Why The Martian Movie Is Poised to be Better than the Book

On the director’s commentary to the Blu-Ray of the 2012 film Prometheus, Ridley Scott aggressively compliments his own movie numerous times, usually punctuating certain scenes with phrases like “looks good, innit?” or “that’s brilliant.” This is real and it’s hilarious. But will Ridley be as happy of his own handiwork for his hotly anticipated new sci-fi flick, The Martian? I’m going to bet that he should be. Because there’s no way The Martian the film will be “worse” than The Martian the book.

No matter what you think of him or his films, there’s one thing Ridley Scott knows how to do in cinema: make us believe in real people in real danger. The popular novel The Martian? Not so much.

Disclaimer time. I do not dislike the novel The Martian. Nor do I disrespect the by-the-bootstraps story of the way author Andy Weir self-published the various installments and how that popularity gave rise to the existence of the novel and subsequent mainstream book deal. Good for him! Seriously. And also, compliments to him for writing a compelling page-turning story. I am not kidding. I’m not patronizing anyone. And I say this, because the next thing I’m going to say might be a little rowdy.

Ready?

The central character of the novel — Mark Watney — is fundamentally unrealistic to the point of almost preventing a thoughtful reader from finishing the book. Further, the popularity of the novel — and the reasons people overwhelming cite that it’s good — highlights the challenges science fiction still faces in terms of being taken seriously as literature.

If you do a Google search for “Martian Book Review,” you’ll find a deluge of breathless headlines all praising how wonderfully researched the science and engineering of the book seem to be. This kind of things leads people to say things like “Greatest Science Fiction Novel EVER!” because, apparently, the only way to have good science fiction is to have the science be damn near 100% accurate. I find this line of thinking not only patently closed-minded, but also hopelessly reductive. If we think a quotidian, well-researched tale of extraterrestrial survival which was 100% accurately researched is the only way to do good science fiction, then why even bother with the “fiction” part? Why not just watch science documentaries on real space travel? Or to put it another way, are salivating proponents of The Martian so narrow with their definition of science fiction, that they dismiss any story which gets something scientifically “wrong,” for the purposes of telling a good story? Should we stop reading Asimov all together because some of his information was out of date? I guess the original Star Trek is a waste of time since they incorrectly predicted the future of the 1990s? Now, I love Phil Plait’s blog Bad Astronomy as much as the next armchair science enthusiast, but science criticism is not the same a literary criticism. And if we’re talking about The Martian as a piece of literature — which may be admittedly very unfair — it fails.

The novel’s story is told primarily through diary entries of one Mark Watney, an astronaut who has been — through a series of unfortunate events — stranded on Mars. The only way to describe the “voice” of this character is to think of merging all the one-liners from Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer into one character who thinks in backchatty aphorisms all the time. For this reason, you might wonder why Joss Whedon wasn’t hired to adapt the screenplay. Mark even makes a “that’s what she said” style “joke” at one point. Even when the book does attempt to give Watney some humanist soul-searching, that kind of thing gets turned into a science lesson.

Here’s an example of what I mean. From Chapter 7 of the book:

“Mars is a barren wasteland and I am completely alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. All around me there was nothing but dust, rocks, and endless empty desert in all directions. The planet’s famous red color is from iron oxide coating everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a desert so old it’s literally rusting.”

Okay, so that’s a fairly cool detail. But, my problem with this kind of thing is that it’s super indicative of what this “character” is like throughout his isolation; absolutely fixated on giving us the mathematical and scientific facts to describe every, single thing that is happening, meaning that the book leaves almost no trace of philosophical doubt or existential musings about what it would feel like to be “completely alone.” To put it another way: after reading The Martian, I’m not any closer to understanding “the difference between knowing it and experiencing it.” If there was ever a book that needed a dose of the oldest and most annoying writing-workshop advice of “show don’t tell,” it’s this one. All Weir does is have Watney and others tell us what is going on rather than allowing us to experience their feelings. The epistolary form that pervades a good portion of the novel also doesn’t feel like real diary entries, but instead storyboards, describing scenes in a film in which a spaceman will need to crunch the numbers in order to get himself to survive.

To play devil’s advocate (or Martian’s advocate) I suppose one could claim that this fairly flat tact taken by Weir is actually brilliant. That argument might go like this: in this particular instance of isolation, this human being rises to the occasion by being a complete wise-ass who MacGyvers his way out of certain doom. Instead of being unrealistic or inhuman, Weir’s approach is post-modern and surreal. Some could say that this isn’t meant to be a representation of a “real person” and by calling the novel “The Martian,” the inhumanness of the isolation is actually made clear. And in fact, perhaps the intended message of the book is this: to be taken away from the cradle of Earth turns you into the type of person who only cares about numbers and speaks and behaves like a two-dimensional character fit only for a corny Hollywood blockbuster.

Naturally, I don’t think this was the intended goal of the novel. Instead, I think the intended goal of the novel is a book-length MacGyver adventure on Mars which is as scientifically accurate as possible. And if we hold up that criterion to praise it, then it succeeds. In fact, it probably out-MacGyvers even the most perfect Platonic form of MacGyver. Was Richard Dean Anderson unavailable for the movie adaptation? That seems unlikely.

So, the praise of this being a great science fiction novel pisses me off, because it’s a book where there’s simply no allegory or rumination of anything other than what we’re given. Rust is rust and air is air. If read as a text-based video game or television show without sound or pictures, The Martian is great. But, personally, I want something more out of novels, particularly science fiction novels. Because the most cliché complaint science fiction receives is that it sacrifices “real” characters for the sake of its concepts. And while that is a debate for another day, no one can deny that that perception — at least in various circles of literary criticism — does exist. And a book like The Martian does NOTHING but confirm the suspicions of those who assume science fiction is nothing but nerdy adventures populated by unrealistic people. In the finale of one of my favorite movies of all time — Contact — Jodie Foster’s character Ellie Arroway, upon being thunderstruck by the beauty of the cosmos says, “They should have sent a poet.” And that kind of Sagan-esque, magical humanist, whimsical notion, fused with a super-science-y narrative, to me, is the true sweet spot of science fiction.

Scores of real astronauts always say they were inspired to go into the space program by Star Trek, but it seems like The Martian could only inspire people who already are astronauts. I’m not saying all science fiction needs to contain the hyperbole of Star Trek, but if it only contains the science, I’d wager that’s not enough to function as great literature, nor as inspiration for real the next generation of scientists.

Positing The Martian as some kind of “breath of fresh air” for “hard science fiction,” is also a fairly ignorant thing to say critically, because it presupposes that no one has been writing science-heavy science fiction until this Andy Weir guy came along. This would mean everything Allen Steele did with his tales of colonization in Coyote never happened. It would discount Joe Haldeman’s excellent novels Marsbound, Stabound, and Earthbound, to say nothing of the great work of Kim Stanely Robinson. I say all of this not to pit science fiction writer against science fiction writer, but to simply point out that I think all of those authors do a considerably better job (than Weir) with creation of characters and of modulating the voices of those characters to participate seamlessly with their science fiction themes. Every good science fiction writer worth their salt will actually agree with most of what any good “regular” fiction writer believes about characters: they’re really important and probably more important than whatever your bid “idea” might be.

The Martian is a novel that largely doesn’t care about that. But luckily, when it comes to big blockbuster movies, we’re usually totally fine with that kind of thinking, too. If Matt Damon seems a little one-note in the film version of The Martian it’ll probably work, because it’s a big loud movie. If you cry because it seems like he’s never going to get home, that will work as well, mostly because it will have to homage Apollo 13 in some fashion. Andy Weir’s novel is perfect to become a certain kind of film, because films of this nature (i.e. Gravity) accomplish more with a spacesuit than they do with a line of dialogue.

In its basic form, the novel The Martian creates a plausible situation of life or death that takes place somewhere other than Earth. There’s little else going on in this book, but luckily for the film, we’ve been eating up those kinds of movies for years.