Friday, February 28, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The Martian (2014) as a novel reads like a highly technical instruction manual.  Or like a series of complicated puzzles, all of them linked, all of them moving towards the specific goal of survival for an American astronaut stranded on Mars.  This is not a conventional science fiction novel: it is totally lacking in any elements of the fantastic, and other than the speculation that one day humans will land on and explore Mars, it is not especially speculative.  It also lacks many of the elements one would expect from a good novel—character development, exposition, narrative development.  We come to know the main character, Mark Watney, primarily as the engineer he is, possessed of knowledge about engineering and botany that enables him to do what he must in order to survive. 
Watney doesn’t ruminate much over the nature of his situation.  He may be disappointed or downcast when setbacks occur, but he recovers and quickly begins to cast about for solutions.  It’s difficult to imagine how one could function in his position, stranded on Mars, 480 days away from the hope of rescue.  It’s also difficult to believe that solutions, and the materials they require, would always be at hand, would always be successful.

The interest of this novel lies in the fact that its author, Andy Weir, is a NASA engineer who understands the intricacies of manned space missions and the science behind him.  Each solution to the problems Watney encounters are based on his knowledge.  Everything in the novel seems rooted in fact.  Though it is presented in chapters ostensibly taken from the daily logs of the astronaut, and on occasional accounts of how NASA responds to his situation, the novel’s interest comes directly from the often ingenious methods Watney devises, his fearlessness (though he really has no option to be otherwise), and on the ultimate question of his survival.  I cannot imagine reading too many novels like The Martian, but this one kept its reader engaged.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Män som hatar kvinnor/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Män som hatar kvinnor (dir. Niels Arden Oplev) is the 2009 Swedish adaptation of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I thought the 2011 American adaptation, directed by David Fincher, was good.  BothAlthough I found the novel entertaining and readable, as a novel it wasn’t very good.  Both films bring to life the essential events and characters of the novel.  Both are successful adaptations, but the Swedish version is better than the American.  Why?  If we’re dedicated to the notion that a good adaptation must adhere somewhat closely to the details of the source text, Opley’s film more successfully captures Larsson’s narrative, the details of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, of the serial killings, of how the killer is identified, and of the personalities of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.  The actors who portray these characters seem more like the characters that Larsson described in his novel, in particular Blomkvist, who is more rounded and middle-aged in appearance (based on the novel’s descriptions) than Daniel Craig.  If we’re dedicated to the notion that a successful adaptation must be forst of all a good film, then Opley’s film wins out there as well.  Both films avoid the flaws in the novel—too much talking and exposition, not enough drama.  The novel’s focus on violence against women, especially rape, and its strident criticism of the corruption of capitalism, which can become preachy at times, are better integrated into the narrative in the film.  Virtually everything that happens in the novel is tied up in violence against women, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Nazism, anticapitalism.  Is the story supposed to be a polemic, or a crime narrative in which these various sins contribute to but do not overwhelm events?  (These flaws are even more evident in the second and third volumes of the Larsson Trilogy).  Both adaptations are better-made films than the novel is a novel.  Finally, however ingenious Larrson’s plot may be, the nature of Harriet’s disappearance, the serial killer and the Old Testament rationale he applies in his killings—these are all fairly conventional.  What makes the novel, and the film adaptations, stand out are the two main characters, Blomkvist and Salander.  They are fully, distinctively drawn, and, most of all, human.