What To Expect When You Are Expecting (A Great Movie To Be Made From A Great Book)

With the release of the movie The Martian being imminent, I want to talk about, you guessed it, the expectations people may have about it. This was triggered by the article The Martian – Already A Problematic Adaptation, written by Ian Dawe on Sequential Art Magazine.

I have at least one thing in common with Ian, namely that I Am Not A Superhero Fan, either, but in the article he expresses concerns and misgivings about the upcoming movie that I do not share. (Even if I see most of his points. I certainly do.)

So I try to disagree with him as respectfully and politely as possible. Please keep in mind that while I react to Ian’s article, there will be many others who have similar thoughts, so there’s really nothing personal in this discussion. You could say I use his name as a shorthand for a particular mindset.

As a starting point, I guess we can all agree on on thing: Andy Weir’s book The Martian is awesome! (Note that the statement is tautologically true as long as I do not define who’s include in we.)

The question at hand is: Will the upcoming movie be just as awesome?

Now, what does that mean? What does that require?

Ian Dawe has a clear vision: A straight-ahead adaptation would (be) magnificent and refreshing in science fiction cinema.

But what exactly would constitute straight-ahead adaptation of a book that consists mostly of first-person narration, most of it in presented as diary entries? Isn’t there the very real possibility that the straight-ahead adaptations would turn out magnificent and refreshing, but also artsy-fartsy rather than awesome?

But Ian is more concerned about the danger of the film making this story “too Hollywood”, and sees this concerns validated by the trailer.

Make no mistake, I can see very clearly that the constraints imposed on movie-making by Hollywood are severe. For example, I see the difference between a movie like Kingsman, which is not subject to them, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which is very Hollywood. And I definitely prefer the former style (pun intended)!

But on the other hand, I really enjoy a Hollywood movie when it shows the love, the passion, and the skills that the creators put into making it. Like Guardians of the Galaxy. If the weathermaking fairy gave you the power to let it hail and drizzle, would you complain that you can’t control the size and form of the hailstones and raindrops?

Now let’s have a look at Ian’s specific concerns:

  • He complains that the main character is first and foremost a nerd, and shouldn’t be played by some sort of handsome muscular leading man.

    To this I have to say two things:

    First, I’m p**sed off so much by the (stereo)typical depiction of nerds that we see so often on the screen, that I really want to see nerds who deftly defy those stereotypes. Frankly, I don’t understand how someone who’s so adamant against stereotyping like Ian wants to see nerdy nerds.

    Second, Mark Watney is not depicted as handsome and muscular, he’s mere played by an actor who is. This is a movie! You don’t think that the people in Sin City actually are black-and-white and live in a world that is devoid of colour, do you? They are just filmed that way.

  • In my opinion the most serious issue raised by Ian is that about 85% of the story takes place with one character in an enclosed environment on Mars. Everything else is B story. The trailer features very little of Mark Watney himself, and much more of the crew and mission control.

    I suspect that we will see proportionally more of Mark Watney, alone on Mars in the movie than in the trailer. But I have to agree that the story will be changed massively by refocusing away from Mark Watney, alone on Mars as the only really important plot. The movie will be a very different movie than the straight-ahead adaptation that Ian would have preferred.

    But unlike him, I don’t think that’s bad. In fact, I’m more than happy about it. Novel and movies work very differently as storytelling devices, they have very different strengths and weaknesses. What is absolutely wonderful in a novel can be boring in a movie.

  • In the book, there’s very little action in this story. It’s about one man solving problems using his ingenuity, but in contrast to that, the trailer is chock full of action sequences, focusing on the finale involving the Hermes.

    Like the last point, this is certainly an important difference. And again, I support the change, because the medium works different. In a novel, gratuitous action scenes will most likely distract from the real issue at hand, but in a movie, action scenes can used to highlight deep themes. Of course, this has to be done with skills and taste, and it is entirely possible that The Martian will suck because of ham-fisted handling of action scenes. To find out, we will actually have to see the movie!

  • Ian comments on some change to the ethnicity of characters. These are debatable, but at least they didn’t diminish the diversity of the cast, as far as I understand; for example, they changed an Indian character by casting a Nigerian actor.

  • The crew of the mother ship […] the Hermes, is referenced throughout the book but rarely seen, […] the most cliched and least interesting part of the story. You can feel the momentum of the book slow down […] each time we flash to them. On my second reading, I pretty much skipped every segment featuring the crew.

    I’m curious: How is the last sentence supposed to be something laudable about the book? Something to be truthfully recreated in the film adaption?

    I, for one, don’t want boring and uninteresting scenes in my movies. So if they trumped up that part of the original story, hooray!

    The crew is featured , if anything, more than Watney, and “cast up” to prominently feature the two female crew members [..] one of whom is the Captain in the movie, whereas the most important members of the crew in the book are the German scientist Vogel and ace pilot Rick Martinez.

    Well, in my opinion it is only sensible that the trailers make it clear that the movies isn’t just about one or more guys. And in the additional material, e.g. the fake crew interviews, Vogel and Martinez are certainly featured prominently enough.

  • According to Ian, the most troubling thing, though, is a shot of Watney looking at a photo of a woman and child and crying.

    I have to agree with him that it’s very important, and very refreshing, that Watney in the book is not married, and is in fact a single guy, and fine with it. The issue simply doesn’t come up. I found that aspect tremendously appealing. We need more positive images in our culture of single people, and Watney’s romantic life is simply not relevant to the story.

    If they changed that aspect of the book for the movie, this would indeed constitute a grave error, a missed opportunity. And like Ian, I suspect this may well be the case.

Ian’s conclusion, in The Martian Already A Problematic Adaptation, is I’ll still see the film, of course, but my enthusiasm for it is severely tempered.

As you can see, I’ll certainly see the film, and even if I can understand some of the issues he raises, my enthusiasm is still great. In fact, the trailer, and the additional fake NASA press kit material recently released, have increased my enthusiasm.

And if Ian’s article has increased my awareness of some of the issues involved, this will hopefully make the experience of seeing the movie even more enjoyable. Thank you, Ian!

What’s your take? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned!

On Friday, it’s time again for another Storytelling Scrutiny Squared article. I’ll talk about Story Structure Models.

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