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Debate – The Martian: Book Vs Film


Posted October 14, 2015 by

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The Martian: Book Vs Film

The Martian has been one of the most highly-anticipated films of the year. Considering the runaway success of the book, by debutant author Andy Weir, there is little surprise about the interest it has generated.

Having read the book a couple of months ago, I was eager to get into the hall and watch the adventure come alive on the big screen. However, after more than two hours of cinema-watching, I left the hall feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Which is not to say that the film is in any way bad; just that it didn’t live up to my expectations.

The reason for that, as it so often is, is that film adaptations of books generally can’t fit all the elements in. Films have a run-time of two hours, at the most, and even a 300-page book is a lot to cram into two hours.

The Martian follows biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he struggles to survive on Mars, having been presumed dead and abandoned by his crew. Watney has to wait four years for the next manned Mars mission, Ares IV, to reach him. The rations he has will last him a maximum of a year. To survive, he must use his scientific expertise to create water and produce food on a planet that is completely inhospitable.

What made the book such a success was Watney’s personality. He practically wise-cracks himself to optimism, and, honestly, he has to. He has no means of communication with Earth. His crew believes him dead, as does NASA. He is literally the only person on the entire planet. His only companion is the video log he keeps. It’s not much of an existence and without a sense of humour, Watney could easily break down and die.

A number of people felt Watney was a bit too optimistic and funny. It didn’t seem plausible, they said. But Weir explains in the book that Watney was chosen partly due to his effervescent personality, a key trait in long space missions. This is not an explanation given in the film and thus, viewers who haven’t read the book, have no idea why Mark Watney doesn’t just curl up in a foetal position and wait for death (though that would be a pretty dull story).

Though a large section of the book and film are dedicated to the exploits of Watney on Mars, we also get to see what the people on Earth, specifically NASA, are up to once they discover he is alive. In the book, there are a lot of political machinations during these parts, not to mention the media circus surrounding the news that Watney is alive. There just isn’t enough screen time to engage with these elements and Kirsten Wiig’s media relations officer, Annie, gets massively short-changed because of this.

One point where the film definitely came out on top, in comparison to the book, was the music. Since the crew of the Ares III left in a hurry, they ended up leaving behind their personal items, including their entertainment. Watney finds Commander Lewis’ (Jessica Chastain) music collection; except it’s all disco music. I love disco music as much as the next person but even I have to admit, listening to it non-stop for a year would drive me crazy! However, in the film, the music, which, for obvious reasons, you can’t hear while reading the book, adds a lightness and humour that really elevates the film.

Let us also not forget about the visuals. Words can conjure up amazing images in your mind, but film, being a visual medium, has the power to amaze you. Ridley Scott has a brilliant eye and there is absolutely no doubt that this film is beautiful. The Martian landscapes, shot in Jordan, are a sight to behold. Coupled with some excellent CGI, the long shots of Watney’s MAV moving through the Martian desert is gorgeous.

Unfortunately, the music and the spectacular visuals cannot quite make up for two of the most glaring problems with the film – the casting and the ending.

Much has been said about the white-washing of the cast, particularly the character of Mindy Park, who is played in the film by Mackenzie Davis. In the book, her ethnicity is never specified, but the way the text is written, it becomes obvious that Park is of Asian origin. In essence, it translates into a film with almost zero women of colour (one Chinese official speaks for a forgettable minute). And we are living in 2015, apparently

In fact, despite Asian-Americans generally being categorised as science geeks and math-heads, the only prominent Asian in the cast is Benedict Wong, who plays Bruce Ng from JPL. The Chinese space program, featured heavily in the book, is reduced to a few paltry minutes of screen time. The emotional impact the Chinese scientists go through when sacrificing their spacecraft for Watney is swapped for a chiefly political move in the film. Thanks, Ridley.

And let me not get started on the character of Vincent Kapoor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the book, the very Indian-American character’s name is Venkat Kapoor. There is no doubt that he has Indian origins. Ejiofor is a powerhouse actor and his presence is a great addition in the film. He is not, unfortunately, in any way, believable as half-Indian. I can suspend my disbelief quite a bit, but this is where the suspension ends. I’m not going to believe this. Either find an Indian actor (there are thousands of good ones) or change the character’s name completely (if you dare). Alternatively, drop in a line about him having a step-dad of Indian origin, how cool would that be?

We shouldn’t really have been surprised by these casting developments. Remember, Ridley Scott is the same man who made Exodus, a film about Egyptians starring an all-white cast. My brain hurts just thinking of it.

But Scott’s flaws don’t end with the dodgy casting decisions. I honestly don’t think he was the right choice to make this film. Scott has directed some of the greatest films in cinema history – Alien, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Body of Lies – but his form has been singularly poor of late. Prometheus was a disaster pretending to be a mess. Exodus, well, let’s say the casting was the least of its problems.

The Martian is an action-adventure story. That’s what everybody loved about it. Scott gets the adventure part down pat but the action fails miserably. Which brings me to the ending (no spoilers yet, I promise).

The last chapter of the book was thrilling, heart-stopping excitement. Weir paces it brilliantly and you honestly don’t know how events will conclude. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott gets the pacing all wrong in the final segment of the film. Where he should have gone with tight, snappy editing and a flurry of dialogue, he chooses to be faithful to the book’s timing, if not the book’s characters. It just doesn’t translate well on screen.

[Spoilers Begin]

Scott has definitely taken some artistic license for the final scenes of the film, but he doesn’t do them justice. By swapping Watney’s rescuer from Dr. Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Vogel (Aksel Hennie) to Commander Lewis, Scott effectively creates one of the rare instances where a male character is saved by a female character. And that’s great! But, it wasn’t in the book, which is infuriating. Also, it wouldn’t have been needed if Lewis had been given the kind of character development and commanding presence she was given in the book.

Plus, the finale, which shows the Ares III crew back on Earth and living their lives (none of which are in the book), was completely unnecessary; unless Scott was intentionally dumbing down the story for the audience, which also doesn’t make sense considering the ending onboard the Ares III is a meta joke on the book and quite perfect.

[Spoilers End]

The film vs book debate will continue for a long time, there is no doubt about that fact. With The Martian, however, the adaptation really could have been so much better handled because it lends itself brilliantly to cinema. In the hands of a more action-oriented director, the film could have been a masterpiece. As it is now, The Martian is a really good, fun, exciting film, but it’s just a few too many steps away from greatness.


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Louis Skye
Freelance Contributor

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