Adaptations are a tricky business, in large part due to the variety of expectations attached to them. Up until a few years back, I fell solidly into the camp loudly proclaiming that movie adaptations of books should, essentially, be perfect replicas of the original work, just in a new form. Thankfully, I came to my senses and realized that this mindset will always result in disappointment. If a movie is approached with a checklist of required details, even if the experience is enjoyable, there will always be something to complain about. Likewise, a movie pandering to this type of audience risks becoming too invested in trotting out facts and minutiae to be admired by fans “in the know,” at the expense of developing a quality film.
Obviously adaptations should never deviate so far from the source that characters and narrative moments become unrecognizable. It’s an adaptation after all, not a visual fanfic. That being said, there are some really fun and excellent fics out there, so maybe canonizing AUs of some franchises in movie formats wouldn’t be all that bad… Now then, the crucial phrase I most often see used in discussions of adaptation, and which reflects my current stance, is that it needs to stay “true to the spirit of the original.” This delightfully vague phrase keeps a world of interpretative space open to play in and allows creators to breathe within the bounds of the new medium. This approach shifts the focus away from a laundry list of superficial details to an exploration of themes, characterization, and relationships.
Watching The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel, a few weeks back got me thinking about this process because, for the first time in quite a while, I saw the movie first. I know, I know – to some, this is practically a sin, and I didn’t even buy the book until after I left the theater. I even had a nice chat with a bookseller who admitted she always held off on the movie until she had a chance to read the book. To an extent, this literary loyalty is admirable. But while knowledge of the source can and will inform appreciation and interpretation of the adaptation, ideally, it should not be necessary. By going into the movie relatively blind (I had read a couple reviews in advance and heard feedback from a friend who’d seen it already), I had to approach the narrative clear of expectations. This in turn allowed me to view the film with a transparency that is unachievable with foreknowledge of the story beats and characterizations. Because I could not fill in the gaps with information from the novel, it was clearer where the film was stretching as an adaptation.
So. How does The Martian rank? Pretty dang fine, in my book. The novel uses astronaut Mark Watney’s mission logs as a framing device. The film, as a visual medium, gets to drop the framing device and just show us what’s happening, with some cutaways to video logs that provide doses of both humor and exposition. Meanwhile, moments that are glossed over in the book (he’s writing mission logs, not a thriller, after all) become riveting moments in the film. The most dramatic example of this difference is Watney doctoring himself at the beginning. Movie audiences are treated to Matt Damon performing minor surgery on himself after stumbling back to the Hab on the verge of suffocating, clearly in agonized crisis. Imagine my surprise when, in the book, Weir sets two sentences aside for this emergency once Watney gets to the Hab, succinctly waving it away so he can dig into the Science of Survival.
This change in prioritization is a perfect demonstration of why The Martian works so well in both forms. Weir’s novel rests heavily on its technical explanations of creative science. Several of the mission logs read like a science diary, and I fully imagine Watney using the log as a form of brainstorming to clarify his thoughts. Beyond the survival plot, Weir incorporates several “for want of a nail” sequences that describe miniscule design flaws developing into catastrophe. These sequences are the literary equivalent of heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth pastries; sure you know they’re bad for you/your beloved characters, but they’re also fiendishly detailed little works of art intended for your gleeful consumption.
In contrast, the movie drops the in-depth mathematics and explanations on protein block liquefaction in order to lean more heavily into the characters and plot. On Mars, Watney’s wit takes center stage as he tackles the hostile realities of Martian life. Side note- Matt Damon makes an incredibly charming Watney. While this characterization is certainly true to the book, unlike book!Watney, I felt the movie never effectively explored his isolation. The drama is fueled entirely by physical obstacles, so while the sequence of catastrophes is well-trimmed and streamlined in the page-to-screen transition, it sometimes feels empty. Meanwhile, back on Earth, drama roots itself in character interaction and politics. This dichotomy offers a balance between survival narrative and good ole-fashioned debates on information transparency, international cooperation, and the most efficient way to rescue a man eating space potatoes on a space rock. These two aspects of the film play off each other remarkably well, drawing audiences in on multiple fronts. Most importantly, though, is that we get Sean Bean (a.k.a Boromir) getting involved with Project Elrond. Lord of the Rings IN SPACE CONFIRMED.
A primary critique I had with The Martian as an adaptation was, surprisingly, that it didn’t cut enough. The relationship between Beck and Johanssen, for example, seems to pop into existence for the sake of romantic tension. The novel has more space to introduce and develop the idea. Additionally, the aforementioned liquefaction of protein blocks is referenced in a throwaway line that, without the influence of the text, sounds like a pseudo-science excuse to explain an exploding rocket and prevent press backlash. However, the largest grievance I took with the adaptation upon finishing the book is the changes to the ending; i.e. Commander Lewis rescuing Iron Man Watney and their space dance. Weir’s Lewis is defined by both her emotions and her pragmatism, leading with both heart and mind. As badly as she wants Watney back onboard, she would never take Beck’s spot flying into space to rescue him because Beck is the certified specialist, the best qualified to fly around in space and grab things. She knows this and respects this fact of mission success potential. Iron Man Watney, though cool, and their spinning space dance both felt like too much intrusion of the whimsical and surreal in an otherwise grounded work. Sure, the spinning in space, cocooned in rings of rescue line, was visually beautiful, but it also feels at once like a space film cliche and like watching a desperate love ballet. It is the only part of the film to feel insincere.
Thus, all said and done, The Martian excels on both page and screen, playing to the different capabilities and limits of their mediums, and I have gained new respect for the philosophy of movie first, book second. I am please to strongly recommend both versions of The Martian as excellent stories and examples of their art.