Rulebook Casefile: Cutting Out the Downhill Side of The Martian

It haunts me still, that baffling dismissal I got from my manager: “At a certain point it all rolls downhill.” I’ve spent years trying to understand it. One big clue comes from comparing the book and movie of The Martian.

The movie is very faithful to the book in the first half (the biggest change is that we get to see the evacuation sooner rather than later), but it has much bigger changes in the second half, which is to say that much of the second half was just lopped off. It almost feels like screenwriter Drew Goddard was simply typing up the book as he went, realized he was running out of pages, and abruptly cut to the climax. For instance, in the book, Watney accidentally shorts out the communication system, leaving him on his own again for months until he can reach the new site, and then his rover flips over on the way.

The change works fine. Once they’re gone we don’t miss those additional incidents, but does that mean that the book didn’t need them either? No, I still like having them in the book, because they return us to the grizzled-loner status of the first hundred pages, and put Watney back in charge of his own story, but in the movie, it would feel like a repeated beat, and a ramping down of the story when it should be ramping up (the flipped over rover, in fact, happens because Watney is literally on a downward ramp!) Books can ramp down, but movies can’t. In movies, you have to keep the pedal to the metal until you go off the end of the cliff.

Or, put another way, we expect our movie heroes to climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in only one direction: Watney gets physical survival, then connection with others, then a greater moral dilemma (is it worth having the others return for him on the slim chance he’ll live?). Once we get to the top of the pyramid, we don’t want to descend again, losing communication and then losing safety before finally re-establishing both just in time to take off.

Like Watney, screenwriters must beware when going downhill, lest their rovers flip over. Best not to risk it.

Next: #1!

Rulebook Casefile: Foreshadowing Too Much in The Martian

Now let’s look at one aspect of The Martian that was stronger in the book than the movie, and figure out why. I saw the movie first, and one problem I had was with the scene where they decide to skip the safety procedures on the launch of Mark’s food re-supply. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know what’s going to happen just from reading that: it blows up on the launch pad. And indeed, in the movie, it’s too obvious what will happen, ensuring that the explosion gets more of an eye-roll than a gasp.

Nevertheless, when I read the novel, even though I really knew what was going to happen, that scene didn’t spell its own doom, and the explosion is genuinely heartbreaking. What did novelist Andy Weir accomplish on the page that adapter Drew Goddard couldn’t accomplish on the screen? First let’s look at the book scene:
Then let’s look at the movie scene:
Most obviously, the book scene is much longer, with much more detail, so we get to focus more on the little dramas, without having to step back and consider the larger impact (and inevitable result) of the scene …but it’s more than that. In the book, Teddy feels like the hero of the scene: he’s willing to do anything to save Mark, even get creative with the timeline, and we admire him for it. In the movie, he just seems like a dick who’s heedless of the science.

One problem in the movie is that we don’t really feel Mark’s potential hunger (and therefore the urgency to resupply quickly) as much as we do in the book scene, but an even bigger problem is what Teddy says instead of talking about the hunger. I had to re-read the two scenes a few times to spot the key word: In the script, Teddy begins the scene by asking:
  • Let’s ask the very, very expensive question: Is this probe going to be ready on time?
It’s the word “expensive”, which wasn’t in the book scene, that gives the game away. In the book, he’s going to extremes to save a life, which usually pays off in fiction, so it’s shocking when it fails. In the movie, it sounds like he’s risking all to save money, which never works in fiction. The result is a series of scenes that are drastically inert, ending in an anticlimactic accident that generates no sadness.

I think one reason the movie did this was to try to turn Teddy into a little bit of a villain, but it was a bad decision: Adding a villain usually sharpens our emotional connection to the events, but in this case it dulled it. Weir knew what he was doing: Nature (and its close cousin chaos) is the only villain here, and the emotion comes from the pain of trying and failing to overcome it, despite everyone’s best intentions.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Let Anyone Compliment Your Hero

One of the many charges that was leveled against The Force Awakens was that of Mary Sue-ism. Wikipedia defines a “Mary Sue” as “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities.” The term comes from fan-fiction, where many writer insert versions of themselves into their stories, so as to receive praise from their heroes.

To many people, that seemed like a good description of Rey, the movie’s plucky young heroine, and I agree, to a certain extent.

The movie simply tried too hard to sell the character to us. Not only was she instantly great at everything she tried, from flying the Millennium Falcon to wielding a lightsaber, but, just in case we didn’t notice, each of the other characters gushed about how great she was: Han, Maz, Finn, and Kylo Ren all expressed amazement. Even Chewbacca seemed to instantly switch his allegiance as soon as Han was dead. (Shouldn’t she be his co-pilot?)

Now compare that to The Martian. One thing that’s there in the movie but is even more clear in the book is just how smart the character of Mark Watney is. I would go so far to say that he is, quite possibly, the smartest character in the history of fiction. In order to survive, especially in those periods without contact with Earth, he needs to be not just a genius-level botanist but also show genius in mechanical engineering, astrophysics, physiognomy, and about a dozen other specialities.
In both versions, we follow along with Mark on Mars, but we also cut away to Earth, where NASA is trying to help him and the media is speculating on his odds of survival. In both of those discussions, they never mention the elephant in the room: that everything Mark has done so far shows him to be a 99th-level genius who can pretty much figure anything out.

At a certain point, this gets weird. Isn’t anybody impressed?? What does this guy have to do to make people, “Wow, what the hell, Why are you so smart?”

But the novelist and screenwriter knew what they were doing. We do not want to hear our heroes complimented. We want to find our own place in the story. We want to choose whom to like and dislike based on our evaluation of the actions of the characters. We want characters to earn our trust and admiration, without the writer’s thumb on the scales. We are always highly reluctant to care about heroes because they usually let us down. When a writer praises his or her own character, that sounds like self-praise, that always sounds bad.

This is especially problematic in stories like The Force Awakens, where the character garners praise that seems unearned, but even in stories like The Martian, where it’s downright weird that people aren’t awed by the hero, we appreciate the ability to make our own judgment.

Best of 2015, #2: The Martian

I have so much to say about this movie that I’ll spend the week on it, but, as with the other movies, let’s start with a rule it exemplified: This rule was originally called “Say No Way to Melee”, but more broadly stated, it could be “Human Scale is Better.” I actually cited another Mars movie as the problem here:
  • In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene. In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring. In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.
This is the heart of the appeal of The Martian, and a stark contrast to a superficially similar movie from this year, The Revenant. Leo will almost certainly win the Oscar, while Damon will remain prize-less, but Damon deserves it. As an actor, it’s always tempting to go to the register of “inhuman suffering” rather than “human suffering”. After all, you can’t conceive of how someone could live with this calamity, so why try? Just do a wild-eyed hyperventilating freak-out the whole time. And why not? The Academy loves that.

But Damon makes the braver and more difficult choice. Rather than play up the unbelievability of his situation, Damon somehow makes us believe this is actually happening. This movie, after all, is not shot in real time. We’re watching more than a year on Mars. Damon gets a few freak-outs, but you can’t freak out all day long. The rest of the time, he’s doing something remarkable: showing us that a guy is making it work on Mars, complete with what, how, when, where, and why.

And not just any guy: a guy’s guy. A canny, jokey, ornery, and super, super smart guy. So much of Damon’s solo performance just consists of thinking, which is one of the hardest things to do onscreen. This brings up another direction he could have gone: the Cumberbatch direction, in which geniuses are all intense, twitchy and anti-social. But Damon, taking his lead from the wonderful novel, reintroduces a lost icon: the genius as grease-monkey. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough for this movie, because I finally get to show them a science hero who’s not a jerk!

As always, Damon makes what he does look easy, which is why he may never get a statue, but humbly thinking and doing things onscreen is actually tremendously hard, so much so that few actors even attempt it. I think no one else could have pulled off this remarkable performance.

Next: What The Martian does right that The Force Awakens does wrong