The Martian Proves Movies Are Now Better Than Their Books
A confession: I didn’t love Andy Weir’s The Martian. Despite all the people telling me at coffee shops/airports/etc. that it was their favorite book, I struggled to get through the prose. (I know, I know…) The story of astronaut Mark Watney and his fully science-enabled quest to stay alive while stranded on Mars was fascinating, but the book’s use of repetitive plot devices and phrasings (“shit,” “holy shit,” and “well, shit” appear regularly) made it a slog. In short, it was fine—I just thought it needed a good edit.
Ridley Scott’s The Martian is that edit. Freed of Watney’s long monologues and Weir’s deep explanations of botany and chemistry, the movie is far more agile than the book. It’s no less compelling and a whole lot more fun. (At one point, I actually spent an evening doing my taxes just to avoid delving into another chapter of The Martian.) Simply put, the movie is better than the book.
All together now: heresy!
Film always will be a more efficient way to tell stories. The reason we read, and luxuriate in doing so, is because books provide a beauty in the telling. Decades ago, adapting literature like Gone with the Wind or Hamlet was a way for film to prove its legitimacy as an art—to show it could tell stories as grandly as great novels and plays. But filmmakers now have so many tools—particularly when it comes to sci-fi like The Martian—that movies might be the better way to tell some stories, period.
In his book Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, Thomas Leitch writes that “both categorical studies of adaptation and studies that emphasize analogies among the arts take as their central line of inquiry the question of what makes works of art successful—or what … makes them beautiful.” What makes Scott’s film successful is that it is beautiful: when minimal visual effects can take us to a desolate Marscape and show us a scientist McGyvering his way through hell, that beauty is far more effective. It’s a story better told in two hours than in nearly 400 pages.
Some of that is a by-product of the times we live in. The age of fast-and-loose optioning , coupled with the rise of self-publishing—which is how Weir’s novel was noticed—means it’s not only much easier for amateur writers to surface, but for their books to hit the big screen. (See also: Fifty Shades of Grey, the Divergent series.) The thing is, while there are many people with good stories to tell, sometimes their storytelling needs work. But with directors like Scott, who has adapted everything from Philip K. Dick to the Book of Exodus, and screenwriters like Drew Goddard, who adapted The Martian, we’re arguably in the midst of the golden age of book adaptations.
(To be fair, Goddard disagrees with me that his script is The Martian’s better edit. He instead laments that he couldn’t get more of Weir’s story in the script. “If I put all the good stuff on the screen,” he says, “the movie would be nine hours long.”)
I’m not slagging authors here—let she who is without cliché cast the first stone—but we’re also overlooking an important link in this chain. While the world needs the stories writers like Weir have to tell, so do storytellers like Ridley Scott. (Some recent missteps aside, Scott will always be a brilliant director.) Of the 36 projects on which Scott is credited as a director, he’s only really written one—his 1965 short Boy and Bicycle.
And Scott’s not the only one hungry for material. Earlier in Steven Spielberg’s career, the director filmed a mix of scripts he’d been involved with—Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and those written by others. (His Jurassic Park was The Martian of its time.) In recent years, he’s steered toward adaptations. His last three films—Lincoln, War Horse, and The Adventures of Tintin—all have been book adaptations of one variety or another. And his next two are adaptations of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and Ernie Cline’s nerd-favorite Ready Player One.
Ready Player One, in fact, has a lot in common with The Martian: a good yarn told competently, but not astoundingly. The characters are likable and the worldbuilding is impressive, but frankly, it reads like a movie treatment. (Cline, an admitted ’80s movie obsessive, came to prominence because of his script for Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars). It’s now up to Spielberg to turn Ready Player One into a story told well.
At Comic-Con International this summer, Cline spoke to me about the adaptation process and said something very interesting. He had written the first two drafts of the RPO script, but told me that “they couldn’t wait to get rid of the guy who wrote the book, because I was too precious about everything.” As the screenplay went through rewrites, it got further from Cline’s original story—and lost a lot of his pop-culture references. Then, as Cline tells it, Spielberg had a meeting with Zak Penn, who was working on the script at the time, and came armed with a copy of the book that had “100 Post-it notes” of things he wanted to re-introduce into the movie. (Penn later told Cline about the meeting.) Spielberg had seen the story, and he knew how to tell it.
Ready Player One was nominally a young-adult title, but not a franchise, and as such is an exception to the recent spate of YA adaptations. However, with the exception of Veronica Roth’s Divergent books, most successful YA adaptations have been qualitatively on par with their literary predecessors: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were both great stories, well told. (The movie and book versions of Divergent are also of similar quality—we’ll leave it up to you to define it.)
“I Can Only Hope I Do the Story Justice”
But will we ever move entirely from a world where “I liked the book better” has been swapped for “I liked the movie better”? Maybe. But there is one book adaptation forthcoming that could prove this theory wrong: Hugh Howey’s Wool. The book, which started out as a self-published phenomenon like The Martian, was optioned by—surprise!—Ridley Scott’s Martian studio partner, 20th Century Fox, and is currently being scripted by the genius behind Guardians of the Galaxy, Nicole Perlman.
Perlman, who just turned her first draft of Wool in to the studio, says that the way in which a book got to readers has little bearing on how camera-ready it is. But in her case, Howey’s dystopian novel had the opposite problem of the relatively straight-forward Martian: It has a multiple interweaving storylines, many of which don’t intersect with the arc of its main protagonist, Juliette.
“At first glance, it might seem more suited to a television series with lots of cliffhangers, due to the episodic nature of its chapters,” Perlman says of Wool. “Regardless, finding a way to honor the source material while still creating a journey that feels satisfying within the space of 90 minutes is the goal, and I can only hope that I do Juliette’s story justice.”
It’ll be years before we know how the adaptation of Wool turns out, but it’s in good hands—and perhaps more importantly, the source material is on better footing. “What sets it apart from hundreds of thousands of self-published e-books,” Keith Donohue wrote in the Washington Post’s review, “is that it’s a good and compelling story, and well told.” After all, above everything, it’s those last three words that matter.
Continue at source: