As Thanksgiving approaches, the world’s engineers and space scientists are expressing their gratitude for The Martian. This saga of a modern-day astronaut stranded on Mars is an upbeat movie that makes space exploration look exciting, shot by a team dedicated to ensuring on-screen scientific accuracy. I myself grew up in an era when space travel was regarded as a thrilling adventure, and government expenditure on space-going missions seemed like money well spent. It’s been far too long since we cheered a man on the moon. As someone with close family ties to Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which makes an important cameo in the film, I’m personally thankful for anything that encourages voyages (manned or unmanned) across the cosmos. Let’s keep those science nerd-types employed! And while we’re doing that, let’s keep alive mankind’s dreams of exploring our universe
Though I’m rooting for The Martian because of its whole-hearted endorsement of space science, I also love this project because of what it says about the screenwriting process. I teach in the screenwriting division of UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program, so I count among my students many teachers and doctors and airline pilots who’re convinced they have what it take to make it to Hollywood. Most won’t get very far, but it still remains possible for would-be writers, whatever their day jobs, to hit the jackpot in the movie game.
Take the case of Andy Weir. He’s a mild-mannered software engineer who grew up, as so many engineers do, enamored of science fiction. He’s been writing stories since childhood, but his very first novel, The Martian, was truly the little spacecraft that could. Weir researched the story intently—delving into such arcane subjects as botany, orbital mechanics, and weather conditions on Mars—and then, if Wikipedia is to be believed, offered it as a free serial on his website. Once he turned it into a low-rent Kindle ebook, it was endorsed on the Goodreads site, then discovered by Crown Books . . . and the rest is publishing history.
But how did the 2011 novel become a 2015 Matt Damon movie, directed by Ridley Scott? Personally, I’m less interested in the business details than in the aesthetic challenges. Weir didn’t undertake the screenplay, which was written by Hollywood veteran Drew Goddard. Part of Goddard’s task was to explore the character of Mark Watney, who’s stranded on Mars when his crewmates leave him behind during a crisis, thinking him dead. Alone on Mars, without any initial way of communicating with earth, Mark does a great many creative things to stay alive. In a movie, we can watch him in action, but we can’t have access to his thought processes. The Mark of the novel keeps a running log, which shows us the way his mind works, and also introduces us to his vivid—sometimes profane, often very funny—voice. Movie audiences will never be satisfied with constant voiceover, so Weir’s idea of a log has evolved in the film into Mark’s series of video selfies, theoretically made for some far-off posterity. Given how much hard science is being thrown at us, it helps a lot to see Damon at his most brashly charming, spelling out his plans, crowing over his small successes, and struggling to absorb fuck-ups.
There are other good additions in the screenplay, like a deft characterization of an ultimate JPL space nerd who’s brilliant at solving problems of astrophysics but hasn’t yet figured out how to behave appropriately with actual human beings. And a new coda wraps up loose ends to give us a satisfying version of happily-ever-after.