If you know nothing about The Martian, stop reading this and go listen to the Audiobook! Seriously, I’ve got a lot of thoughts about it, and the rest of this post is going to be written pretty much specifically to try to convince you to listen to the Audiobook, but if you don’t know anything at all going in your experience will be so much better!
Still here, huh? Then either you don’t care about spoilers, or you’ve already experienced this story, either through the Matt Damon movie, the book by Andy Wier, or the Audiobook read by R. C. Bray. When I started listening to the Audiobook with my wife a few months back, I knew pretty much the basic premise, that it was the story of a guy (NASA Astronaut Mark Watney) stuck on Mars who had to “science the shit” out of figuring out how to stay alive, and not much else. Last week, I finished listening to the Audiobook, and a few days ago I watched the movie.
My short review is that the movie was disappointing, specifically because the audiobook is so good! However, I don’t think I would have gotten through this story if I read the actual book. The majority of the story is told through logs from the stranded astronaut, so the narrative device fits with the audio format perfectly. On top of that, a fair amount of the text is devoted to the narrator working out issues mathematically, and I think reading through those calculations would have been mind numbingly boring.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get in to what made the movie so, so disappointing.
The movie fails to live up to the original text because it simultaneously undermines the achievements of the main character while overstating how important his achievements are.
The first major change that stood out to me was that the Mark Watney of the book introduces himself as both a Botanist and an Engineer, while Matt Damon’s character tells the viewer he is going to survive because he is a botanist, even holding up his NASA file which is labeled, exclusively, “Botanist”. This immediately threw up flags for me, because so many of the challenges faced by Mark in the book were engineering based. Pretty much every issue Mark encounters in the book requires his engineering background over his Botany skills, but the movie is only interested in his quest for potatoes. Case in point: here are steps taken to retrieve Pathfinder in both versions:
|Book Mark||Movie Mark|
|Steal the battery from one Rover to increase the capacity in the other||Steal the battery from one Rover to increase the capacity in the other|
|Figure out where to store the battery in the second rover||Not an issue, because the movie Rover has a huge flatbed.|
|Test drive the rover within walking distance of his home base to ensure it wouldn’t fail and leave him (more) stranded||“Bah, who needs testing.”|
|Find the RTG to heat the Rover||Find the RTG to heat the Rover|
|Determine exactly how much insulation to remove from the Rover in order to balance the heat put out by the RTG and the loss of heat to the Martian cold||The movie’s RTG is apparently a comfy 72 degrees|
|Develop a technique to navigate to ensure he didn’t get lost on his way to or from Pathfinder||“Eh… I’ll just go that way, I guess?”|
|Figure out how to transport Pathfinder back||See flatbed-Rover notes above|
|Modulate the electrical connection between the HAB and Pathfinder to not overload it||Just plug it in!|
A fair amount of this is just the need for movies to be more efficient with the storytelling, but removing these sections makes Mark seem luckier than he is smart.
On top of skipping over almost all of his smaller, incremental engineering achievements, the movie also removes two major obstacles from Watney’s journey from his original landing site to the Ares IV rocket he hopes to use to escape Mars. First, the movie version of Watney is able to stay in contact with Earth for the entriety of his journey after establishing contact using Pathfinder, and second, a major dust storm that threatens his trip in the book is dropped entirely. Considering the first exception, I can see why the dust storm was cut, because if he had been in contact with NASA in the book at that point, they’d just tell him to drive around, instead of him having to solve it himself. But that’s the problem; keeping Mark in contact with Earth means that a lot of the problems he had to work out himself in the book are solved by NASA, not him. It also makes one of the best lines from both the book and movie not make any sense.
As he’s preparing to go take the Ares IV rocket, both versions of Watney decide that they are space pirates:
I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars. There’s an international treaty saying that no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth. By another treaty if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies. So Mars is international waters. Now, NASA is an American non-military organization, it owns the Hab. But the second I walk outside I’m in international waters. So Here’s the cool part. I’m about to leave for the Schiaparelli Crater where I’m going to commandeer the Ares IV lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m onboard the Ares IV. So I’m going to be taking a craft over in international waters without permission, which by definition… makes me a pirate. Mark Watney: Space Pirate.
This is the movie version of the speech… do you see the problem? He says no one has given him permission, “and they can’t until I’m onboard the Ares IV.” Except… he’s in direct contact with NASA! He’s having AIM chats with
Venkat Vincent Kapoor every day! I know this seems like a nitpicky thing (hell, this whole post is nitpicky), but the inclusion of a line from the book without the context that made the line make any sort of sense stands out as a real failure at adaptation.
The biggest issue I have with the movie, though, is that it seems to miss the point of the book entirely with it’s ending. Both end with a monologue from Watney, but in different contexts. In the book, he’s recording a final log after being rescued, while in the movie he’s speaking to a class of potential future astronauts. Let’s look at both for comparision.
The other question I get most frequently is. When I was up there stranded by myself, did I think I was gonna die? Yes, absolutely. And that’s one you need to know, going in, because it’s gonna happen to you. This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?
If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.
If we subscribe to the idea that how a story ends tells you what the story is about, and I do, then the movie is about the incredible achievements of one man, while the book is about mankind binding together.
And that takes us all the way back to the beginning of my problems, with the glossing over of exactly how many issues our hero sciences the shit out of. The movie, has Mark Watney solving about three major problems on his own, and then ends with bragging about how great he is, while the book has him running up against countless problems, mostly on his own, and then applauding the entirety of the human race.
The more that I think about that difference, the more bothered by it I am… as evidenced by the fact that when I started writing this I thought it’d be about 500 words, and it’s now almost 1500. The movie was beautiful, but I don’t think it’s just a weak adaptation, I really think it undermines the story, so if that’s all you know of the Martian, go listen to the Audiobook!