I read Andy Weir’s The Martian several months ago for Novel Ideas, the book podcast I do with my brother. It ended up being the only thing I had with me on an hours-long bus ride from New York to Boston where we spent most of the time stuck in traffic. So I pretty much felt just as hopeless about the prospect of ever getting home as Mark Watney. You might have heard of this bestselling book around the Christmas season like I did, or you might have been totally clueless until Matt Damon’s face started getting plastered everywhere for the movie that just came out. Either way, now that the book and movie have both dominated in their respective fields, you might be wondering: Should I bother to read it? Should I just watch the movie instead? Do both? Luckily, I’m here to give you all the answers. (If you’re interested in the slightly longer version, you can listen to the episode of Novel Ideas.)
The Martian is of the hard sci-fi variety. This means that Mark Watney writes about lots of scientific detail in his journal logs. I’m talking real science, carefully thought through in a step-by-step process. When he figures out how to grow potatoes on Mars, he then figures out how many square feet of dirt he needs, how deep the dirt will need to be, exactly how long to grow the potatoes to give him exactly how many calories to last him how many days, etc. This is only the beginning. We get a lot more detailed processes as the book goes along as he figures out how to make water, how to rig up the Rover, how to contact NASA, and on and on.
Some people love this shit. One of the things The Martian has been lauded for is its scientific accuracy. Andy Weir went out of his way to make everything in the book plausible. Everything that happens is scientifically possible. All the bad stuff that happens? The result of a previous decision instead of random happenstance.
I liked this aspect of the book, but I’ll admit that I started skipping over the science-y stuff. Mark, thankfully, also has a sense of humor so his journal entries aren’t just boring slogs. As far as I know, most hard science fiction doesn’t go out of its way to be humorous, but The Martian has plenty of snark. Mark cracks jokes, his fellow astronauts crack jokes, and almost everyone is an unstoppable dick. This works sometimes, but not always. I got tired of wisecracking being substituted for well-developed characters. Ultimately, that kept me from fully engaging in the book.
But as a survival and travel tale told on Mars? Pretty cool. And it’s a quick read if you’re okay with lots of science and characters who can’t turn off the snark.
Another aspect of the book I liked was its diversity. Weir includes women who actually do things and a lot of non-white folks too. The movie annoyed me a little for making more people white than I would have liked. Mindy Park is Korean, not blonde. But they at least threw in some diversity, which is better than Hollywood usually does.
The movie does a pretty good job translating the book to screen. It unsurprisingly throws out a lot of the hard science and cuts out several of the bad things that happen to Watney. Not explaining a lot of the science didn’t bother me too much, but I did miss the explanations for why some things when wrong. In the book, everything that goes wrong has a careful explanation. In the movie, the bad things can seem to happen out of nowhere.
The film version also amps up the drama a bit by turning the comedy dial down a smidge. The characters still crack jokes but not nearly as much and some of them actually even have serious conversations. I was fine with this particular change even if it did mean cutting out my favorite joke from the novel. What I can appreciate is that audience members laughed during an action movie, which is pretty unusual. So props for that.
I guess the final factor for the movie will be how much you like Matt Damon. With some of the douche-tastic comments he’s made lately about gay actors in Hollywood, I have to say I was sort of annoyed with him when I went into the movie. If you can’t stand his face, steer far, far away from this film. His face takes up a lot of screentime.
The book will takes you 5-6 hours to read (getting stuck on a bus makes this really easy) and is enjoyable if you like a lot of science and snark and can overlook mediocre character development. The movie will take you less time but might disappoint if you want more science and less of Matt Damon’s face.