Lost in Translation has noted a few times that television may be the better medium for adapting novels, particularly series of novels. Provided it doesn’t fall victim to poor ratings, the adaptation can take the time needed to present the story at a proper pace instead of trying to cram everything into two to three hours. Let’s take a look at such an adaptation, Syfy’s adaptation of the James SA Corey series of novels, The Expanse.
With Leviathan Wakes published in 2011, The Expanse tells the story about life in the Solar System after being colonized. While Earth is still the birthplace of humanity, Mars and the Asteroid Belt are homes for a large number of people. Things start with relations friendly between the three locations, with a coalition of Earth and Mars treating the Belt as a protectorate. Underneath the friendliness lies friction, not enough to start a war, but enough to take a good excuse to launch one.
Leviathan Wakes is told from two perspectives. One is from the view of James Holden, the executive officer, or XO, of the Canterbury, an ice hauler working between the Belt and Saturn. The other is from Detective Miller’s, a Belter born and raised on Ceres station working for Star Helix, who has the law enforcement contract on the asteroid. The two stories start far apart; but as events happen, they start to intermingle.
Miller’s assignment on Ceres has him and his partner, Havelock, trying to find out what happened to the local organized crime gangs, the griega, as solo operators and young punks muscle in on the action without repercussion. Since the case is stalling out, Miller’s boss gives him, and only him, a new assignment – a missing person to be retrieved who may not want to be retrieved, Julie Mao.
Over on the Canterbury, Holden registers a distress signal, forcing the Cant to respond. He takes engineer Naomi, mechanic Amos, medic Shed, and pilot Alex in a shuttle over to check out the Scopuli. The ship is dead, no power, no life, no bodies, yet still transmitting. The Cant picks up an engine signature, but before Holden can get his crew out of the Scopuli, the unknown ship fires nuclear missiles at the Canterbury, destroying her with all hands except the rescue party.
Leviathan Wakes switches point of view between Holden and Miller. Holden and his crew try to stay alive while getting the blame for starting a war between Mars and the Belt, eventually picking up the Rocinante. Miller gets more obsessed with finding Julie Mao. Both run into senior members of the Outer Planets Alliance, with Holden meeting Fred Johnson and Miller running into Anderson Dawes. The storylines intertwine, as Holden searches for the reason why the Cant was destroyed and Miller gets closer to finding Julie at the cost of his career. On Eros, the two meet. As bad as the storylines were getting when they were apart, they get worse after the meeting. The common element is Julie Mao.
In 2014, Syfy picked up the license for The Expanse and began airing the ten episode first season at the end of 2015. The series stars Steven Strait as Holden, Dominique Tipper as Naomi, Wes Chatham as Amos, Cas Anvar as Alex, and Thomas Jane as Miller. Today is just a look at the first season and how it adapts Leviathan Wakes.
Season one takes its cues from Leviathan Wakes. The events in the book are portrayed on screen. However, the series does away with the having just two perspectives. The story is still split between Holden and Miller, but other details are added in. With a novel, hinting at what’s happening outside the perception of the main characters works. Leviathan Wakes has Holden and Miller on the outside and trying to peer into a complex set of relationships between governments, corporations, and private citizens. Television, though, doesn’t work as well with hinting. Showing what is just mentioned in the background, such as a suicide ramming run by a Belter ice hauler against a Martian warship, adds to the impact. There are many cogs and gears happening behind the story in The Expanse; showing some helps make the setting real, even if it means pulling in details from the other novels and the short stories and novellas.
The series keeps to the pace of the novel. Turns out, ten episodes isn’t enough to adapt the entire novel. Instead of rushing through to cram Leviathan Wakes into one season, the first season ends about midway through the book at a spot that works for a natural end point. It’s a cliffhanger ending, to be sure, but the end point works for the both the story and the season. The characters are in a safe enough spot after everything that has happened, though the main mystery is still not shown.
Season one also keeps the the mix of genres of the novel, a mix of space opera, noir, and horror. The tension remains steady through the series, with things ramping up for the two-part season finale. The depth of the setting is on full display, as the Belt, Mars, and Earth find their reasons to begin hostilities. The TV series keeps the dynamic feel of the setting by showing it beyond what is hinted at in Leviathan Wakes.
The first season of The Expanse shows how television can adapt a novel far better than a movie or even a series of movies. Television allows for the quieter moments, the scenes that are focused on the characters, both of which are heavily used in Leviathan Wakes. Horror works best when the audience’s imagination is allowed to take over; hinting at what’s lurking is better than showing it outright. When the payoff comes, the audience experience the full horror of what’s happening.
The danger of a television adaptation is that it may not be completed. Syfy aired three seasons of The Expanse. Amazon picked up the series for the fourth season coming soon. With A Game of Thrones being a massive hit for HBO, it was only natural for other channels to find their own version. Syfy went with a space opera with political machinations running in the background. However, costs, especially for a series set in space, have a price, and that means the risk of being dropped despite viewership. The Expanse takes a massive story and presents it at a proper pace. The characters are easily recognizable, the setting’s details come through, and the plot is unmarred by the translation to the new medium. With the number of books released, Amazon and whoever comes afterward, has enough to work with for years.