It’s not often in the world of books and movies that they intersect in a pleasing manner. People who read the book before seeing the movie tend to have their hopes dashed by the director’s interpretation. Maybe they left out a favorite scene, pivotal dialog, or any other myriad of issues. On the other side, people see the movie first, then check out the book and find themselves overwhelmed by the stuff that wasn’t in the movie. I’m pleased to say that the film adaptation of The Martian flies in the face of that paradigm, instead bringing us a picture (albeit abridged) of the struggles and triumphs of Mark Watney on Mars.
Andy Weir’s book starts with us meeting Mark Watney face down in the sandy surface of the red planet. Trying to get his bearings, he realizes that his Ares III crewmates left him behind on Mars, thinking him dead and unreachable during a horrific sandstorm. Wounded and alone, he now has to figure out how to survive on a planet where you can neither grow food nor breathe the atmosphere. The rest of the novel follows Watney’s video logs as he struggles to survive and figure out a way to let people know he’s alive. We get occasional breaks back to Earth where NASA and JPL eventually figure out he’s alive and we can see their efforts to get him back. Later, once they learn of Watney being alive, we get to see the rest of the Ares team on the Hermes as they make their flight back to Earth. Science takes a front seat in these plot lines as we see what Watney has to do to survive, and what NASA has to do to get their man back home. You really get a feel of how many genius level people it takes to get something into space at all, let alone to a planet that is over 50 million kilometers away.
Enough about the book. The book is excellent and any fan of hard science fiction will consume the pages at a rapid pace. I highly recommend it, regardless of your choice to see this movie.
The movie has to be setup differently, as we need to meet Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in relation to his crew before he is left behind in order to get a connection to the people involved and to understand the tough choices that Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) has to make when it comes to the safety of her crew. She tries to save Watney, but in the near-zero visibility of the storm, she cannot locate him and has to break off her search in order to get herself and the other four members of her crew away from Mars. They leave and next we see Watney the following morning, face down in the sandy surface of the red planet.
From here the story takes its course and the focus shifts back and forth between Mars, Earth, and the Hermes. The movie leaves many scenes from the book out (typical) but it never seems to detract from the story. From the perspective of a person who has not read the book, they will likely not need to see the trial and error Watney had to go through to get the rover suited for distance travel, or the harrowing trip he faces traveling the 3,200 miles to the Schiaparelli Crater where the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), his possible way off the planet, rests waiting for the Ares IV mission.
While the movie follows a pleasing course through the novel and catches some of the more pivotal moments, one thing the movie does better than the novel is bring home the emotion of the characters. In the novel we can feel the frustration of Watney when his potato crop is destroyed, but Matt Damon rams it home as he surveys the damage and only then allows himself to breakdown once he is back in the safety of the rover. The feeling of isolation and loneliness Watney feels as he seeks to keep himself entertained and sane during his time alone. The despair felt by all when the first hastily put together resupply mission ignites midflight, never leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. And of course, the rescue attempt at the end of the book is already tense, but when you can see it happening right there on the screen, you cannot help but hold your breath and white-knuckle the arm of your chair as you hope Watney finally gets to go home.
Ridley Scott did a fine job with this film, making everything look and feel like you really are seeing this on Mars. You cannot get the actual gravity on Mars (which is 0.38 of the Earth’s) unless you go there. He could have attempted some other way to have Matt Damon take big bounding strides, but that would likely look ridiculous. He didn’t send the setting over the top or allow the habitat, rover, or anything else look too futuristic. He focused on the story and kept the science as close to reality as possible. He never once lost the true focus of the story – survival against all odds. I do question why Scott made a few of the small changes, like changing the Indian Venkat Kapoor to the not-so-Indian Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and casting a non-Asian, Mackenzie Davis, as Mindy Park, but I could overlook this and enjoy the film.
I like to think that the movie does bring something else to the table that the book touches on but doesn’t fully portray. At the end, we learn that only through cooperation can this situation be resolved – cooperation between organizations and cooperation with the other nations of the world. One nation alone may not have all the resources (money, people, time, etc.) to get into space. You will have to join forces with other nations to make space travel more viable. Maybe one day we will all learn to get along, and when we all work together, maybe we can do something good for all of humankind.
To sum it all up, I don’t view The Martian movie as a standalone from The Martian book. Instead, they complement each other. Either alone is a satisfying experience, but only together can you fully appreciate the work accomplished by Andy Weir and Ridley Scott. I highly recommend the movie, whether you’ve read the book or not, and even a non-science fiction fan can find enjoyment from the drama and thrills offered in this film.
Movie Website (with trailers)