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.

Spy vs Spy vs Spy vs Spy

In case you wonder: No, I’m not trying to channel MAD Magazine here.

The four movies I liked best during the last twelve month were all surpise hits for me, where I went into the theater thinking Yeah, this will be fun, but didn’t really anticipate how great the movie actually turned out to be: Guardians Of The Galaxy, which I didn’t write about, yet, Kingsman – The Secret Service, which I wrote about here, Spy – Susan Cooper Undercover and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which I write about today. (I’ll also throw in Jonny English Reborn, which I saw on DVD recently.)

The reason I want to talk about the four spy movies is that I’m fascinated with the extraordinary suceessful combination of action and comedy that they represent.

Comedy vs Humour

Note how I say comedy, not humour. Mixing action, drama, and humour is standard for any spy thriller, modern or ancient. What differentiates comedy from humour, in my opinion, is that comedy is based on humour that exceeds the limits of the setting.

In real life, people make jokes, behave funny, have quirks, and run into ironic situations. So if, for example, a doctor, or a lawyer, does any of these, that’s simply humour. However, in real life, doctors and laywers rarely make offensive jokes, at the expense of their patients / clients, in their face, thereby putting their own job at risk. If that happens, we are in comedy territory.

Along these lines, James Bond is a thriller with some humour mixed in, but the four spy movies mentioned above are action comedy.

Action Comedy

A true action comedy needs a pretty solid – if somewhat over-the-top – action plot as well as a strong comedy element, and they need to fit together well.

In my opinion, Spy – Susan Cooper Undercover and Jonny English Reborn have the strongest comedic element, Kingsman – The Secret Service has the least, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stands in between. (To reiterate, comedic element refers to humour that breaks the limit of the action setting.) For the record, I love the humour in all four movies, even if it is of very different type: Foul-mouthed and irreverent language in Spy, slapstick and absurdity in Jonny English, irony and self-awareness in Kingsman, and a piece of all of those in U.N.C.L.E..

The Action Plot

To evaluate the strength of the action plot of an action comedy one can look at three questions: How solid is the world-building behind the plot? How precise is the execution of the plot? How does the comedy element interact with, or interfere with, the action plot?

The most solid world-building from our four examples is to be found in Spy: Terrorists getting hold of a small nuclear weapon is a scenario on the agenda of real-world agencies. U.N.C.L.E. and Jonny English use more-or-less believable variants of real-world scenarios. The evil mastermind’s plan Kingsman, on the contrary, is totally over-the-top, as is the agency depicted in either of the latter two movies.

The plot is executed very solidly in all four movies. I’d even argue that it is executed (almost) flawlessly, and that all four movies are examples of Terminating With Extreme Prejudice.

My article on Kingman, and even more the vivid dicussion in the comments of that article, shows that the Kingsman plot has many missed opportunities, something that I’d not say of any of the other three movies. But in my opinion this simply reflects that both the world-building and the plot of Kingsman are richer, more twisted, and more intriguing than those of the others.

Comedy-Plot Interference

In my opinion, Jonny English has the worst comedy-plot interference: The entire plot would fall apart if the titular hero wouldn’t be an idiot who is totally incapable of doing his job.

The plot of U.N.C.L.E. depends in details on some comedic mishaps, but is otherwise straightforward.

Since the comedic element in Spy is mostly language-based, plus some visual styles, it is mostly independent of the plot. If you cut out some of the more outrageous speeches, and dub some others, you could get an actual non-comedy (but humourous) action movie.

Kingman is a special case: There is a lot of comedy-plot interaction, but since the comedy is, as I stated, mostly ironical and self-aware, this doesn’t affect the plot negatively. In fact, I’d call the strong, overbearing humour in Kingman satire rather than comedy (but I think comedy can be satirical). And because according to my own definition, satire is equivalent to making fun of something by taking it seriously, this kind of satirical humourous influence is actually beneficial to the plot.

Which One Is The Best?

This may be the most interesting question, but I’m unable to answer it. I love all four movies, and if I love them in different ways, I still cannot rank my love for them.

But I’d be quite surprised if all of my readers share this thinking. Please tell us which movie you think is best in the comments. And also tell us where you agree or disagree with my opinions!

Stay tuned!

Next Wednesday will see the second Seven Questions About installment, where I’m asking sincerely and Elliwiny about their webcomic Opportunities. To fully understand what the questions and answers are about, you may want to take the time to read Opportunities.

Kingsman – More Badass Than Bond?

Note: This is another post where I don’t mention webcomics, but talk about a movie; but at least, it’s a movie based on a graphic novel: Kingsman.

Of course, I’m not writing a review in the classical sense. If the word praise doesn’t betray my reluctance to highlight flaws and problems, and the word provocative doesn’t betray my unwillingness to restrain myself from deriving lessons about storytelling in general rather than focusing on the item under review, then the word scrutinizing should make it clear that I will discuss the movie in depth without regard to spoilers, and with the expectation that the reader has watched the movie to know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I went to see the movie last Friday, expecting it, informed by the trailer, to be dramatic, violent, actionesque (I just made that word up, I believe), irreverent, and amusing. Without doubt, it is all of this.

I was skeptical, however, about the claim that it is more badass than Bond. In my humble opinion, it really delivers on that promise.

I didn’t expect it to become an object of my most diligent scrutiny. Turns out, it is an example for superb storytelling.

All of this doesn’t mean that Kingsman is indisputably an exceptionally good movie, or in fact better than Bond. What superb storytelling really means that the story as given was carefully constructed and very well executed, and everybody involved did a great job.

In other words, I don’t claim that it is an extremely good story. What I’m trying to convey here is that the story, whatever its merit, was told exceptionally well.

Now, you could certainly argue that the fight choreography (and maybe even some dialog) was artificial, the violence gratuitous, and villain’s plan overblown, and the whole premise unrealistic. Just like you could argue that Swan Lake is artificial, Hamlet is full of gratuitous violence, the world-building of The Pirates Of either Penceance or The Caribbean is overblown, and Mozart was an idiot because it is totally unrealistic that a man would start singing a duet with his rival who just pronounced the supposed infidelity of his lover.

I seek to understand any story on its own terms, within the form it’s been molded in, and to look for cohesion, for internal consistency, rather than chasing after the flimsiness of realism or verisimilitude. Let’s see what we will find out.

As always, you are invited to chime in with your thoughts on the matter in the comments.

But since the most important issues cannot be discussed without MAJOR SPOILERS, you may want to go see the movie first, or steel yourself to bear them with composure, before you continue … (Also, make sure you are okay with a candid discussion of violence in fiction, because …)