"Why did you want me to read this?" I asked, as I fought the urge to submerge the old paperback in grimy, soapy water. "It's terrible."
"I didn't think you'd like it," he replied. "I thought you might find it interesting."
To me, Starship Troopers's loathsome qualities are innumerable. Firstly, it's essentially a plotless bildungsroman, which would be fine if protagonist Johnny Rico were the least bit interesting. Instead, he's meant to be a sort of everyman Ur-soldier in this futuristic world where only military members are full citizens with voting rights.
(Defenders of Heinlein might object here that Heinlein said that citizens could complete civil service to gain voting rights, but that's not supported by the text.)
Characters in this military utopia--almost all men--act more like mouthpieces than actual characters. And they're mouthpieces for exceedingly conservative and now-outdated modes of thought. Dubois, Rico's military history instructor, lectures his students on the cause of juvenile delinquency: it's because no one spanks their kids anymore.
After a long lecture scene--during which Dubois sneers at a "shrill" female student--Rico joins the military infantry despite his father's objections. His global military society is currently engaged in a war with extraterrestrial bugs. Sounds promising enough, but the next several dozen pages are spent in a lengthy, nostalgia-tinged reminiscence on basic training. The science fictional elements are thin; Heinlein infodumps on powered armor exoskeletons exactly once, but this is recounted with all the thrilling passion of an episode of Antiques Roadshow (though that might be underselling the suspense of Antiques Roadshow). Eventually, Rico's mother is killed, and Rico realizes that we really should be pre-emptively slaughtering our enemies. He fights the Bugs, of which we learn little about biology or society. The "narrative" (as it were) concludes with Rico as an officer and his father serving under him--having learned the foolishness of trying to deny his son his citizenship. (i.e. manhood)
So that's the novel. As a progressive ("shrill"?) peacenik feminist, I found little to like within its pages. The character of Rico was flat; the others were more like set pieces or author avatars, meant to allow Heinlein to posture at will. In truth, it felt like a particularly humorless military propaganda piece more than a novel, and the characters and world were so bland and underdeveloped that, in retrospect, I have no idea why this book has entered the SF canon.
Which brings us to the film. I once heard the 1997 film adaptation referred to as a "travesty" during a conference panel on military science fiction. If the original novel were one close to my heart, I could understand such an emotional reaction. It is certainly different from the novel--satirical, rather than earnest; aggressively campy, rather than infused with machismo. Supposedly, the film adaptation began its life as an unrelated work; the novel, which director Paul Verhoevan claims to have never finished, was only optioned well into production.
While I agree with Verhoevan's declaration that Starship Troopers is both boring and depressing, I'm not sure I entirely buy this story. Because in certain ways, the film Starship Troopers is stunningly true to the book--particularly in terms of extrapolating how a society built on Heinlein's principles might appear to outsiders.
Starship Troopers (the film) is filled with hammy acting and ridiculous posturing. But I wouldn't quite call it a parody of Heinlein's work. It's most easily understood as an in-universe propaganda film. In fact, propaganda shorts are spliced into the larger narrative (which, as in the book, sees Johnny Rico go through training, lose his mother, and then go to war) to clue you in to the broader conceit. These propaganda shorts are hilarious:
Those evil social scientists!
The film's also got a more meaningful and fully-fledged romantic subplot with a beginning, middle, and end. In Heinlein's novel, Carmen remains a cipher--representative of Rico's unattainable desires for sex and female companionship but never a character in her own right. Here, Carmen actually does stuff rather than acting representative of those mysterious and wily females.
The film also has Neil Patrick Harris.
So score one for Hollywood. Verhoevan's Starship Troopers takes a narrative framework that is slow, dull, pedantic, and propagandistic and turns it into an entertaining--if campy--satire of military propaganda itself. I must admit that there were several moments while reading Heinlein's work where his positions on military violence and citizenship were so outragous that I wondered if he could possibly be serious. Verhoevan seems to have decided that it really doesn't matter if he was. The most sensible framework for this story was, to him, and to me, one which points out the essential absurdity of it.