The Martian novel, written by Andy Weir, is a self-publishing success. In 2011, he self-published the book and it got enough attention to garner him a contract with Crown Books. In 2014, The Martian was re-released with the help of Crown and became one of the top selling books on Amazon.Com. And then it became a movie.
I started reading The Martian last year and, between applying to graduate programs, moving (twice!), picking up a few side jobs (on top of my main jobs), and all the rest of life stuff that gets in the way of fun stuff, it took me a while to finish the book. Mind you, I really enjoyed the book as I was reading it and I even got students of mine to read it as well.
Now that I’ve finally finished reading and watching The Martian, I can compare and contrast the two different media used to tell Andy Weir’s story of an astronaut left behind on Mars for your (and more likely my) amusement and declare one better than the other (because all things must be ranked!).
If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, this post contains spoilers. Though, if you’ve clicked on this blog because of the title, I’m assuming you kind of already knew that, but I thought I’d be nice and post a warning anyway.
Overall, despite the difference in media, the story of astronaut Mark Watney is pretty much kept in tact, with the exception of the ending. Both the film and the book rely on narration, which works well in the novel but not as well, at points, in the movie (I felt).
The main mode of telling a story through text is narration. With text, that’s pretty much the only way to tell a story. But when we change medium from text to film, new story telling elements arise. Film has an added dimension of spectacle through its visual nature that text is lacking. While a novel must take up time and pages describing costumes and sets, the spectacle element of film allows costumes and sets to be shown. While a novel must have a narrator tell us what’s happening in the story, the film has the option to show us, the audience, what’s happening so we experience it first-hand instead of through a re-telling or another character’s eyes.
In The Martian novel, this narration comes in the form of a log astronaut Mark Watney is keeping after being left for dead on the surface of Mars. Through his narration, the reader gets to know Watney, his potty mouth, and his sense of humor well. He’s charming and engaging, despite his tragic situation, and extremely bright. He’s a double scientist (engineering and botany) after all.
The movie tries to keep this narration in tact as much as possible, but the medium makes the narration feel a little odd. In the novel, it made sense for Watney’s mode of story telling to be through his log, but in the movie we don’t really need Watney to tell us what he’s done at the end of the day since we can, you know, see it. The narration would make more sense if it were more related to technical, scientific things the audience might not grasp. But in the beginning when Watney is farming potatoes, we get no explanation until later about the type of fertilizer he is using. Instead, we get Watney talking to us about drilling holes in the top of the MAV because NASA told him to.
Media differences and story delivery aside, there is one major difference between the novel and the movie that, in my opinion, makes the novel that much better than the movie.
Shirtless Matt Damon aside, in the movie, Matt Damon, I mean, Mark Watney is saved by his fellow astronauts after he flies through space like Iron Man. The movie closes with Watney teaching in NASA’s astronaut academy, recounting his adventure and speaking of how he thought he was going to die. The overall message of the story now becomes about self reliance. He tells the students that you are the only thing you can depend on.
In the novel, however, Watney never flies through space to his rescuers. While the novel has a joke made by Watney about flying through space like Iron Man, he does not do it because that’s insane. Instead, he sits tight while his crew mates rescue him. In the end of the novel, Watney makes one last log entry reflecting on all the manpower NASA used, the billions spent by multiple nations to get a rocket ship and supplies his way, the billions of people watching and invested in his story, and he comes to a conclusion quite different than the conclusion of the movie: that the human species has a base drive to take care of its own when they are in trouble.
Call me a sentimentalist (or, a socialist, which I am), but the message of human solidarity and the recognition of the efforts of others in his rescue makes a much stronger ending in my eyes.
Honestly, while I do think the book is stronger overall, both the movie and the book were really good. If you can, watch and read both, and mentally replace the ending of the movie with the ending in the book. There are other minor difference – the book, for example, has a unit of measure called pirate ninja because Watney gets too tired to type out the long scientific name. There are also more obstacles for Watney to overcome in the book, but this is typical of adaptations – not everything in the novel can make it to the screen, after all.
After writing this post, I found this cool video that mostly agrees with me! I really like being agreed with. Although, if you disagree or want to discus something about the book, or even neither of those two things and you just want to comment, please comment below!
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