Fans demanded a downloadable version of the full manuscript, so the author made a Kindle version available on Amazon for just 99 cents (at the time). That edition is said to have sold over 35,000 copies in three months, outpacing free downloads on Weir’s website and catching the attention of a literary agent. A traditional publishing deal soon followed. A movie sale came just four days later, changing the programmer's life overnight.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, World War Z, Lost) said at a recent Q&A that the key to adapting the book was its first four words: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
The biggest challenge the screenwriter faced, however, was how to deliver a spaceship full of the hard sci-tech exposition that made the book a “love letter to science” in a medium built upon visuals and emotion for a mass audience that mostly doesn’t have a master’s degree in physics from MIT. Fortunately, the novel’s tone already solved that problem.
The epistolary novel is mostly a series of Watney’s first-person mission log entries. The narrative voice strikes a balance between scientific authenticity and a more relatable regular-guy sarcasm. The film turns the logs into video logs, avoiding traditional voiceover by giving Damon someone to talk to and essentially making us the invisible “Wilson” of the picture.
This line hides the key to getting away with exposition in dialogue in those situations where a dry info dump is absolutely necessary. The science itself is the exposition. The act of twisting it from a noun to a verb and then using that to further twist the shit out of a common expression turns the entire “lecture” into a memorable laugh, aiding our comprehension and retention of that shit-strained science. When it comes to exposition, a good joke is like the proverbial spoonful of sugar. Goddard applied this technique so effectively throughout the exposition-heavy screenplay that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has mistakenly nominated this dramatic adventure film in its comedy category.
SCREENWRITING TIP: Challenge your hero, show him rising to the challenge, then throw a new obstacle at him. Rinse and repeat.
SCREENWRITING TIP: When it comes to important but dry and boring exposition, a good joke can work like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.