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Looking back through history, there are a lot more men who thought they were Alexander the Great then men who actually were.

It is catch-up time for some of my long-running shows. Over the past week or two, I finished up the final season of the Game of Thrones TV series. At more-or-less the same time I’ve been watching Season 4 of The Expanse. This time, however, I decided to lead with the book version of the story, reading Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games so as to stay ahead of the TV version of the story.

I compare these two experiences because both of these shows started out in the most promising way possible. After watching Season 1 of Game of Thrones, I was of the opinion that this was perhaps the best conversions of a novel I had ever seen. After a single season of The Expanse, I thought it was possibly the best science fiction TV series I had seen. Recall, I had yet to read any of the books at that point, but my positive opinion of the television series held up well after reading the source material.

In both of these cases, however, they could not fulfill the promise of their first impression. At first, HBO’s problem was more of a cumulative effects of small changes. The first season alternations seemed well chosen to aid the conversion from book to screen and, as I pointed out, many I didn’t even catch until a second viewing. As the seasons progressed, changes began to impact the story. An altered character or event could no longer contribute to the narrative in future episodes and seasons. Finally, the story begin to run up against the end of the source material, meaning the screenwriters were on their own. As a result, the final seasons depart from both the word and the spirit of the novels in many ways. The last season* of Game of Thrones, when the screenwriters were entirely on their own and under pressure to wrap up the story, nearly fell apart altogether.

One kudo I’ll give to both of these series as they’ve aged is their lesser reliance on T&A. For the HBO series, weekly, gratuitous sex was almost a hallmark of the program and yet it has been all but omitted from the final season. The Expanse, if you’ve never seen it or don’t remember so far back, opened up with a zero-G sex scene. Come to think of it, maybe that wasn’t quite as gratuitous as I initially thought. I still miss Kristen Hager’s character despite only a few fleeting minutes of screen time in a single, opening episode. Maybe that was the point.

Other than that, though, the quality of the TV versions relative to the written material seems to go steadily downhill. The Game of Thrones final season has been thrashed around plenty, and I’m not sure if I can really add to the pile-on. If you take out the ponderous shots of each of the main characters emoting and the stock “epic battle” footage, I’m not sure if there is all that much left to make up a season*. It’s better than the ending from the internet joke, “Everybody dies. The end.” But not by much.

The Expanse hasn’t quite dug the hole that Game of Thrones found itself in and it could still go either way. Like with Game of Thrones, changes that seemed reasonable and clever in Season 1 didn’t look so good as the books developed. I’m guessing the writers had no idea Dmitri Havelock (Miller’s partner) was going to be Cibola Burn‘s major protagonist when they decided to have him die rather than just ship-off midway through the first season. My biggest gripes with Season 4 perhaps are similar decisions, ones that perhaps were necessary to compress the book into a TV series and make it suitable for the screen. For example, mid-Season 4, Amos Burton goes all weepy and suicidal when his eyesight starts to fail. For me, this is entirely contrary to the character of Amos, a man who isn’t afraid of death but will be the last one to go. I realize, though, that this is the equivalent of the books’ Burton feeling pangs of remorse, guilt, and sorrow and being unable to understand what is happening to him. It’s an exploration of character that can only work in a novel. Screenwriters needed to substitute something that could be seen rather than explained. I still don’t like their choice, but it is a solution.

Similarly, the choices being made to compress Season 4 may turn out looking reasonable or stupid, once I’ve read a few more novels. Some of the alterations bother me but many of them, I acknowledge, needed some kind of adaptation. Beyond that, though, I feel that (these days) I’m always in danger of being manipulated by writers with a PC agenda. One change is to transform reluctant terrorist Basia Merton** into a simpering milquetoast. Instead his wife, who in the book was the key character of Dr. Lucia Merton, assumes his role. Lucia also needs to fill the shoes of Naomi and the implications of Naomi being captured and then liberated from Havelock and the corporate security – all of which was removed in the TV story. So instead of a natural tension between husband and wife, rebel and physician (Basia kills Earthers and Lucia saves them), we merely have a pitifully weak husband who doesn’t appreciate his wife’s boldness. Part of the reason it bothers me is I suspect a reason for the change is, with the removal of Naomi’s heroics, the writers felt they had a gender imbalance. Lucia is transformed into a tough, blue-collar freedom fighter to show that women can be spunky and fierce. It doesn’t help, though, that she doesn’t show much of either. Except for reluctant role in blowing the landing pad, she mostly seems to whine about how she wants to die. I feel cheated.

The book also has some hints of the political coming to the fore in Nemesis Games that I hadn’t picked up on before. Burton’s encounter with a “prepper” ends so badly for the latter that I can’t help but take it as a commentary on the pointlessness of the survival movement. I’m not sure it is necessarily political, though. There is a thoughtful discussion to be had about the value of organization, official or otherwise, in the face of disaster. Even preppers, themselves, ridicule the idea that to prepare is to buy lots of “gear.” It reminds me of a story (with that point) about how possessing a single, 9mm bullet would be sufficient “preparation” given the skill and attitude to act. Amos’ character prefers to be well armed and armored but we read how his ability to survive is independent of all that.

Another political commentary of sorts pops up in that same book. As Fred Johnson (the ex-military head of the Outer Planets Alliance) and Jim Holden (pivotal hero) attempt to analyze the threat posed by Naomi’s baby-daddy (see how good writing weaves this all together?), Johnson explains that he thought him unlikely to have committed a rogue surprise attack on, well, pretty much everyone. Johnson goes on that Marco Inaros leads a “group of high-poverty Belters. The kind of people who live in leaky ships and post screeds about taxation being theft.” Although Naomi was, at least in her younger days, one of those “kind of people,” from the context it is clear that these are the villains of the story. More allegory?

Returning to the quote at the top of this page, this spoken to Holden by Fred Johnson commenting on Inaros as a leader. He compares the recent attack to Alexander’s charge in the Battle of Guagamela, a defining battle for Western Civilization and, in the future world of The Expanse, of Earth itself (at least to a military-trained mind). Holden is not familiar with the battle, and Johnson describes it to him. Part of Johnson’s insight is that while Alexander’s audacity, leadership, and bold attack did win him the battle and the war, it was also Darius’ decision to flee the field of battle rather than fight that lost it. In other words, even if you are facing a true Alexander, you should at least try not to be Darius.

*Season? Its six [expletive deleted] episodes!!! Remember when a season used to mean 22 shows, intended to fill one-half of a year, followed by a second “seasons” of reruns? I do, and I’m not pleased with the new normal.

**Basia is also connected to the events of earlier novels. The connecting tissue was deemed superfluous when paring down Season 2. It is an important part of what holds the narrative of the novels together. Important for the TV show? Maybe not.