When you make changes to an adaptation do it right.
Last week saw the premiere of the second season of The Expanse, one of my current obsessions. In the time since the first season aired, I managed to read all six of the novels currently released and read up on the universe extensively. It was, however, the first season that got me interested in the books in the first place. Just like with A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones.
This puts me in an interesting position, in where I am already seeing more similarities between Game of Thrones and The Expanse. Both based on popular, post-modern(ish) book series, one fantasy, one sci-fi, both adapted before the series have ended. For the record, I prefer The Expanse at this point, though that is mainly because Game of Thrones is starting to wane on me a bit as it hits its inevitable conclusion. Maybe it’s been too popular and I’m just a contentious bastard. Who knows.
But following The Expanse in both book and tv form, both in the primary text and the secondary interviews with cast, crew, and authors, I have found The Expanse to be the exact way I want an adaptation to handle it’s story. The season two premiere has only deepened that conviction.
What is, in the end, always the problem with adaptations? Either they are too faithful or too far away from the source material. Fans of the source material thus have no reason to actually watch it. Why bother twice? Straying too far from the source material on the other hand, however, leads to the opposite problem of alienation and being the series-in-name-only, or at least too different to bring enjoyment to the people who fell in love with it for different reasons. But I always believed there to be a happy medium.
The Expanse is that perfect sweet spot. The Walking Dead might have been so if it wasn’t completely unwatchable for its padded paddedness (hint: clearly an amateur wordsmith). The Expanse has the benefit of being created by people deeply in love with the source material, and having the two writers on board as producers as well. This leads to them getting to do a “do-over” of sorts on the series itself. Little things, like inserting the novellas and short stories back into the main narrative, or re-working the admittedly janky first novel. For example, in this season they introduce Bobbie Draper into the series, a book early, just as they did Avasarala last year. Both characters didn’t appear until Caliban’s War where they shared a storyline of being “awesome cop, cranky cop”. It makes sense in context. Introducing Avasarala last year meant that the first story/book finally gained the political subplot it originally was missing and all the other books had. It also lead to more characterization and humanization, and the purportedly “greyness” of the character. Season 2 will attempt something similar with Bobbie Draper, the Martian Gunnery Sergeant from hell.
This is where we hit the adaptation problem of casting a 22 year old (ish? There was no official age but I extrapolated from previous roles) in the role that called for a 40 year old Brazillian Gwendoline Christie crossed with 1970s Clint Eastwood, but I understand the limitations of the medium. And to be fair, the actress does really well and as a book reader I recognize Bobbie Draper right there. Which is damn impressive. It’s the only place where the adaptation really suffers: the medium-related limitations. The Belters are supposed to be all really tall and lanky, the Martians are (mainly) supposed to have Texan accents and look Polynesian and Indian, a lot of scenes in zero g barely feel like it. Expenses and casting in Canada being what it is, they did an amazing job nonetheless.
As a writer, seeing the two novelists that make up James S.A. Corey have some creative control and an advisory position for their adaptation is just fascinating to watch as well. Unlike Game of Thrones, The Expanse immediately learned that you needed to make changes to the adaptation and decided to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Ultimately, this was Game of Thrones’ downfall for more than two seasons after the first three seasons were mostly as straight an adaptation as you can get. But instead of knowing beforehand that the books wouldn’t be finished in time, they decided to keep on adapting as straight as they could. It’s a credit to the showrunners, but ended up being a disadvantage after they had to make the awkward transition from literary adaptation to HBO tv show.
Overall, I’m happy the show is back, and I look forward to appreciating the series once again from the beginning from a new angle. Check it out once it hits Netflix or right now on Syfy or your digital store of your choice.