A confession: I didn’t love Andy Weir’s The Martian. Despite all the people telling me at coffee shops/airports/etc. that it was their favorite book, I struggled to get through the prose. (I know, I know…) The story of astronaut Mark Watney and his fully science-enabled quest to stay alive while stranded on Mars was fascinating, but the book’s use of repetitive plot devices and phrasings (“shit,” “holy shit,” and “well, shit” appear regularly) made it a slog. In short, it was fine—I just thought it needed a good edit.
Ridley Scott’s The Martian is that edit. Freed of Watney’s long monologues and Weir’s deep explanations of botany and chemistry, the movie is far more agile than the book. It’s no less compelling and a whole lot more fun. (At one point, I actually spent an evening doing my taxes just to avoid delving into another chapter of The Martian.) Simply put, the movie is better than the book.
And Scott’s not the only one hungry for material. Earlier in Steven Spielberg’s career, the director filmed a mix of scripts he’d been involved with—Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and those written by others. (His Jurassic Park was The Martian of its time.) In recent years, he’s steered toward adaptations. His last three films—Lincoln, War Horse, and The Adventures of Tintin—all have been book adaptations of one variety or another. And his next two are adaptations of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and Ernie Cline’s nerd-favorite Ready Player One.
If there’s a future analog to what happened with Weir’s book for The Martian, it could end up being Ready Player One.
Ready Player One, in fact, has a lot in common with The Martian: a good yarn told competently, but not astoundingly. The characters are likable and the worldbuilding is impressive, but frankly, it reads like a movie treatment. (Cline, an admitted ’80s movie obsessive, came to prominence because of his script for Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars). It’s now up to Spielberg to turn Ready Player One into a story told well.
At Comic-Con International this summer, Cline spoke to me about the adaptation process and said something very interesting. He had written the first two drafts of the RPO script, but told me that “they couldn’t wait to get rid of the guy who wrote the book, because I was too precious about everything.” As the screenplay went through rewrites, it got further from Cline’s original story—and lost a lot of his pop-culture references. Then, as Cline tells it, Spielberg had a meeting with Zak Penn, who was working on the script at the time, and came armed with a copy of the book that had “100 Post-it notes” of things he wanted to re-introduce into the movie. (Penn later told Cline about the meeting.) Spielberg had seen the story, and he knew how to tell it.
Ready Player One was nominally a young-adult title, but not a franchise, and as such is an exception to the recent spate of YA adaptations. However, with the exception of Veronica Roth’s Divergent books, most successful YA adaptations have been qualitatively on par with their literary predecessors: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were both great stories, well told…