Page to Screen is a regular column in which Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film. This time, he plots his course for Mars.
Mark Watney gets rescued. That’s not intended as a spoiler. Anyone who reads even a single log entry from Andy Weir’s novel or watches the trailer for Ridley Scott’s adaptation knows from Sol 1 that the stranded astronaut won’t perish on Mars. Both the novel and film secure that comforting tether to our spacesuits, reassuring us with a little tug whenever we think all hope might be drifting off into orbit. Even during its bleakest moments, The Martian, book or film, never trades on the question of whether or not Watney will survive, but rather on how he will manage to do so. It’s a space thriller whose thrills come not from alien encounters, rocket blasts, or asteroid bombardments, but from the relentless grind of staying alive one Sol at a time all alone on an inhospitable planet.
In the novel, soon after satellites discover that Watney’s alive, Teddy Sanders, head of NASA, looks to the skies and asks: “What must it be like? … He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology? I wonder what he’s thinking right now.” Weir immediately cuts to a log entry from Watney: “How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.” It’s a setup that travels 140 million miles for its punchline, one that earns a chuckle but evades the awe-inspiring question that makes the concept of The Martian so mind-blowing: What must it be like to be stranded all alone on another planet?
Weir does touch upon the psychological and emotional gravity of Watney’s perilous, unprecedented circumstances, but he barely scratches Mars’ rust-colored surface on the matter. His novel reads like MacGyver on Mars: beat-by-beat genre fiction where problem begets problem until, as Scott’s Watney (Matt Damon) explains, “You solve enough problems, and you get to go home.” It’s meticulous, exhaustive, problem-solving fun on a faraway planet, but often feels as thin as Mars’ atmosphere when it comes to placing readers inside Watney’s helmeted headspace.
Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, though not set in space, offers the most obvious big-budget Hollywood parallel to The Martian. In that film, FedEx employee Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) washes up on an island with little chance of a search party ever reaching him. As the movie wears on, our fascination shifts from Noland’s physical survival – spear fishing, making fire, and performing amateur dentistry on himself – to his internal struggle to endure so that he might be with his fiancée (Helen Hunt) again. Even when he strikes up a friendship with a volleyball he names “Wilson,” we indulge rather than judge. Zemeckis draws us so close to the character that we understand him, even as he clings to life in a situation entirely alien to us.
This isn’t to say that Scott needs to give Watney an antique watch with a picture of his girlfriend in order for us to understand and share in his singular experience. But any film adaptation of The Martian that strives to be more than a series of technological obstacles faced and hurdled needs to reveal more of Mark Watney than Weir’s novel does. And indeed, Scott’s triumph is that his film answers Teddy Sanders’ question (“What must it be like?”) without sacrificing any of Weir’s delightful, scientific high adventure.
One important change Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard make in their adaptation is beginning the film with the sandstorm in which Watney gets impaled by an antennae while the crew aborts the Mars hab. The scene smartly remains faithful to Weir’s beautifully paced action sequence – a chapter that doesn’t come until nearly halfway through the novel. Not only does this event thrust us into the movie, but we also come to understand early on the bond between Watney and crew. The camaraderie we witness makes the impending loneliness all the more stark, and it also amplifies the intense emotional weight of Commander Lewis’ decision to leave Mars without confirming Watney’s death. The resulting guilt acts as an albatross throughout the film, one that Lewis and crew can only shed by saving their crewmate. The scene also anchors Watney to our world. We’ve seen him with people he loves, depends upon, and binds together – people whose lives will forever be changed having lost him. While the human instinct to cheat death naturally drives the stranded astronaut, Scott’s film also suggests that part of Watney needs to survive for his friends — to be with them again and absolve them — an idea even we earthlings can appreciate.
Weir’s novel relies almost exclusively on NASA log entries to relay Watney’s perspective. In some ways, the log can be viewed as Watney’s “Wilson.” Yes, he’s documenting his mission (needing his story to be told), but he also acknowledges that he’s carrying out a conversation. The problem is that these official logs, while far from being purely technical rundowns, rarely convey where Watney’s head resides beyond the latest phase in his evolving plans. Scott and Goddard opt to use these logs far more selectively: either to present key status updates (e.g. Watney’s initial number crunching regarding how long he can survive on Mars) or to highlight the astronaut’s endearingly smart-ass personality, often in mockumentary-style cutaways (e.g. berating Lewis for her extensive disco collection). The film’s freedom to abandon the log structure allows Scott to carve out several moments that perfectly convey Watney’s emotional state. In one scene, Watney can’t suppress a thankful grin as he trades texted barbs with his crewmates for the first time from the rover. Aside from watching Happy Days reruns (thanks, Lewis!), it’s his first real moment of normalcy since being stranded on Mars. In another scene, after the air lock on the hab blows and his entire potato crop freezes instantly, we watch him simmer in the rover until boiling over into a raging “God, god, god!” outburst. Breaking away from the log format lets Scott treat Watney as more than just a Martian guinea pig traversing the unknown. We feel the elation of the small victories and the devastation of his many life-threatening setbacks.
On Sol 69, Watney logs: “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.” It’s one of the few instances in The Martian where Weir attempts to describe the vast emptiness surrounding Watney. Scott, on the other hand, never lets us forget this perspective, beginning each Sol with an expansive shot of desolate Martian terrain. Forget the 140 million miles separating Mars from Earth; the isolation on a small portion of this planet alone is unfathomable. Scott’s shots effectively make us feel like there must be a conversion chart that can translate kilometers of empty Martian desert into degrees of human loneliness. Several key visuals Scott includes also hammer home the reality of Watney’s tenuous chances of survival. We quickly recognize that that first tiny, green sprout in Watney’s hab potato patch represents hope — a single sprig of greenery being the difference between an infinitesimal chance at life and certain death. Later, just before Watney abandons the hab and heads for the Schiaparelli rendezvous with the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), Scott shows the astronaut emerging naked from a shower — gaunt, gray, almost alien-like. What Weir’s novel treats as strict caloric rationing, Scott shows as really just a euphemism for slowly starving to death.
While Goddard’s script and Scott’s visuals collaboratively thrust us into Mars’ orbit, Damon’s performance allows us to actually land on its red powder surface alongside Watney. Damon captures the astronaut’s jabbing sense of humor perfectly, but that’s the simple part of the role. The Martian has the peculiar quality of being a thriller with a lot of time on its hands — desperation and long bouts of tedium always coexisting. So much of Damon’s performance takes place in a spacesuit, trudging across rugged terrain or simply waiting. His most affecting scene in the entire film finds him sitting on a hill and staring out across the barren planet as his voiceover requests that Lewis break the news to his parents should the rescue plan fail. Damon manages to tell us all we need to know about Mark Watney in that thoughtful stare through his space helmet. Later, when Watney prepares to be launched into space to intercept with the Hermes, we find Damon’s face scrunched in tears, making the tension of the moment palpable. Everything we’ve watched him endure, his entire improbable journey, comes down to this one terrifying rocket blast into orbit. It’d be too much to withstand if it wasn’t for that aforementioned tether tugging at us, reminding us of that promise of a happy ending.
Weir’s novel ends abruptly. Watney gets rescued in space, he espouses some generalities about human solidarity, and then we hit the author page. Our man is rescued — nothing more to see here. However, because Scott has managed to bring us much closer to Watney than the novel does, the director knows we need the catharsis of seeing our hero back safely on Earth — embarking on a new “Day 1.” So much of Weir’s concept remains beyond our wildest imaginations. We can barely begin to wrap our brains around that initial question: “What must it be like?” Consider Scott’s The Martian a blastoff towards those faraway answers.