976
THE DIFFERENCE OF VISIONS
Starship Troopers is a movie that is caught between two creative visions. One is that of screenwriter, Edward Neumeier, who seemingly understood what Heinlein’s world was and the other is of Paul Verhoeven who says that he did not get more than two chapters through the book, describing it as, ‘militaristic and fascist’.
We can see how these two separate visions collide in the film, when the flag of the Terran Federation resembles the eagle and swastika on the Nazi flag and how the uniforms of the Federations intelligence service wearing uniforms that look suspiciously like those worn by the SS. These were Verhoeven’s decisions.
Neil Patrick Harris was in this movie too
The story, however, shows of a democratically lead Federation who, after the disastrous attack on Clendathu, demonstrate their accountability for their failures and show us the military leader responsible for the disaster stepping down in place of a more competent leader. That doesn’t sound like any fascist leadership that I am aware of.
There is no racial segregation or any institutionalised bigotry in either medium, which one would certainly expect to see in a fascist state, demonstrated how anyone from anywhere can apply for citizenship, not just a chosen few. Verhoeven’s changes from the novel can be seen again when he cast blonde haired, blue eyed Casper Van Dien as the movie’s protagonist; Johnny Rico. However, in the novel, our central character is called Juan Rico who comes from the Philippines and his entire combat unit is made up of men and women from all over the world.
Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico
So, to answer the question that Radczek posed to Rico at the beginning of the article; 'what’s the moral difference – if any – between a civilian and a citizen?’ my answer would be, ‘It depends which creator you ask.’
To Neumeier (and by extension, Heinlein), the moral difference between a civilian and citizen is one of civic duty to one’s federation, a philosophy more in line with Plato’s Republic than Mussolini’s Italy.
Verhoeven interpreted the question more as a separation of people based on arbitrary characteristics, and thus more in line with a far darker society.
On the front line
Although Neumeier's screenplay does stick closer to the original novel, Verhoeven’s vision is an interesting one. He admits to not finishing the book but what he did take from it is the central adage that, ‘War makes fascists of us all.’ A message, I believe, he showed very clearly in the movie.
Which interpretation is correct? Both and neither. And that’s the beauty of telling stories.