A deeply text-based novel that somehow feels at home on the silver screen

So much of The Martian is rooted in Mark’s textual logs, and yet Ridley Scott’s film adaptation feels surprisingly natural. This leads me to believe that Scott understands a key principle about what makes a good adaptation: Rather than attempt to play out word for word everything about which Weir writes, Scott unlocks another layer of the story.

In the novel, Mark’s quirky descriptions and musings are the reader’s main window into his situation on Mars. His voice gives a sense of lively personality to his problem-solving exploits and technical explanations; without it, the description of events would undoubtedly have less widespread appeal. In the film, however, Mark’s voice must sometimes take a backseat to the action itself in order for the plot to be clearly conveyed.

But with the loss of Mark as our primary storyteller comes a new gain. As Irene Shields (psychologist to the team of Ares 3) notes, “the way [Mark] showed [signs of stress] was to crack more jokes and get everyone laughing” (Weir 89). Mark’s humor is a coping mechanism and serves to partially distance him from the reality of his stress. Take away the filter of Mark’s perspective and the viewer more quickly gets a deep understanding of the direness of Mark’s situation. The emotional impact of seeing events play out on screen makes up for any loss in the potential of the story to be entertaining. With this major (but necessary) adjustment in mind, Scott proceeds to look for aspects of the novel that are begging for time on the screen.

Scott’s The Martian takes advantage of the structure of Weir’s book while expertly supplying visual information largely ignored by the text. The book’s many alternating settings (mainly Mark’s location on Mars, NASA’s headquarters in Houston, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena), somewhat unusual for a novel, provide exactly what modern audiences expect of a film: engaging, fast-paced developments in multiple simultaneous plot lines. An intense difference in color scheme distinguishes scenes in the Martian wastelands (dusty reds and oranges) from spaces designed and populated by humans (a cold and sterile fluorescent-tube blue). The warmer colors give a hot, oppressive feel to the Martian scenery, while the calmer blues connote technology and control.

Another feature of the book that the film readily exploits is the variety of media through which Weir conveys the story: logs, in-person dialogue, TV interviews, and more (see my first blog post here). Weir’s book provides an excellent opportunity to play with the usage of in-universe cameras versus the filmmaker’s camera and diegetic versus non-diegetic sound. Toward the beginning of the film (00:09:16), the scene transitions from a CNN feature, represented via a pixelated screen and slightly warped sound, to a shot designed to be a window directly into the action, with clearer visuals and a resonating quality to Sanders’ voice, giving a greater sense of the size of the room. The transition provides meaningful context to the situation (the entire world will watch Watney’s fate play out) and allows the viewer to experience two perspectives on the scene. Similarly, shots of Mars often alternate between in-universe rover, suit, or Hab log cams (which often supply additional information, such as the current sol and oxygen levels, and the filmmaker’s camera), allowing the viewer to get a sense of what the in-universe recordings are like and what they may tell the characters, while also allowing the viewer to get the filmmaker’s omniscient perspective. One scene features Watney listening to Lewis’ disco collection while in the rover (00:38:24); as the data on the screen disappear and the music takes on a less distant quality, the viewer transitions out of a sense of “status report” by Watney and is absorbed more deeply into the moment. Such transitions, though common in film, are important for the movie to have good flow, and The Martian consistently uses transitions that are meaningful, smooth, and often inventive without ever seeming overly gimmicky.

In terms of shot composition, the film uses a variety of angles that both play into and challenge Roger Ebert’s notions of “basic visual strategy.” In one scene in which Watney is in the rover, the camera approaches him from below. Rather than making Mark into a god, as Ebert suggests such shots usually do, there’s something obviously awkward about this shot from below, looking at Mark’s pained expression (and essentially up his nose), that gives even more comic punch to the line, “I would love to solve this problem right now but, unfortunately, my balls are frozen” (37:03). The same framing reappears later on and again gives Mark a very slight awkwardness and vulnerability.

Although some aspects of the text are necessarily lost in the adaptation to film, the film does an excellent job of including many of the aspects of Weir’s novel that make The Martian such an enjoyable story: a variety of settings, storytelling strategies, and characters, along with a good dose of humor and many entertaining personalities. The film takes advantage of connotations of color and framing and uses effective transition. Scott’s film is an entertaining and well-constructed tribute to Weir’s story.

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One thought on “A deeply text-based novel that somehow feels at home on the silver screen

  1. This is a thoughtful comparison between the film and the novel. I would have liked to have seen a little more analysis, however. What are the implications of these changes? How do they change the way we understand or interpret the “text”? (text in this case meaning both novel and film).

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