Category Archives: Books that become movies

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

9780553418026The Martian 

by Andy Weir
ISBN: 978-0-553-41802-6
Broadway Books, 2014

The first thing you should know: If you are not a math or science geek, you will skim many sections of this book.

The second thing you should know: If you are not familiar with 1970s TV, music or movies, you might miss out on some of the cultural references.

The third thing you should know: In November 2015, Matt Damon will star in the movie version of this story. This is a good thing.

I need to give you the back story behind why I came to read this book, because it is not the kind of book I would usually read. My son is a fussy reader. When he was about eight years old, I tried to encourage him to read all the kinds of books boys his age read: Geronimo Stilton, Hardy Boys. He said to me: “Why would I want to read about something that’s not real?”

Okay, so he’s into non-fiction, I get that. Still I try. So this past Christmas I challenged two guys at the local bookstore: “Recommend a book that my son will not be able to put down,” I said.

The Martian,” they both replied.

My son received his copy of the book for Christmas. When he sat down to read it in the lull of holiday break, his body language did not reassure me. He rolled his eyes some. He set it down regularly.

“So, what do you think?” I asked.

“He’s so . . . so . . . stupid,” he replied.

Huh. Given that story is about an astronaut, I wasn’t sure how that could be, and my husband was curious too, so he gave the book a try. As he was reading, I said, “So? What do you think?”

“I’m not sure how he could say this guy is stupid,” he replied. “The main character is a genius. I really like this book.”

So, I had to read it for myself. The deciding vote.

The first thing I noticed was that Andy Weir really, really wants his geek audience members to know the mathematical and scientific plausibility of this story. Gobs and gobs of math and science fill the pages. I started skimming. There’s a reason I’m not making my living laboratories.

I said to my husband (no math whiz, himself), “Didn’t you find it kind of math- and science-heavy?”

“Oh, I just skimmed those parts, he said.

Okay then. I carried on. At the ends of scenes or chapters, Weir throws in jokes about Three’s Company, and disco, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and such things. My son, born in the late 1990s, would not know the finer points of the Chrissy or Cindy Three’s Company debate, or that General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard was a car, so that humour would be lost on him. And I suspect that if my son were to participate in a mission to Mars, he is the type who would take the assignment very, very seriously, and he would not include boobies (•) (•) in his communications with NASA, so I guess that’s why he drew the “He’s so . . . so . . . stupid” conclusion.

In the end, I laughed out loud at the jokes, especially the boobies, and I skimmed the gobs of math and science, and I liked this story about a man’s experience on Mars. 

When Hollywood gets hold of this, they will synthesize the math and science into palatable bites, and they will light Matt Damon beautifully, and they will make one fun and interesting movie.



Book Review: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

9780143125419H12 Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup
ISBN 9780143125419
Penguin Books, 2013

You won’t find this story anywhere else: a story about African-American slavery written by a man who was both free and a slave; a story of slave owners, both kind-hearted and cruel; and a story about how depravity as a societal norm affects the generations.

You won’t find this story anywhere else, so read this book.

Solomon Northup was born a free man. Educated and hard-working, he thrived, married and had children in the free state of New York. In 1841, two men lured him to Washington, D.C., drugged him and psychologically terrorized him with beatings, and sold him into slavery.

The beatings the men inflicted on Northup worked. Terrified of revealing his true identity and his status as a free man, he spent twelve years in Louisiana as a slave on cotton plantations. Driven to find a way to return home but with few options or resources available to him, he laboured, endured punishments, inflicted punishments, and bore witness to the trap that is slavery.

Northup published his account of life in slavery to inform 19th Century Americans about all aspects of the practice. He emphasized several themes:

  • He discouraged anyone from believing that slaves didn’t understand or desire freedom. Too many people at the time said that slaves had food and a roof over their head, so they neither needed nor desired anything else. Northup made it clear that this was not so. “They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest of white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power . . .”
  • He wrote about the de-humanizing impact of the cruelty of slave-owners. The repeated beatings and whippings caused men to behave more “like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.” “The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Immune to the suffering of others, the violence begat more violence in a horrific cycle.
  • He described his helpless feeling when forced to play his own part in the brutality. Slaves beating slaves was part of the psychological torment.
  • Northup observed sadly the passing on of prejudice from one generation to the next. Sons, daughters, and wives learned how to treat their slaves cruelly by observing the owners and overseers. The slave owners not only taught family members to beat and whip slaves, they encouraged such behaviour. “The effect of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave-holder, is apparent. Epps’ [a slave owner] oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict . . . he often rides into the field with his whip playing the overseer, much to his father’s delight.”

In 1853, Northup regained his freedom (with the help of a Canadian, I’m proud to say), and more than a century and a half later, Northup’s concerns still need addressing. The passing on of racist attitudes from generation to generation means that African-Americans still face discrimination today. Slavery isn’t an accepted part of the economic order in North American anymore, but slavery and human trafficking still exist. The perpetrators still behave “more like savages than enlightened human beings.” Sadly, Northup’s book is just as necessary today as it was in 1853.

Read it, not because it’s timeless, authentic and eloquent, but because its narrator will charm you, his objective fairness will impress you, and his truths still need to be told.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski
ISBN 978-0-385-66478-3
Bond Street Books, 2008

Edgar Sawtelle hears perfectly, but he can’t speak. He uses sign to communicate with his family, a small circle of acquaintances, and the genetically gifted Sawtelle dogs in the kennel his family owns and operates. Edgar, his mother and father, and a wayward uncle live a story of playfulness, grief, manipulation, wandering in the wilderness, divination, hauntings, revenge, and plans gone awry.

Published in 2008, this was a first novel for David Wroblewski. An Oprah endorsement sent the book to the best sellers list and prompted a long list of enthusiastic endorsements from well-known authors. Oprah is now producing a movie based on the book.

Wroblewski is a skilled literary writer who crafts beautifully descriptive passages. He tells the story from the points of view of different characters, and he handles the transitions well. All the different voices ring true. The voice of Almondine, Edgar’s closest dog friend, is particularly moving.

Wroblewski is literary almost to a fault. Occasionally the writing veers into being so artsy as to be misunderstood: “During the night a white tide had swallowed the earth.” What happened? What’s kind of tide? He is evasive in action scenes when he should just tell us what happened:”The act itself took just an instant. When it was done he backed away . . .” What act? What happened? The reader has to pause for a second to try to figure things out and then keep reading to get context for what is going on.

Despite the beauty of the writing, I found reading the book to be a bit of a slog. My hardcover copy has 562 pages. The story would have been more effectively told in 462. Wroblewski repeats detailed descriptions of dog training sessions, over and over. He might have done this to symbolically represent the everyday, repetitive nature of dog training. It works symbolically, but it clogs the arteries of the story movement.

Wroblewski also leaves too many unanswered questions. He hints at events in the backgrounds of the main characters, but doesn’t clarify them enough to satisfy. A little mystery and room for speculation is good, but . . .

Often when a movie based on a book comes out, the book provides a fuller, richer version of the story. Readers of the book feel a little cheated by what has to be left out to fit the story into a movie format. In this case, the reverse is true. This story will benefit from being boiled down to its essence. And now that I’ve read the book, I look forward to seeing if the movie will hint at answers to some of those unanswered questions.

Summer break book contemplations: When books become movies

I am taking a summer technology break, so I have pre-scheduled some posts. I’ll be back in August with reviews of the books I read on my holidays.

When books become movies

Last week Huff Post Books posted a trailer for the movie Life of Pi. In November, we get to see an Ang Lee interpretation of my favourite book. I keep a copy of it on my desk.

A little tiger obsessed?

I have clear pictures in my mind of what that characters look like. My imagination has already created the book for me. I’m afraid of what movie creators will do with this cherished story. Will their version live up to my expectations?

We encounter this question often, when books become movies. Sometimes movie makers stay true to the tale and enhance the experience for us, like they did with all the Harry Potter movies. Sometimes they make it better. I always liked the movie ending of The Firm by John Grisham better than the book version. Sometimes, though, I can’t bear the cinematic take on a favourite story. I don’t even want to be in the same room with the Ron Howard (starring Jim Carrey) version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Do you have a favourite book that movie makers enhanced, or tarnished?

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