‘The Martian’ author takes an epic space odyssey

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a team working on Mars when things go wrong in The Martian.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a team working on Mars when things go wrong in The Martian. AP

Andy Weir has a vivid imagination, but even he couldn’t dream this big.

The Martian, Weir’s out-of-this-world adventure novel-turned-blockbuster feature film, is like the Little Engine — or Little Rocket Ship — That Could.

The Martian originated as a self-published book that Weir would give away on his website. After it became an Internet sensation, a hardcover version published by Crown in 2014 blasted to the top of national bestseller lists. Now it has morphed into an audience-pleasing epic movie starring Matt Damon.

The film opens in theaters Friday.

For Weir, The Martian has been quite a journey — a space odyssey, if you will.

“I was at the premiere in Toronto in mid-September,” Weir says. “It was incredible. I was choked up for the first five minutes or so, just trying hard not to cry.

“It’s an amazing dream come true for all of this to happen.”

The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, a resourceful Robinson Crusoe in space. Watney is one of six crew members of Ares III, the third manned Mars expedition. After an accident during a violent sandstorm forces an early end to the mission, he is mistakenly left for dead on this inhospitable red planet.

Taking stock of his situation and crunching the numbers, our hero calculates that he has enough power, air, water and food to survive for about 400 solar days. The problem is that Ares IV, the first possible rescue ship, will take years to arrive, meaning he’ll have to find creative ways to stay alive.

But Watney, the mission’s smart-aleck mechanical engineer and botanist, is a marvel of ingenuity. When it comes to outside-the-box problem-solving, he makes MacGyver look like an amateur.

Time after time, problem after problem, Watney recognizes the futility of his situation, then comes up with a crazy-brilliant solution that keeps him going.

The story behind the story of The Martian, an improbable from-out-of-nowhere trek to bookstore shelves and the big screen, is no less remarkable.

It begins with Weir, the author, a software engineer and lifelong “space nerd” whose interests and hobbies include relativistic physics, orbital mechanics and the history of manned spaceflight.

“I love reading up on current space research,” he says. “I was thinking about how best to do a manned Mars mission. As the plan got more detailed, I started imagining what it would be like for the astronauts. Naturally, when designing a mission, you think up disaster scenarios.”

That eventually led to the idea of an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Weir’s uniquely specific know-how, combined with strong storytelling instincts and a wry sense of humor, allowed him to concoct a rousing science-based “what if?” adventure.

“The more I worked on it,” he says, “the more I realized I had accidentally spent my life researching this story.”

Weir says he originally believed the audience for this kind of novel, one loaded with science and math that actually checks out if put to the acid test, would be limited to fellow “science geeks.”

“I had no idea mainstream readers would be interested,” he says.

But they were. Weir posted the book on his website in serialized chunks over the course of three years and reader response was strongly positive. Then he published a Kindle version — “setting the price to the minimum that Amazon would allow” — and was amazed as word of mouth drove robust sales.

In due time, the first-time author was contacted by an agent, landed a deal with a major New York publisher, sold the film rights, hit The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and kept pinching himself when he would hear about the stellar names attached to the movie.

In addition to Damon (The Bourne Identity), the cast includes Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark 30), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) and Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) — and they’re directed by Ridley Scott of Alien/Blade Runner/Gladiator fame.

“When Fox optioned the rights, I figured they were just making a minor speculative investment,” Weir says. “When they told me Ridley Scott was going to direct it, I became convinced it had all been an elaborate hoax.”

It was a surreal experience for Weir to be seated in a packed theater for the Sept. 11 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, seeing characters and situations that originally existed only in his imagination appear before him fully formed in 3-D.

Fans of the book will be as delighted as Weir is that screenwriter Drew Goddard (World War Z) stayed faithful to the original. We’ve all seen film adaptations that make major changes, messing up the very elements that made the books so appealing in the first place. The movie version of The Martian doesn’t do that.

“Drew Goddard was a big fan of the book,” Weir says. “His openly stated goal was to adapt the book as directly as possible and that’s just what he did.”

That said, there are a number of satisfying moments in the film that Weir wishes he could take credit for. “The line ‘I’m going to science the (bleep) out of this’ was invented by Drew for the film,” Weir says, singling out his favorite. “It’s nowhere in the book, and it’s a great line.

“I wish I’d come up with it.”

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