The Martian is a runaway bestseller about a guy stuck on Mars who spends his time being a smartass and trying to get back to earth by “sciencing the shit” out of the problem. Using a lot of tape. And radioactivity. And potatoes.
This book is from a debut novelist who really knows his shit: both the chemical jury rig for creating water out of jet fuel, and the way to make you turn pages so fast they rip a little, the paper spotted with blood from your overly-gnawed fingernails.
I discovered the novel during my spring field season as a wildlife biologist, reading by headlamp in the camper shell of my truck. I sacrificed way too many precious hours of sleep to finding out OH, GOD, WHAT WILL HAPPEN to Mark Watney, the disco-hating astronaut whose favorite pastime is telling NASA bigwigs to go fornicate with themselves.
I was delighted to find that Ridley Scott had made a movie of the story, but before we go there, let’s discuss everything that was right about the book, starting with STAKES. Every page has a new problem that threatens to kill Watney in bizarrely interesting ways. Most of these are solved with math, so well written that I forgot to breathe while my eyes raced along to see if there would be enough hydrogen atoms to go around, or whatever new nerdy thing Watney needed. I loved the hero’s out-of-the-box problem solving, and the way he still wasn’t too good to glue his hand to his spacesuit when doing repairs. Or to blow himself up when—oops, can’t go there. Too spoilery.
And now on to the movie, whose strengths really compliment the book.
Hollywood had to skip over a lot of the problems Watney faced (let’s be fair, there were a lot of them) but what remains is much easier for the non-scientific viewer to follow. This makes me both happy and sad, because it was necessary, but I loved how the author made technical details of spacetravel interesting, even when I only understood about 80% of the specifics. I also thought the movie did a better job than the book of making Watney appear frightened (and therefore less bulletproof and more human). NASA’s involvement looked more balanced in the movie, rather than the afterthought it seemed to be in the book.
Most of all, I was relieved to see that the book’s sense of humor was alive and well onscreen. Who knew a movie about space could be choke-on-your-popcorn funny? Matt Damon did a bang-up (all puns intended) job as Mark Watney, embodying the can-do, dry-witted spirit of the original as he farms, lights things on fire, and makes fun of the suits at NASA.
Controversy side note: The Martian has apparently been accused of “whitewashing”. See article here. I was a little confused about this, because I felt that that this movie did a better job than any I’ve seen in a while of including diversity. Women were portrayed in many top positions, though in real life, we’re still seeing a dearth of women getting ahead in the math and science professions. There were African-Americans, Indians, Asians, and even European Caucasians as well as just American Caucasians. So I was surprised to hear that the movie had been accused of “whitewashing”. Reading the article, it seems that one person who was Asian in the book had been changed to Caucasian (though many other Asian actors/actresses were included, including a female heading up the Chinese space program, which I thought was impressively ahead of its time), and one character who had been Indian was instead portrayed by a Nigerian actor. Huh. Alert the press.
I have to say, in my personal opinion The Martian did a lovely job of portraying diversity, which was more optimistically science fictional than the plot considering that NASA’s workforce is 64.7% male and 73.7% white.
Dead-even tie, because the movie and the book were both fantastic. The tie-breaker depends on who you are. If you like science or edge-of-your-seat suspense, go for the book. If you want a quick thrill with lots of beautiful space footage and great acting, head for the movie theatre instead. Just avoid the concession stand, and if you end up snorting soda through your nose or flinching and spilling popcorn all over your date, don’t say I didn’t warn you.