Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book & Movie Review: The Martian

So I mentioned I was going to try this a few weeks ago but a refresher for folks who have forgotten; I'm always at a loss for how to review adaptions based off of books that I have read recently. I don't want to just review one or the other but it's tricky to write something substantial both times without either repeating myself or spending the bulk of the review simply making comparisons. So, since I read The Martian quite recently I'm going to try this, one review to talk about the story as it relates to both version and how the versions differed (with characterization, pacing etc) and yes, saying if one version should be avoided over the other. I know that some people are a little, hesitant, to call a movie etc bad if it's not a faithful adaptation of a book but let's face it, a lot of times those are bad because they take out what made the story work (like, in terms of coherency, basic building parts) and I am anything but hesitant to tell you guys if a story was crap.

The Martian Original story by Andy Weir

Mark Whatney is screwed. As part of the third team of astronauts to go to Mars he is trained in what to do for nearly every kind of life or death situation, but no one ever considered the possibility that an astronaut might be left behind on Mars alive. But Mark is an astronaut dammit and a botanist too, as long as he has shelter and air he's not going to give up on staying alive and getting back home.

Well this is a sci-fi story like I haven't seen before, I'm sure there must be other ones out there like it (combining science with survival) but this is also one of the tensest books I've ever read. In the movie there wasn't as much tension since, not only had I already read the book, but I knew the full runtime of the movie but in the book, I honestly wasn't sure if Mark would live or die. The story is from a series of journals (ie, it's told in the past), jumps back and forth between Mark and the characters on Earth, and this was originally a web novel (which, imo, means more freedom to pull off crazy twists). It's not the movie's fault that it can't recapture that tension quite as well (especially when, as others have pointed out, you don't have big name stars in bit roles) but I do think that it is sufficiently dramatic and tense anyway, there are actually some parts which are more sudden in the movie since the book's foreshadowing was cut out for time. 

Speaking of things being cut, before the movie came out a friend and I speculated that there might not be enough material in the book so it was a good thing that there were some areas where they could add in material (like backstories) but lo and behold the movie actually had to cut parts out! Even when the technobabble was slimed down the movie still had to cut out some events (including a rather major one, Mark runs into even more disasters in the book) and they also made one event more severe to create a more traditional, "punchy" climax. I'm totally fine with these changes since they didn't alter the plot in any major fashion, change/ignore character motivation, or go against the general theme/ideas of the story, to me that's what a good adaptation does. 

As you have probably guessed by now, I don't actually have any major complaints about either the book or the movie. But Pop Culture Happy Hour noticed the same thing I did, which was that movie-only fans tend to complain more about the science (which is all very rigorously explained in the book) so I have to wonder, would I feel like some things were inadequately explained if I hadn't read the book? I listened to part of another podcast on the movie (it was on Tor but I don't remember who the hosts were) and they were bellyacheing about a lot of details, like how the Mars base apparently didn't have a back-up communication array. In the movie I thought this was handled well, we see the satellite dish nearly kill Mark so we know that's gone and, as the movie points out later on, communicating between Earth and Mars is hard and tedious so it makes sense that Mark had trouble. Maybe the movie should have made it more clear why there wasn't a back-up but I also knew the answer from the book, communications are so hard that it messages were actually relayed between other pieces of equipment (namely, the spaceship) and Earth so without that booster Mark was out of luck. Is this the kind of detail you need in a movie where, for something technical like that, it must either be physically written and present on screen long enough for the audience to read or spoken? Frankly I think that would be excessive, if you do want to know all of those details then there already is a perfectly good book version of the story. Plus the movie already had quite a few more technical explanations in it for the more critical details (like, why growing potatoes will let you take over Mars) so it's not as if the science wasn't present. 

I do understand why people are pointing out some of the incorrect science (there wouldn't be windstorms like that on Mars since it has no atmosphere, water was officially discovered on Mars a few weeks after the movie came out, etc) but again, with the way these events were presented in the book and the movie I didn't mind that level of dramatization. Heck, I actually noticed that Weir gets some of the solar panel technology wrong and I kind of liked that I was nerdy enough to realize this! Details in a footnote for those so inclined* but it should be a sign of how thorough the rest of the story was that I'm perfectly fine with overlooking a few, admittedly major, lapses in a work of science fiction that-tries-hard-to-be-science-fact. I do also wish the casting had been a little more diverse (although it did better than I expected) and no, the scenes with the Chinese space agency weren't "just added in for the international audience". It's a bit sad that some people assume those were only in there to essentially pander to folks, not because it made sense for the story, and it's also funny that I see people complaining about how much NASA is glorified in this story when really all of the international space agencies mentioned come out looking very good. 

Finally, I like Mark. I'm tired of stories where someone unsuited for adventure ends up on one and the story must spend eons building them up to the point where they can handle their new role. It makes sense in those stories but I'm so bored by seeing the same idea over and over. I liked seeing a person remain as calm as they could and power through problems one ideas at a time and say "I have thought about what I'll do if it's clear that I'll die but for now I'm going to keep moving" (plus, his snarky dialogue felt like real, casual English, not as if the writers were trying too hard). And as a bonus, my ace reading group and I were delighted that there's no romance on Mark's part in the story and amused that this was brought up in the reading group questions at the end of the book. I would have been fine if the story had mentioned that Mark was in a relationship of some kind or another, honest, but there's an extra bit of satisfaction when I see a story say "I don't need romance to be complete".

*from what I remember, when Mark is explaining how efficient the solar panels are (and this determines how long they take to charge batteries) he says that NASA sent along highly efficient solar panels, 10% efficient. Now if you look at this handy chart you can see that current day panels (at least 30 years in the past for The Martian) can go much higher and I remember from my classes on photovoltaics that basically only NASA can even afford to buy those very high end panels (since currently it's really hard to eek out even a few percentage points more efficiency, talking about hard cells since thin film is really not as great as casual readers think, you can also see this in the chart by noticing how most of the products have flatlined since the mid-90s). I don't know off-hand what the temperature on Mars would do to the efficiency of the cells (I imagine it would reduce it some since extreme cold does that) BUT I can safely say that NASA would have been sending cells that were more than 10% efficient which would have changed the plot since Mark could travel faster and therefore farther. 

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