WARNING: The following may contain potential spoilers for the novel and film The Martian, depending on your definition of “spoilers.”
I haven’t talked about movies on the blog in quite a while. That’s because most of the movies I’ve seen this year have been enjoyable but not terribly significant, while the one that did knock me off my feet in nearly every way-–Mad Max: Fury Road–-also left me pretty much speechless and unsure of what to say about it. That said, book-to-movie adaptations are always fair game around here, especially when I’ve followed the prescribed path of reading the book first, which is the case with The Martian.
The Martian began as a story shared in installments with the readers of Andy Weir’s blog, which he collected and self-published for Kindle at their request. The Kindle hit was acquired by a traditional publisher and, after becoming a mainstream bestseller in nearly every format, was adapted into a Major Motion Picture that arrived in theaters in October 2015. I’m so happy it’s made this journey. I included the audiobook version in my 2014 Books of the Year roundup, and although I was quite sure my husband Paul would enjoy the story, it’s hard to get him to read much these days, so I thought there was a better shot at getting him to see it onscreen.
The Martian begins on Sol 6 (a “sol” is the length of day on Mars) with NASA astronaut Mark Watney’s first log entry after being left for dead on the Red Planet by the rest of the Ares 3 mission team. Mark understands that decision—the entire team could have died if they’d stayed behind—but he also understands that he’s not dead. Yet. Once he does the math–how much food he has, how long until the next Mars mission is scheduled–he sees that he’ll most likely get there eventually. However, Mark’s drive to survive, and the ingenuity he employs in applying his skills as an engineer and botanist to that goal, is a bit of a surprise to him. NASA’s eventual discovery that he’s still on Mars, and clearly not dead, is an even bigger surprise, and their necessary response to that discovery–finding a way to bring him home–will bring more surprises, some of which will be quite unwelcome.
“To be honest, I had a few doubts in the early going that this novel was going to work for me, but just as Mark’s log entries were starting to feel a little tedious–they weren’t boring, but was the entire story going to be told this way?–author Andy Weir switched gears. The narrative expanded to include the Earth-based NASA team and Mark’s fellow crew members on the Hermes space station, and as these strands became braided more tightly together, the suspense built and I grew more invested, both intellectually and emotionally, in The Martian. Strangely and surprisingly, building out the cast of characters made the central one that much more interesting to me. I really grew to like Mark, and his log entries proved to be both genuine expressions of personality and engaging accounts of an inspired survival mission that took me on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
The film adaptation of The Martian got me right back on that roller coaster, even though I thought I knew how things would turn out. I avoided reading any detailed reviews of the film before seeing it, because I didn’t want to know if any major changes were made to the plot. If you’ve read the book and worried about that too, I can reassure you that screenwriter Drew Goddard is largely faithful to the source’s storyline and, just as importantly, to its science. But since Paul hadn’t read the book, he was experiencing it all for the first time, and getting to see him do that was an extra added ingredient in my enjoyment of the film.
The movie still makes use of the log entries that told so much of the novel’s story, but effectively translates them into video form that shows as well as tells. With this device in use, the role of Mark Watney includes a lot of fourth-wall-breaking, although this sadly does not extend to reproducing the novel’s classic opening lines:
“I’m pretty much fucked.
“That’s my considered opinion.
Because this is the story of one man stranded on Mars, it requires Matt Damon as Mark to perform nearly every one of his scenes alone; this has got to be a huge challenge for an actor, and I was impressed by how well he handled it. That said, the story’s other characters are introduced much sooner in the movie than they are in the book, and while they get little interaction with the protagonist, the cast is excellent (and notably diverse).
I haven’t searched out where the Mars scenes were filmed–I don’t really want to know if they’re mostly CGI, to be honest–but they look stark and gorgeous, with a convincing reddish cast to the sunlight. The movie does compress some of the plotline, but it retains the most important points, as well as the humor and intelligence of the novel–it succeeds in making genuine scientific and engineering problems suspenseful and entertaining.
I’ve said before that I’m not a “read the book first” stickler, and having witnessed Paul thoroughly engaged with and enjoying the movie version of The Martian without having read the novel, I’m clearly not going to take that position here. That said, if you have read the book, it’s worth seeing what it becomes onscreen.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Drew Goddard, adapted from the novel by Andy Weir
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and Chiwetel Ejiofor
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