Any discussion of a book to movie adaptation is in danger of turning into a nitpicky analysis of all the differences between the book and the movie, particularly when those differences are seen as being detrimental to the story. The book is always supposed to be better than the movie, after all. In the case of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Martian, it can (and will be) argued that the movie is just as good as the book. In one spot, it is even better.
(Note: Thar be spoilers ahead, mateys! If Mark Watney can pretend to be a pirate, so can I)
First, a note about the cast: it is perfect. A few of the characters are not cast in the ways one might imagine after reading Weir’s book (especially after listening to the audiobook). Venkat Kapoor, instead of a man with a thick Indian accent, is now Vincent Kapoor, a man who seems to take more after his Baptist mother than his Hindu father. I wasn’t expecting Mitch Henderson to be from the UK (spoiler – Sean Bean makes it through a movie without dying), nor did I expect Rich Purnell to be so laid back. I expected louder and more nervous, but I loved Donald Glover’s portrayal. It worked well, and it helped tone down Jeff Daniels’ overly uptight Teddy Sanders. That character seemed more relaxed on the page for some reason.
There are a lot of things from the book that don’t make it into the movie, which makes sense. They are trying to do in about 2 hours what it take the audiobook over 10 to accomplish. They chose to leave out a lot of the science, or at least the discussion of the science, even if we do get to see it depicted on screen. They leave out most of Watney’s log entries. Most, but not all, of them. We see enough of them to become familiar with his sense of humor and to get an idea of what he is going through. If you leave the theater wanting either a) more science or b) more Watney, then either read or reread the book. You’ll get plenty of both.
They also leave out some of the more thrilling moments – the time he flips the rover on the way to the Ares IV landing site, for example. They even leave out (almost entirely) the romance between Johannsen and Beck. It’s not a huge part, or even a regular size part, of the novel, but the movie minimizes it even more. This is a good thing. I had fears that they would blow it up and make it an unnecessarily prominent part of the plot.
There were only a couple of details added and only a few (one major) change to the plot. Watney has a thing for ketchup in the movie, and when it runs out, after being told that he’ll need to cut his rations even further, he decides to dip his potatoes in crushed vicodin. Who’s going to stop him? They include a shot of him walking out of the shower, 7 months after our last glimpse of him and show just how much weight he has lost living off little more than potatoes in the interim. It’s a powerful image, one that never appears in the book. It was a good change, as is the note that Watney leaves in the rover just before he boards the MAV. My favorite change, though, comes during the rescue.
In the book, the commander is the one who comes up with the plan that closes the distance between Hermes and the MAV, after refusing Mark’s offer to poke a hole in his suit and use the escaping air to thrust him closer to Hermes. Here’s where the change comes in. Once her plan is executed, Commander Lewis races down to the airlock to handle the recovery herself. She feels responsible for leaving him behind, and she alone will take that final risk to bring him back. Yep. A woman is responsible for the actual, physical rescue of a male astronaut. That’s how it should have happened in the book. A missed opportunity on Andy Weir’s part, if you ask me.
There’s one further change to that rescue that I imagine comes from Matt Damon and Ridley Scott standing around over a copy of the script and Damon saying “We have to do it! Watney wouldn’t have come that far and just stop taking crazy risks. And I’ll get to fly around like Iron Man!” In the book, Commander Lewis shuts down Watney’s suggestion right away, though it serves to inspire her own actions. In the movie, Watney gets to put his Iron Man plan into play to close the last gap between himself and the Hermes.
The Martian, in both its book and movie forms, is, above all else, a story about humanity – which is a tad ironic, I suppose, given the title. These words are never spoken on screen, but I think Watney says it best in the final lines of the book, when he tries to explain why so many people went to so much trouble to bring one man home:
…they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true….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. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side…..Pretty cool, eh?
It is pretty cool. Given the rate at which bad news pops up in our social media streams or on the news, it’s good to have a reminder of the amazing things that we, as a species, are capable of when we pull together. The Martian is a timely and necessary reminder of that.
Oh, and there’s one more addition. The movie doesn’t end when the book does. It offers just a touch of epilogue, and you’ll have to watch the beginning of the credits to get it all in. It’s a little cheesy, but I liked it.