This week’s feature is the second chapter of one of my ongoing projects, Book Vs. Film. BVF was born out of necessity and birthed to coordinate a discussion of what truly is better: the book or the film?
Today, Andy Weir’s The Martian, a New York Times Best Seller, battles with the redemption and rebirth of one Ridley Scott.
A computer programmer by trade, Weir put together a novel that compartmentalizes character and legitimizes Martian space travel. He conducted extensive research to accurately summarize a vacation on Mars. This research has and very well should be applauded by critics. This is the type of intellectual material that we don’t see too often in literature. Writers create and certainly do some fact-checking of their own but I would wager Weir spent as much time in the library as he did at the computer typing out his manifest.
Meanwhile, Scott had some bones to pick himself here. As I mentioned in my review of The Martian, Ridley Scott’s usual finesse with the directorial baton had lost its touch in his most recent products. In The Martian, we saw that deftness again. Scott has an array of talents in his quiver and critics, myself included, were concerned he was heading for a downward spiral. We’ve all calmed down since our return from space.
Where the book shines is in Weir’s attention to detail and praise of Watney. He clearly put a lot of time into the character, crafting a specimen unique to the environment he encounters and not just because he’s the first official inhabitant of Mars. As expected, the film can’t compete with a book’s thoroughness, though Matt Damon is a more than substantial comparison. I’ve always enjoyed Damon’s work and come to think of it, I can’t think of anything I disliked with him present. Portrayed admirably and with as much tenderness as the book suggests, Watney is a blunt, sees-it-as-it-is individual.
Weir is marveled by the scientific process, the engineering and the mechanical work that goes into space exploration. This is probably why he spends so little time painting his pictures on the page. He does a superb job explaining everything that’s going on, though I’ll admit to having to read some passages three times before being able to wrap my head around it. I only wish he had spared the same focus with his scenery.
The term “Schiaparelli crater” is a geographic coordinate correlating to a valley on Mars’ surface. It doesn’t mean anything more than that. It is a foreign term to an everyday person. The phrase doesn’t do it justice either. It’s a lot more visually impressive than a crater but we’re never gifted to that picture.
Where Weir’s amateur ability as a writer is demonstrated is in his lack of imaginative description. Having read all 369 pages of Weir’s novel, I know a lot more about astronomical technologies than I do about Mars. I feel that should be the other way around. I can’t tell you anymore about what Mars looks like than I could before I opened the cover.
This is why Scott was such a great choice for the director’s chair. He’s a visionary. Where Weir’s a novice in this regard, Scott is a former wunderkind and experienced cinematic magician, crafting portraits and narratives for decades.
The supporting characters are as submissive as they are in the film, a key change I was looking for but never saw. Watney’s personality certainly shines in the novel’s pages but the side characters are so far to the side that I can barely see them in my peripherals. Even if I could see them clearer, there’s not much substance to really pull my attention when so much commitment and dedication has been invested in Watney. He’s highly personable, certainly more relevant and leagues ahead of any other interest I might have been able to gauge from the experience. The problem is that he’s the only thing and as bright a light as he is for the novel, the lack of atmosphere is problematic. The film’s supporting cast, despite all the high-profile names on the list, is just as irrelevant, aside from the casual punctuation of a joke or the service of a plot pusher.
At the end of the discussion, only one Martian can be at the top and in this case, I have to side with the film. Visually gratifying and an experience that garnered seven Academy Award nominations, Scott’s film held the necessary components of Weir’s novel while maintaining its own singularity.