All too often, the book a film is based on becomes the default watermark for the story being told. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, it existed first, doesn’t that inherently make it the ideal form of the story? Some would say that the more you stray from the source material, the less successful your film is. It’s almost as if telling the story becomes secondary and the primary goal is simply transitioning mediums accurately.
I’m as guilty as the next for unfairly judging an adaptation before reviewing its merits as a film that should—and often does—stand on its own. I try my best to avoid this type of behavior but frankly, it feels natural to become precious with the things we read. The very practice of reading feels personal in a way that viewing a film in a room with 100 strangers doesn’t.
Suddenly, some filmmaker has decided that they’re going to insert themselves into a book I’ve established a relationship with? Of course my knee-jerk reaction is to act defensively. However, in this case, my relationship with The Martian ended poorly and I welcomed the possibility that the film wouldn’t be as bland, boring, and sterile as the book.
In short: the movie is better than the book. A lot better.
Ridley Scott succeeded in making the film feel warmer and more idealistic. The moments in the text that felt like never ending passages from an instruction book are instead replaced with a focus on the characters. The focus on how these people perform these miracles of engineering recedes a little and makes way for the why. A moment that jumped out at me during the movie had to do with an agreement the US makes with China. In the book, it’s presented as a cold and formal business transaction—China agreeing to help but driven by profit and competition. In the movie, Scott instead presents the same situation but makes it about humanity uniting in the pursuit of a great endeavor and China asks for nothing in return.
There are glimpses of this theme in the book but to put it bluntly, I never felt like any of the characters gave a shit about each other. The Mark Watney of the book didn’t feel like a real person, he felt like a mouthpiece for the conflict, crisis, and science that the author is obviously in love with. Watney feels like comic relief—a punctuation mark at the end of an instruction manual masquerading as a novel.
I got more humanity and dimension out of Mark Watney in five seconds of Matt Damon than I did in 396 pages of quips and cursing. Damon made the character three dimensional in a phenomenal performance that I truly believe the film required. In fact, the whole cast is incredible. I would love for Ridley Scott to call everyone up in a couple years and make another film.
In the end, the more I think about The Martian, the more I like it—something I could never say about the book.