The Martian Reminds Us: Audiobooks Bridge the Book Gap

By  · Published on November 5th, 2015

I’m an addict. I’ve been a book junkie since I was a little kid, and the overflowing bookshelves and brimming boxes in my garage are a testament to this continuing habit. And while I have embraced the age of technology and purchased a Kindle (love it for traveling), nothing beats the heft of a book in your hands. Books provide pure, unfiltered experiences for the reader, and even the screen of an eReader or the temptation to jump over and check your Twitter feed on a tablet puts an artificial layer in front of you.

Which is why a movie will never be as good as the book. Your brain is plugged directly into the page when you read, and everything you read plays out cinematically across the backdrop of your brain. Everything else just gets in the way.

But, so does life. I live in Los Angeles, and one thing that the city provides whether you want it or not is traffic. On a day without gridlock (which never happens here), my drive to work takes about 19 minutes. But on normal days (which is every day) it takes an hour each way. That’s two hours daily sitting and seething and wondering why we don’t have flying vehicles or teleportation yet, and wishing that Google would hurry the hell up with this self-driving car.

While the radio does offer a distraction while driving, there are times you crave something more than music or talk radio. I am generally not commuting on the weekends when This American Life or A Prairie Home Companion (yes, I know. I listen to APHC) are on, so several years ago I turned to audiobooks. In the past, these were reserved for long-haul drives, like heading from Lubbock (college) to Arlington (home) and I had never thought of them as short-form entertainment, especially because I loved reading from an actual book so much.

Plus, they were generally boring as hell. Like gouge your eyes out bad. Like trapped in the hellish existence of a social studies class lecture that goes on forever bad. In short, listening to polka hits on the radio would be better. The problem with those most of those audio experience were the people reading them. While I am sure that these are fine men and women in their own right, there are many audiobooks out there that sound like they were voiced by misdemeanor offenders forced to do community service. And a reader who is even slightly bad can completely ruin a great book.

So, I shelved (pun intended) the idea of audiobooks for awhile. But once I stumbled across Audible, things changed. Before I was at the mercy of whatever audiobooks were available at the public library, because these things cost a bajillion dollars if you buy them. But Audible offered customer reviews, the chance to listen to an audio sample of the reader, and a very affordable subscription plan that didn’t put prices in the stratosphere.

So, I went on the hunt for new listening experiences, and through trial and error I discovered a completely new world. I started looking forward to my commute. I began to seek out books read by the readers that I liked. I would sit in my parking spot, wanting to finish a chapter. The car was, once again, my friend. I turned my commute into entertainment, and it wasn’t long before I was tearing through books at a Lawnmower Man pace and hunting for new ones.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago when The Martian came out. I had loved Andy Weir’s book as read by R.C. Bray. He did a fantastic job of capturing Mark Watney’s earnest yet “Holy crap, I’m stranded on Mars” attitude. To paraphrase the source property itself, “He read the shit out of it.”

Of course, when I watched the movie I really missed the scenes they probably cut out for time. I inevitably thought the (audio)book was better, and I found myself wondering if Matt Damon had listened to R.C. Bray’s Mark Watney and taken anything from it. Because that’s what so many of these audiobooks are: amazing performances by very talented voice actors. And in some cases even a full cast.

Now I’m not here to debate whether or not The Martian was a good movie. I’ve talked to people who never read the book who loved the movie, and I’ve talked to people who hated the book and loved the movie. And people who were meh on one, or the other, or both. And while yes, I enjoyed the book more, I was certainly entertained by Ridley Scott’s adaptation.

So, what I found myself wondering was: can an audiobook be as good as a movie? Or as good as the book itself? I’m here to share ten of my favorite audiobooks with you, ones that should be particularly appealing to cinema fans. These are audiobooks that will play out like a movie across your ears, putting them step beyond reading the book.

I believe that the actor/readers here bring things to life that you might miss on the printed page, and hopefully they will make your commute or road trip across the country more enjoyable. While it’s not meant to be a complete substitute for actual reading, it’s the next best thing.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand
Read by Edward Herrmann

Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Louis Zamperini’s amazing true story was broken, and limped along like a runner with a hamstring. But the book offers so much more, and Edward Herrmann, who movie geeks will remember as head vampire Max in The Lost Boys, and who television addicts will know as Gilmore Girls patriarch Richard Gilmore, does an amazing job propelling and providing a must-listen feeling throughout. Listening to Unbroken will make you forget the movie, thankfully.

The Dark Tower Series
By Stephen King
Read by Frank Muller and George Guidall

Stephen King’s sprawling series of seven fantasy novels collectively known as The Dark Tower begins with the first novel The Gunslinger, with the audiobook version performed by epic audiobook narrator Frank Muller. Muller was a longtime collaborator with King, among other authors, but The Dark Tower was a series he was born to read. He breathes life into every single one of King’s characters, providing different voices and accents for each. Sadly, Muller was injured in a motorcycle accident after reading four of the books, and passed away without completing the series. Veteran audiobook narrator George Guidall stepped in to conclude them and did a very serviceable job, but Muller’s voice was sorely missed.

Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers
By Stephen King
Read by Will Patton

Yes, this is a double-dip into Stephen King, but what sells these two books (soon to be a trilogy with End of Watch coming out next summer) is the voice acting by Will Patton. You’ll remember Patton best as Charles “Chick” Chapple, Harry Stamper’s right-hand man in Armageddon, or as Colonel Weaver from TNT’s Falling Skies. Patton, who has a large audiobook catalog under his belt, did a fine job voicing King’s The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep two years ago, but he has been incredibly on point with Mr. Mercedes and its sequel Finders Keepers.

Locke & Key
By Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Read by Haley Joel Osment, Kate Mulgrew, Tatiana Muslany

Speaking of Stephen King, have you read anything by his equally talented son Joe Hill? Hill’s Locke & Key comic book collaboration with artist Gabriel Rodriguez on the IDW label is one of the best comic book series that I have come across in the last five years, and a fully performed audiobook version just came on the market a couple of weeks ago. I was initially skeptical when I saw that Haley Joel Osment was one of the cast members, mostly because I can’t get the idiotic redneck dope he played in the Entourage movie out of my head. But he and the rest of the cast take an impressive turn here bringing this series to new life.

The Magicians Trilogy
By Lev Grossman
Read by Mark Bramhall

Lev Grossman’s fantasy trilogy, which you might be tempted to dismiss as a Harry Potter ripoff with a dash of Narnia… but don’t do that, is brought to aural life and read wonderfully by Mark Bramhall. Bramhall has had a lot of “blink and you’ll miss them” roles in film and television, most notably as a Vulcan in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, and as one of Tom Cruise’s seven dwarves board members in Vanilla Sky. This dark and gritty story about magic is also being adapted for tv, and you can find it soon on the Syfy Channel.

Soon I Will Be Invincible
By Austin Grossman
Read by Coleen Marlo and Paul Boehmer

Proving that talent runs in the family, Lev Grossman’s brother Austin is a talented author in his own right. This novel is dual-sided, chronicling the rise and and return to power of supervillain Doctor Impossible, juxtaposed with the story of Fatale, a female cyborg who has just been admitted to the ranks of the Champions, a Justice League-esque group of legendary superheroes. Fatale’s side of the story is read by actress Coleen Marlo, but it’s the scenery-chewing and grandiose Doctor Impossible who steals the show, as performed by longtime Star Trek actor Paul Boehmer.

Breakfast of Champions
By Kurt Vonnegut
Read by Stanley Tucci

Kurt Vonnegut is a writer whose works are all over the map, and Breakfast of Champions is one of his weirdest. I’ve loved Vonnegut’s books for a long time, but Stanley Tucci’s earnest reading of this 1973 classic provides a totally new experience to reading it in print. This isn’t Tucci’s maniacally grinning Caesar Flickerman from The Hunger Games or his snarky Nigel from The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, his reading is closer to his Arthur from the underrated The Impostors. At any rate whether this is your first exposure to Vonnegut, or a return, it’s a fantastic listen.

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman
Read by Dennis Boutsikaris, Daniel Oreskes, Ron McLarty, Sarah Jones

I’m a longtime fan on Neil Gaiman’s, having first been hooked his dark and gothic writing in Vertigo Comics’ The Sandman. In American Gods, gods are as real as the belief that people give them, and we meet American versions of many famous and infamous mythological deities brought to America by immigrants. But there are also disturbing new gods brought to life in our country as well. This full cast adaptation is performed from Gaiman’s 2011 tenth anniversary edition of the book, which is updated and expanded.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

By Lemony Snicket
Read by Tim Curry and a full cast

This series perfectly illustrates what a bad reader can do to a series. Or in this case, the author himself. Tim Curry brilliantly performs this first novel in this series of thirteen books, along with a talented cast of actors. He also reads the second in the series, but for some reason Lemony Snicket (the non de plume of author Daniel Handler) reads books three, four, and five. And there is a notable drop in quality. So much so that the publisher brought Tim Curry back in for books six through thirteen. And it’s a good thing because Curry, who has never been known for subtlety, chews through all of his lines wonderfully.

I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend
By Martin Short
Read by Martin Short

There are a ton of autobiographies of actors out there, and they read their own audiobooks. Recently I have enjoyed books by Cary Elwes, Tina Fey, Bruce Campbell, Neil Patrick Harris, and Felicia Day, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take time to highlight Martin Short’s I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend. This is one of the most honest, entertaining, sad, funny, and touching books I have ever read. I didn’t realize that Short had such a tragic life, losing both of his parents and his beloved brother by the time he was in his 20s and later his wife to cancer. But he never once dwells in sadness or melancholy, and the resulting book he has written about his life is nothing short of a must-read/must-listen.

These are just a few of my favorites, and I hope you give them a try. What are some of your favorite audiobook experiences?