It’s not often I review a book. Unlike a film or a game, a book can be very much down to personal opinion. films and games have technical merits, that can be scored out of ten. For me a book only has to be able to communicate the story, then the story itself can be looked at. With a film version of Andy Weir’s The Martian coming soon, I thought I would take a look at what the film needs to get across. As you may expect a few spoilers follow.
I managed to read the 369 pages of the book over a couple of days on holiday. The warm dusty climate of Lanzarote was a good backdrop to this story of human survival based on Mars. It tells the sometimes unbelievable story of scientist Mark Watney, stranded on Mars. The film will star Matt Damon in this role and that will be one of the key elements needed to make the film a success. Watney as a character in the book is excellent. Not being around any scientists in my normal life, he seems to be a stereotype of the characters out of The Big Bang Theory. He is funny, incredibly upbeat and above all else calm under pressure. Damon will need to portray Watney in the same way. He cannot fall into the trap of being an action hero; overreacting to disappointment, getting overly angry or aggressive at situations and using his strength to succeed. He must remember, that above all he is a scientist. Watney’s continued survival, is down to a mixture of his brainpower and positive attitude. Where normal people would have given up, Watney simply makes a joke of the situation. From the earliest moments he feels lucky to still be alive and uses facts and figures to prolong is life. As a reader, we are never left in the dark as to what the current objective is, and as a result know how important each setback is. If we see Damon in the film glossing over one of the more important aspects, then any setback will lose all impact and just be seen as a bump in the road. I have no doubt Damon can play the character the way it is needed, I just hope that the film makers don’t try to add in any unnecessary drama.
In the book we get the communications of Watney via audiolog. I hope these continue in the film. It will be much more powerful to see Damon never speak a word directly to the camera, instead have his voice over his actions. It will mean the film keeps the same style as the book and allow Damon to act through his features and actions. Even if his actions head into action-hero territory, a sombre monotone reading on an audiolog will keep these portions of the film in the right tone. The other sections of the film can be as dramatic as they wish, sections in the space shuttle, in the command centre back on earth and with the various directors and chiefs within NASA. Here is where the film can be a normal thriller, On Mars it has to be the scientific adventure that it is in the book.
The science fiction in the book is brilliant. It is a complex look at where science could be going, but understandable enough to be used as artistic license for the purposes of the story. By combining science fiction and science fact, Andy Weir may have got a lot more people interested in the prospect of colonisation on Mars. One chapter in particular stuck in my mind. When a rescue package is launched for Watney, Weir describes how the smallest detail can cause disaster. It is one of the most enthralling scientific-based pieces of text I have ever read. How true it is will depend on how much knowledge of space physics you have as a reader. Mine is minimal so I enjoyed the scientific elements of the book immensely, much like I enjoyed the same aspects in Interstellar. Someone with a deeper understanding, may spend the time picking holes in the inaccuracies, rather than enjoying the ride. The difficulty will come in explaining these scientific procedures to the cinema audience. I dread to think how they are going to explain the chapter long process Watney goes through to make Martian soil suitable for growing potatoes. On paper it is interesting and well written, on-screen it runs the risk of being boring. How they manage to break up the dense scientific aspects will be key to the success of the film. We want to see the catastrophes tat happen to Watney in detail, how he gets rid of his bodily waste, less so.
One way to break up the survival story could be to give the crew of his spacecraft a bigger role than they have in the book. The casting of Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean amongst others would suggest that this is going to be the case. How they fill the roles is up for debate. The book spends very little time on these extra characters until the very end, so a longer added pre-disaster sequence, may make its way into the film, to allow us to have a handle on he individual characters and actually care about them in some way. This can’t be at the expense of Watney as the film needs to remain one man’s struggle against the elements.
The easiest way to describe the story, would be a cross between Tom Hanks Castaway and the recent Gravity. As I have said earlier, this would be to do it a disservice, but it might be the only way to get people to read the excellent book and go and see the film. I have every confidence that the film will be a great success, I just hope it keeps the spirit of the book alive and caters for the readers, that made the book a success.