People are always complaining about how movies based on books are never as good as the source material. Well, they can stop their grousing, because the movie version of “The Martian” is not only as good as the book, I think it’s better.
“Sacrilege!” I can hear those of you who loved the book saying. Before you rally together and meet at my office door, torches in hand, let me say I adore the book, too. I believe it will be remembered as one of the great adventure stories of this generation. But let’s be honest. Wading through the scientific data and calculations of astronaut Mark Whatney as he plots out how to survive and then escape Mars was a chore that could test the patience of even ardent readers.
I don’t mean to diminish author Andy Weir’s remarkable accomplishment. He not only envisioned how mankind might pull off a mission to Mars, he also came up with a worst case scenario (the easy part), and then figured out how a person might survive those conditions (the hard part). In that sense alone, his book is a staggering accomplishment. But if Whatney hadn’t been such an appealing character, and if Weir hadn’t saturated his novel with humor, emotion, tension, and optimism, I would have slammed the thing shut after reading Whatney’s intricate plan for growing potatoes on Mars and said, “Leave him there.”
But I never felt that way while watching the movie. Based on a script written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”), the film can serve as a case study for how to boil down the components of a book into an experience that’s equally satisfying.
It helps that Goddard and Scott had a great novel as a starting point. “The Martian” (both the book and the movie) follows Whatney’s struggle to survive on Mars after being left for dead as the crew of a mission to the planet escapes a storm that threatens all of them. It also follows NASA’s attempts to rescue him. As you can image, the odds are against either happening.
Goddard and Scott also had a great central character to work with. If I were stranded on Mars, where there’s no water or plant life, and where exposure to the elements would mean certain death, I’d be catatonic. I’m not saying Whatney is thrilled about his circumstances, but his sense of humor and endearing sarcasm make him an instantly likable character. He gives himself a moment or two to whine, and then he gets down to brass tacks. Moreover, he never gives up, no matter how many setbacks he suffers, and no matter how hopeless his circumstances appear to be. He is, quite simply, an awesome human being – someone we would all like to be in moments of adversity.
Now, when translating a book to the silver screen, many filmmakers feel compelled to change this thing or that, or to leave this thing or that out. I’m not saying they’re always wrong, but more often that not, this irks fans of the book. It also tends to water down the story.
But not Goddard and Scott. All of the important story beats are in the movie, only they’re presented in a way that’s more palatable to filmgoers. The potato-planting scene is there, but it’s brief, and the writer and director have fun with it.
It also helped that Scott cast what I believe was a perfect actor to portray Whatney: Matt Damon. Quite simply, Damon is terrific. He clearly had fun with the astronaut’s sense of humor, but when called upon to project concern, or fear, he brought what was needed to the screen. I love the scene at night, when a fierce Martian wind is pulling on the tarp Whatney used to patch a hole in his habitat. As he looks over this shoulder at the covering, Scott wisely holds the shot for several seconds, and you can see in Whatney’s eyes the understanding that he’ll die if it blows away.
What else? Not much. The film looks great, was skillfully
directed, and has a terrific supporting cast. If there’s one slightly sour note, it the slight adjustments Goddard and Scott make to the ending. The changes don’t alter what happens,
just how it happens. If you read the book, you’ll pick up on it, and if you didn’t, then you won’t even notice something is off by a hair.
As I write this review, “The Martian” is already a huge hit. It deserves to be. It’s a huge crowd pleaser that respects its source material; it’s big and beautiful and exciting, like a blockbuster film should be; and it’s emotionally satisfying. Why else do we go to the movies?
Three-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. v