Finally caught up with The Martian this weekend, and it was for better or worse pretty much exactly what I expected of it. It did a competent job of translating a dense, plot heavy novel into an entertaining piece of science fiction movie making. Matt Damon’s performance was excellent, and really captured the Mark Watney’s essential can do spirit, while also managing to round out what is a fairly flat and static character in the book. My biggest complaint for the adaptation was the look of it, which is very much that of a late-period Ridley Scott movie. The space suits, the habitats, the ships and the equipment all have just a bit too much of movie magic for my tastes. None of it has the drab, utilitarian look of products designed and constructed by committee.
The novel is an entertaining slab of problem solving, a book essentially about process. It’s told mostly in the first person, by a character undergoing a tremendous amount of stress and being somewhat glib about the situation to cope. That, of course, is perhaps a generous reading. I haven’t read anything else by Weir, but his prose in this novel is serviceable. I think that may come across as a damning with faint praise, but it’s really not. The pleasures of the book aren’t sensuous, and there’s no need for lyrical reveries – especially when they wouldn’t fit in with the character anyway.
And as in any adaptation of a novel into a film, they are forced to drop a lot of incidents and problems. Most of the time, when characters and subplots are dropped, I think it’s either for the best or at least indifferent (hello, Tom Bombadil). However, the pleasures of this particular book are so wrapped up in the way Watney walks us through his problem solving that seeing fewer of those instances on the film was something of a letdown. I think for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, this isn’t going to be a problem – there are enough problems for people to be wrapped up in that most folks won’t notice. The filmmakers definitely respected what the novel was in making their version of it.
But sitting and watching it this weekend, I was struck by the idea that this might have been better served with a smaller budget and a longer run time. Syfy Channel (ugh, I hate that name) has recently been adapting James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse novel series into a well-received adaptation. I watched the first episode and enjoyed it, and I’ve read the books and enjoyed them quite a bit as well. I’m looking forward to checking out the series further. But The Expanse is the kind of grand scale space opera that would really benefit from a big screen, big budget adaptation, where The Martian is a small story, told in only a few locations – a habitat, the deserts of Mars, and a few JPL meeting rooms – that a modest budget could handle. It seems a shame to me that a small story that calls out for a modest budget gets the Ridley Scott treatment, while a bigger, much more expansive story is confined to cable. Ah, well.