If ever there was a situation that called for the f-word, I’d say getting f**king stranded on Mars would be it.
To get the all-important PG-13 rating from the MPAA, screenwriters can use quite a fair amount of salty language, but for most films you get one use of the f-word in a non-sexual context. You may have noticed that sh*t has become the new f**k in PG-13 land.
But in the real world — and the world of Mars — certain situations call for strong language, and the f-word says so much with so little.
Yet, if you want to appease the MPAA and cater to the PG-13 audience (i.e. no real restrictions on who can buy a ticket for your film, but a clear signifier that this film was made with teens and adults in mind), you have to use your one shot with the f-word wisely.
So when I took my twelve-year-old daughter to see The Martian this weekend, I was positively thrilled with how screenwriter Drew Goddard, director Ridley Scott, and star Matt Damon were able to work in multiple instances of the f-word when the situations called for it. Frankly, my daughter (and the rest of the audience) needed to hear it.
Before we examine the use of the f-word in The Martian, here's the film's trailer in case you haven't seen it:
The book upon which the film is based is full of the f-word. The first sentence of the book is, “I’m pretty much f**ked.” To stay true to the spirit of the original text, I expected to hear characters use strong language, both in stressful times and for comedic effect.
But the film is definitely PG-13 in terms of language and content, notwithstanding the use of the f-word. Even Common Sense Media rates it appropriate for audiences 12+, labeling it "Great for Families", and they are conservative in their ratings, in my opinion.
Actually, the f-word is only spoken aloud and audibly in the film twice (very mild spoiler alert: I will discuss a few scenes of the film without giving away major plot points). The first instance occurs early in the film. Immediately after astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, performs minor surgery on himself after getting injured, he realizes that even though he has survived, he is now stranded on Mars alone. What else can you say in that moment but the f-word?
The second audible instance was actually an ad-lib by Damon (“F**k you, Mars!”) that the filmmakers fought to keep in the film. Apparently, they won.
So, how did the film include more than those two f-bombs and stay in PG-13 territory?
In a scene when astronaut Watney learns some bad news, we see him through the window of a Mars rover as he drops a series of f-bombs, but we don’t hear them. A simple choice on where to put the camera conveys everything we need to see to know exactly how Watney feels — and what he says.
The film also uses messaging between Watney and NASA to add a few more instances of the f-word. When Watney has the first opportunity to send longer messages to NASA and he is warned that the whole world can read his messages, we see several characters react to what Watney writes out of frustration, along with their comments after the fact about the coarse language Watney uses, but we never see the message. We can only assume Watney used some choice f-word conjugations.
Later, Watney sends a typed reaction in response to one of NASA’s suggested plans. On the screen, we see “Are you f--king kidding me?” with the dashes in place of letters. No one reads it aloud. In fact, the response leads to a funny moment between characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis debating the tone of Watney’s message.
Why spend so much time discussing such a small detail of a film like The Martian when we could discuss the craft of adapting the novel into what has become a critical and box office success, not to mention an early award contender? Because choosing these words carefully to create what feels like the real world but actually fits into the MPAA’s definition of a PG-13 world is the craft.
Finding clever ways to insert a few implied f-words into the film makes The Martian feel more real without sacrificing a rating and losing a large portion of the ticket-buying public. And these suggested instances of the f-word are not gratuitous. They feel completely appropriate in context, and the filmmakers strike just the right balance with the frequency of their appearances.
For screenwriters learning the craft, these examples underscore the importance of choosing words carefully when writing a screenplay, balancing impact with audience expectations and ratings realities.
And sometimes, only one word will do.