The Martian is one of those great underdog tales that Hollywood loves. Author Andy Weir had tried to have his work published in the past, to no avail. So when the idea for the book came to him, he self-published it. It was soon picked up by a major publisher, became a bestseller, and was snapped up by Ridley Scott to be turned into one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, starring Matt Damon. Not bad for a space nerd.
“Originally, the book was just a serial I posted a chapter at a time to my website,” says Weir, looking back to where it all began. “Once the book was done, people started requesting that I make an eBook version so they didn’t have to read it in a web browser. So I did, and posted it to my site.
“Then other people emailed saying they want to read the eBook, but they aren’t technically savvy and don’t know how to download a file from the internet and put it on their eReader. They requested I make a Kindle version they could just get through Amazon. So I did that as well.”
In the film, Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who after an accident leaves him stranded, faces the prospect of surviving alone on Mars for up to four years before NASA can save him. In short, Bear Grylls has nothing on him. Weir has long been fascinated by NASA and space travel, but a phobia of flying put paid to any dreams of becoming an astronaut himself. Luckily, he can live vicariously through Watney, who must rely on his intelligence and guile in order to survive.
“I wanted the story to focus on the problems and solutions,” says Weir regarding his decision to see the main character face solitude with a disarmingly wry sense of humour. “I didn’t want it to be a dark and depressing tale of a man’s struggle with crippling loneliness and constant stress. That’s just not the story I wanted to tell.
“So I decided Mark is made of sterner stuff than most people. After all, he was chosen to be on a manned Mars mission, so he’s not just some guy off the street. He beat tens of thousands of other people for that position.”
The book has a reputation for its remarkable accuracy – even NASA engineers have praised the book as essentially spot-on. But it’s the laugh-out-loud, edge-of-your-seat and punch-the-air moments that will make it the great movie it already looks like it’s shaping up to be. It’s probably fair to say that few science-fiction books have musings on the nature of Aquaman’s powers side-by-side with the hardest of hard science.
“It was a constant balancing act,” remembers Weir regarding his attempts to keep the book accessible while still retaining the crucial veneer of scientific accuracy. “I had to give the reader enough information to understand the problem, but not so much that it read like a Wikipedia article. It really helped that the main character was a smart-ass, so I could put a bunch of humour in there to break up the science lecture. Humour was critical to pulling the reader through the long technical explanations.”
Jessica Chastain is the captain of the Hermes, the ship that left him behind thinking he was dead, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is the NASA guy on the ground, trying to figure out how to save him. The huge cast also boasts Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sean Bean and Michael Peña among its number – in addition to Damon, of course.
On being asked whether he had a cast in mind when he was writing the book, Weir claims, “I didn’t really think about it, believe it or not. Once they told me it would be Matt Damon I was thrilled, of course.”
The all-star cast isn’t the only impressive thing about The Martian from a personnel standpoint. In addition to Scott, Simon Kinberg is on board as producer, and the screenplay was penned by Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Drew Goddard. Regarding the latter, Weir is pleased with the final results. “I’m very happy with how the screenplay turned out. I think it’s going to be a great film.”
The Martian will be released in cinemas on 2 October. For more on the biggest movies, pick up the latest issue of SciFiNow.