Genre: Book (Sci-fi)
Premise: When a resilient and clever astronaut gets stuck on Mars, he must use every trick in the book to get rescued.
About: A computer science geek, Andy Weir, took three years to research his novel before writing it, wanting to make sure the story was as realistic as possible. After being ignored by publishers, Weir offered the book for free on his website, before eventually selling it on Amazon for 99 cents. After the book shot up Amazon’s best-seller list, Crown Publishing came in and offered Weir six-figures for the book. That’s a big leap from 99 cents. This, of course, led to Fox optioning the movie rights, which, it’s been rumored, will have Matt Damon starring and Ridley Scott directing.
Writer: Andy Weir
Details: 385 pages
Okay, remember what we do here on “Adapt This Book Wednesday.” We take a book that’s been optioned by Hollywood and we figure out how we’d adapt it. When you get into this business, adapting material will be your number one source of income, so it’s a skill you’ll want to get good at.
Generally speaking, when you read a book you’re going to adapt, you’re looking for a couple of things. First, you want to find the component of the book that’s going to be the narrative spine. This might end up being the entire story. But other times a book will be so big or so complex, you’ll be forced to tell only a piece of it. Figuring out what piece that is could be the difference between a good script and a bad one.
Also, you’re looking for potential problems in the material and creative ways to solve those problems. In some cases, you can just cut the problematic part of the story out. But there are some problems that are so ingrained in the story that you can’t avoid them. Take the whole Chilean Miner incident from a couple of years back. You had a few dozen men trapped in a tiny mine space. How do you even begin to shoot that story? How do people move around? Or will everyone just stay in one spot? How do you keep that interesting for two hours? Would it be better to tell the story of the people trying to save the miners? These are key choices that need to be figured out in the script stage. And while some solutions are easy, there are usually a couple of big ones that make your life miserable. With that in mind, let’s check out The Martian.
Mark Watney is fucked. His team just abandoned him on Mars. It wasn’t really their fault. A dust storm threatened to blow over their rocket. A quick decision needed to be made. And Mark was presumed dead.
So poor Marky wakes up, barely alive, and heads over to his little Advanced Mars Tent where he realizes that his communications satellite was destroyed and he has no contact with anyone. He does some calculations and determines that the soonest NASA can save him is in 4 years.
So Mark starts keeping a journal (which is what we’re reading) chronicling the end of his life. But then Mark starts doing some math in his head (there is a LOT of math in The Martian), and tries to figure out if he can generate enough food and water to last four years. Mark is a botanist, so he realizes that if he uses the square footage in his tent to grow potatoes (of which he has a few frozen), he may get close. And so begins Mark’s journey to stay alive.
Things keep going wrong along the way (he gets communication with NASA only to later lose it, his tent blows up, he loses all his food, he gets stuck outside with low oxygen, etc.) until he and NASA figure out a way to send his crew-mates back to get him, while Mark drives the Mars 4-Wheeler 3000 miles to a future land-sight, and use the rocket there to lift off in a precisely timed one-and-done rendezvous with his ship. I’m not going to tell you if Mark makes it or not. But you can probably figure it out.
Okay, so before we get to the adaptation part, I have to say that THIS BOOK ALMOST DROVE ME INSANE! It starts out great. We’re in Mark’s head, he’s trying to plan out the square footage of farmland he can use to grow potatoes so he can stay alive (he fertilizes it with his own shit by the way). He has no way to talk to anyone. It seemed exciting. How was he going to get out of this???
This “prep to stay alive” section went on for what I figured was 1/3 of the book. Then I looked at the Kindle progress bar. 10%. TEN PERCENT!!!??? How the hell was he going to keep this going for another 90% of a book? It felt like an uncrossable chasm, which is exactly what it turned out to be.
The Martian isn’t so much a story as it is a math textbook. This entire book is math!!! Every single page was some variation of this: “I figured if I tripled the oxygen in the HAB unit, I would decrease the percentage of the neutrons, which would allow me to create 340 liters of water every six days. The problem was, if I tripled the oxygen, I increased the chance of a fire by 32%! Not to worry. By dividing the square footage of the room by 7 and adding the appropriate carbon offset, I would decrease that percentage by 73%, which, while dangerous, was still within reasonable levels.”
The 250 middle pages in the book were ALL like this.
Adaptation Problem #1 – The whole fucking book is math!
Obviously, showing a main character do math in his head for two hours, even if it’s Matt Damon, isn’t going to get anyone into the theater. So this is a pretty big issue. It’s such a big issue, in fact, that you can’t include it. Or you can’t use any math equations that we can’t show visually. I guess we could show Matt Damon counting out potato spuds and planting them. But everything else was percentages and elements and a bunch of math gobbledy-gook. So as difficult as it is to say, for a book that is based almost entirely on math, I don’t think you can include any of that in the movie, other than some throwaway lines to NASA (“I figured if I decreased the hydrogen load by half, I’d have a little more energy”).
Adaptation Problem #2 – Almost the entire story takes places inside Mark’s head
So what do you do about this? Is Mark going to be silent the whole movie? You could use voice over, but listening to Matt Damon speak to us in his head for two hours will get annoying fast. You could pull a “Wilson,” like they did in Cast Away, but it’s a delicate balance to get those things right. You also run the risk of everyone saying, “They just copied Cast Away.” You could pull an “Avatar” and make him use a video diary. That’s probably the best option of the three. — Mark does have a communication line with NASA for awhile, so I guess you could have him tell them what he’s doing while he’s doing it. But the best thing about this story is Mark being alone with no help. What might work is having Mark work silently while cutting to NASA where all the talking happens during their surveillance (they have satellites watching him that are orbiting Mars). It’s sort of a clever way to get into his head without really being in his head. “What is he doing now?” “It looks like he’s packing to make a trip. I think he’s going to try and find the Mars Rover.”
Adaptation Problem #3 – Story Length
The length of this story is really freaking long. It’s somewhere between 2 and 4 years (it’s hard to know for sure because the actual time gets buried in numbers). That’s a really long time to cover in a film. Of course, Tom Hanks gets stuck on that island for four years, but that’s a big beautiful island he can prance around. Mark is stuck in a 75 square foot room for the majority of The Martian. It’s not the same thing. You have options here. You can make the tent a lot bigger. Maybe it has multiple rooms, which would allow you to mix up the visuals a bit. You can condense the time with montages of course. Or you can cut out a lot of the story entirely and just focus on one particular section of the story. I’d lean towards that. There are some escapades that get Mark out of the tent (he goes to get the Mars Rover), but for the most part, he’s in that small room calculating solutions for his current problems.
I think I know how I would do this. The most exciting parts of The Martian are the beginning and the ending. The beginning because it’s that shocking moment when he’s first left alone on the planet. And the end because he’s got to drive this Mars truck thing 2000 miles across bumpy terrain that his vehicle was never made for. He gets stuck in a dust storm. His car flips on its side. He’s got to get to the location in time to be launched up so he can catch the fly-by of his crew-members. This is all visual stuff that we can SHOW on a movie screen that would keep the audience engaged. Nobody’s going to be engaged by a man in a room with a calculator.
So if I were these guys, that’s where I’d start the film, with Mark in the Mars Truck, driving, looking ragged and beaten, like he’s been through hell and back. We may not know exactly what happened to get him here, but his face tells us a lot of it. You can knock this journey down to 10 days, which is a good solid timeframe for a movie (much better than 4 years at least!).
If you wanted to, you could occasionally flash back to how Mark got here, like the original storm that knocked him down, the swirling dust making it impossible for his crew members to see him. He watches as one of his crew walks only 5 feet away but can’t see him. Mark can hear them talking to each other, frantically asking where he is, but Mark’s com is out so he can’t communicate back. I don’t usually like flashbacks, but if you used them to show harrowing moments like this, they’d raise our understanding of how difficult it was for Mark just to get this far, and therefore make us root for him more.
I don’t think Mark should talk in this. First of all, actors love that shit. So Damon would be all over this. You’d get all the exposition you needed by cutting to NASA or the Mars Ship while they watched him. If you needed to know what Mark was doing, you’d have one of them say something like, “It looks like he’s re-calibrating his course. Shit, that’s going to take him right into the storm. And he doesn’t know it!” The rest of the script is pretty self-explanatory and visual (launch into space and catch a ride), and should pretty much write itself.
That’s how I’d approach it at least. What about you guys??
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A lot of books take place over a long period of time. One of the first things you should try and do is find a way to condense the time-frame if possible. Condensed time-frames are much easier stories to tell. If you’re doing an adaptation of a Martin Luther King biography, for example, maybe focus on one super-charged summer of King’s life rather than trying to bring us through all 39 of his years.