Welcome to By The Book, where we compare books with their cinematic adaptations. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work?
Andy Weir’s self-published-novel-turned-bestseller is a sci-fi epic which details the titular astronaut’s attempt to survive after being stranded alone on the red planet, with only a dwindling supply of food. It’s been described as a “love letter to science” and has people left, right and centre banging on about how it’s the best book they’ve read in ages (including yours truly), but does Ridley Scott’s adaptation live up to The Martian’s enviable reputation?
The Martian himself
Any doubts that Matt Damon wouldn’t be able to pull off the wisecracking dry humour of our castaway, Mark Watney, can be pushed aside. His affability as an actor is an asset in a film which forces us to spend so much time with him, and asks us to root for his survival in the face of ridiculous odds.
As well as conveying his fierce intelligence and intellectual rigour through detailed calculations and scientific explanations, Watney’s humorous first person narration is no small part of what makes the novel so engaging. Like the adapters of S. J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard plump for the obvious solution of transforming Watney’s written word into a video log. However, good judgement ensures that this potentially dull and static device is used sparingly.
SPOILER WARNING – From this point on there are plot spoilers to both the novel and film
We’re not in Kansas anymore
Scott’s film is a largely faithful adaptation of Weir’s novel, yet a notable alteration is to the opening. While Weir’s novel begins with the abandoned Watney’s gripping narration (opening “I’m pretty much fucked”), and only later relays the sequence of events that led to his being left on Mars, Scott starts by showing the catalytic storm which leads Watney’s colleagues to believe him dead. In visual terms, this is a sound and sensible decision; it’s much more dynamic than a man talking to camera. Disappointingly though, the storm itself is preceded by an underwritten and stilted scene of the crew getting on with some unspecified science amid light banter.
The storm is the ideal way of establishing the hostility of the environment Watney will have to live in, and its non-Earthly nature is superbly realised. There can of course be no driving rain or lashing branches; instead flying sand, rocks, and the tangible expanses of Jordan’s arid deserts create so much texture in each shot that it almost feels like watching a 50 year-old movie on film. While the real locations are both pleasing to the eye and aptly suggest the sheer isolation of the protagonist, The Martian does suffer from a lack of awe-inspiring exterior shots of space.
Me, myself, and I
The novel’s Watney can validly be called unrealistic as he doesn’t seem to suffer psychologically despite spending years fighting for his life in total solitude – compare Sam Rockwell’s character in Duncan Jones’ Moon, for example. Both the novel and film even seem to acknowledge this, in Vincent Kapoor’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) questioning of what being left behind will do to Watney’s psychology.
Inevitably, the act of watching a person rather than reading their words transforms the narrative to third rather than first person, which in turn affects the audience’s relationship to Watney. By enabling us to see him rather than just hear his voice, the movie humanises him. As well as the film’s peppering of expletives – in keeping with the novel yet surely just for comic effect – Scott does allow this version of Watney increased vulnerability. We see Damon’s Watney tear up, anthropomorphise his potato plants, and, best of all, even when he’s being upbeat he’s able to suggest denial and inner turmoil.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this adaptation is that through its differences in characterisation it hammers home the unreliability of Weir’s narrator. Not all is fixed though; it’s still weird that Watney appears to have no family – in marked contrast to his fellow Ares 3 astronauts – and even when he talks about his parents the very fact that this reference is so singular and fleeting causes it to ring false.
Despite the increased believability of Watney’s character, a disappointment of the adaptation is the excision of the Beck-Johanssen (Sebastian Stan and Kate Mara) romance, which in the novel provides a welcome gasp of levity amongst the tension-filled thrill ride. In fact, throughout Scott’s The Martian we don’t see enough of the Ares 3 crew at all – later scenes in which they play a bigger part only serve to underscore just how much Mara, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Peña are underused talent.
Most disturbing is the film’s treatment of gender. In a pivotal scene astronaut/chemist Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and Johanssen discuss the final stages of Watney’s rescue. Vogel is shot from the waist up, standing behind a table, while we follow Johanssen as she floats her way through the spaceship, shot from head to toe, emphasising the fact that her jumpsuit is (unnecessarily) far more fitted than Vogel’s.
More prominent is the revision of the final climactic scene – Watney’s rescue – in which a central role played by Beck is displaced by Chastain’s Commander Lewis. There is no narrative reason why this should be; it renders Stan’s Beck both pointless and impotent within the plot, and is perhaps a misguided attempt to improve the film’s gender equality. Either that or Chastain’s star wattage was deemed more capable than Stan’s of carrying an exciting finale.
Unsurprisingly, The Martian has been trimmed, slimmed, and simplified in order to make it a viable prospect for the silver screen. As a result there is less scientific detail and much less exposition, which does result in aspects of the plot coming across as miraculous rather than the result of hours of brainpower on Watney and NASA’s part.
In Scott’s efficient hands The Martian is incredibly procedural – Weir’s thinly characterised Watney isn’t fleshed out, and the intriguing philosophical consideration about the value of a single human life is here afforded even less space than in the novel.
What would Andy Weir think?
Andy Weir is most likely nerding out right now, completely psyched to have seen his novel brought to the big screen by someone with Scott’s pedigree, and in the wake of comparable space epics, Gravity and Interstellar. Scott has cleverly incorporated Lewis’ obsession with ‘70s disco music – a major sore point for the novel’s Watney – into the film’s soundtrack, milking the era’s tunes for their references to space travel.
In the audio-visual medium of film some of the strengths of the novel are at first weaknesses; the tone feels excessively comedic and light, not seeming to appreciate the gravity (see what I did there) of Watney’s situation. Things get a little more serious when NASA director Teddy (a coiffed Jeff Daniels) takes to a podium to announce Watney’s “death”, however once NASA realise Watney is in fact alive the film becomes increasingly single-minded, never making room for some of the deeper issues it might have considered.
The casting, however, including Donald Glover and a more serious than ever before Kristen Wiig, is spot on. Aside from a credits sequence detailing the Ares 5 mission and the future whereabouts of the Ares 3 astronauts, there’s not much here for a fan of the book who already knows how it all goes down. It’s not a bad adaptation, but it falls short of being a great film.