I completely missed it when The Expanse began airing on SyFy.
The main reason is I don’t watch “live” TV anymore, so a new series showing up on cable just isn’t relevant to me. Secondarily, while SyFy occasionally puts out remarkable original content (Battlestar Galactica anyone?), the channel’s name on a project generally isn’t to be seen as a mark of quality. Eventually, the show did show up on Amazon, but its rather generic name and image (Julie Mao floating in space) did nothing to change my mind.
What did change my mind was a bit of misunderstanding. It was around the time I was reading Back Channel. In a Cold War related search I read a comment to the effect of “The Expanse is based on Twilight Struggle.” The actual quote had more depth and talked about developers being fans of the Twilight Struggle game. Shortly thereafter, someone I respected posted on Facebook a positive comment about The Expanse, so I decided, between those two bits of information, I must watch the show. As it turned out, the Twilight Struggle comments had nothing to do with the TV series; it was some pre-release/Kickstarter press about the boardgame The Expanse. But I didn’t know this at the time I watched my first episode.
The TV series had me from the very opening. While the credits didn’t win their own award, I found them both stunning and mood setting. The second big surprise was an actual approximation of orbital mechanics within the drama. That first episode demonstrated the trauma and expense of a “flip and burn” maneuver. Later, the intentions of distant ships were ascertained by the amount of deaccerlation burn they were undertaking. Elsewhere, trajectories are plotted relative to planetary motion.
I don’t recall another science-fictional depiction* of space ships thrusting backwards. I can’t say that the durations and other numbers for orbit transfers are accurate, but they at least seem plausible. In doing so, I can watch while suspending my disbelief in the more fantastical elements to focus on the story.
Similarly, the depiction of “artificial gravity” as the result from either acceleration or spin is shown early on and the “mag boots” introduced as a way to obviate ubiquitous floating in all of the space scenes. The weapons are plausibly futuristic without being the sci-fi fantasy of phasers and planet-killing super-lasers. They are realizations of the actual technology being developed today; railguns and guided missiles on spacecraft and modified versions of current handguns and rifles for the individual firearms.
I watched all the Amazon Prime had to offer me and only after realized that there was a series of books that was the basis for the television show. I’ve just now begun reading the first novel. Notably, my impression upon starting the book was also about the television series. I am even more thoroughly impressed by the the TV adaptation.
When someone announces plans to turn a great book into a movie (or series), it is always cause for trepidation. A film could absolutely destroy the source material (I’m looking at you, Starship Troopers). Even an honest but less-than-perfect transfer of media can cheapen the whole enterprise. For a project which is absolutely at the top of the game, say a Lord of the Rings or the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, there are compromises made** that may make it difficult for dedicated fans of a book to accept the movie versions.
Adding still more anguish to the psychological fire is what to do, as a consumer, when you’ve neither read the book or seen the movie. In most cases, a film treatment is a truncation of the underlying tale. So do you watch the movie first then augment that experience with the deeper book? Or do you go for the full-force of the literary work and save the film until afterward? Will that ruin what would otherwise be a perfectly fine movie, if left to stand alone***?
In this case, as I explained, I didn’t really have a choice. I hadn’t heard of the books when I watched the TV series, so I had no choice but to do my reading second. As a result, reading the book doesn’t allow me to observe an unfolding mystery; that already took place as I watched the show. Instead, I particularly notice how the screenwriters translated the story from book to film. The story follows very closely. In fact, like I thought the first time I watched Game of Thrones, it felt nearly perfect. Of course, that’s not true (in either case).
For example, just in the opening episode, the Canterbury‘s Captain, McDowell, is portrayed as an incompetent drunk and Holden, as his Executive Officer, is shown to be really running the ship. Presumably this provides a lead-in to how the survivors of the Cant‘s destruction instantly follow Holden’s leadership. In the book, the Captain is shown as a competent and respectable figure, who launches Holden into his universe-changing adventures with some final orders. I also got very annoyed with the Rocinante‘s hovering over the moon Ganymede using attitude thrusters to fly. This artifact of the show’s realistic depiction of zero-g can’t also be used in light gravity. Not to dwell on such differences, but I don’t want to make the point that the TV show is a perfect retelling of the books’ stories. It’s not.
That said, for the most part the story is faithfully reconstructed on the screen. In fact, the changes I’ve found, so far, tend to be in service to the change in media. Scenes that are portrayed in words, particularly through the inner-thoughts of main characters Holden and Miller, must now be expressed in sound and image. Thus a change like having Holden held as a prisoner on the bridge of the Martian ship Donnager, rather than confined with his shipmates, seems to have been necessary to provide a visual of the battle for the TV viewer. In the book, we rely on Alex’s knowledge of outer-space battles to let us know what is going on, a scene that would have felt rather boring on TV.
It is telling that it takes several seasons of television to get through just the first book in the series. I know I’ve remarked on it before, but TV may be the best medium for the filming of a novel. It is one of the fatal flaws of many novel-to-cinema conversions that it is impossible to condense the experience of reading a good novel (much less a series of novels) into a 2-3 hour film. It takes me weeks, if not months, to get through most books. Although that’s not total reading time, it means I’m, mentally and emotionally, spending that much time with the characters as their story develops. It is difficult to create that in a theater****. In The Expanse, we can see just how long it can take for a book to be illustrated on the small screen.
The show did something that, to my mind, was incompletely realized. I noticed it, but didn’t dwell on it, when I saw it on TV. It became very obvious when reading the books. A key theme throughout the books is that the cultural differences between Belters and Inners are accompanied by significant physical differences. In an early TV episode, a captured OPA terrorist is shown on earth being “tortured,” which means mostly being subjected to the full effects of Earth’s gravity. In this short scene, the Belter is as described in the book – much taller and thinner than an earthman. In the episodes that follow, however, we have Belter actors (Naomi, for example) mixing with earthers and being physically indistinguishable from them.
Perhaps because of these “technical difficulties” or perhaps because TV is inherently a little lighter than the written word, the book seems to have a little more by way of social commentary. Racism, governance and rebellion, and the morality of killing all seem to take on a little more significance for the present time in the book. In fact, while the TV show had me thinking Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, the book would not have done that. This, just perhaps, suggests that the show’s authors deliberately de-politicized the story a little so as not to impact their ratings with the current culture wars.
Which brings me to one last thought about the present time and the future. Although the precise dates in The Expanse are vague, fans have worked out that the story takes place about 230 years into the future. Yet, the styles, fashions, and even the bulk of the technology remains decidedly that of today. As unlikely as it is that the culture will remain largely static for more than two centuries forward, this is probably the smartest way to film “hard” science fiction. I contrast to Logan’s Run. The preference of the 60s and 70s was to project the current trends into the future and dream up a futuristic world. Today, the futuristic style of Logan’s Run has a silly, hippie vibe that makes it look the exact opposite of futuristic. Compare with the classical works of the Renaissance where Greek and Roman mythology, the lifetime of Christ, and any other works past/present/and future were painted as late-medieval culture. These images, despite the obvious anachronisms, persist as looking appropriate, even into the present. Fifty years from now, The Expanse will look archaic. At least it won’t also look silly.
As I watched the opening credits, the “realism” relative to current concepts of extraplanetary settlement gave me a hankering for games that dealt, also realistically, with Martian colonization. I haven’t yet been able to scratch that itch, but I’ll link here when I finally do.
*In film or television. I’m specifically remembering a similar scenario in one of the Ender’s Game prequels as well as an aerobraking maneuver in another book (Red Mars, maybe?).
**In Game of Thrones, the number of characters on screen are greatly reduced from what appear in the corresponding book scenes. It’s understandable and often wasn’t noticed, although completely eliminating a battle by having Tyrion knocked unconscious certainly was. In Lord of the Rings, I have difficulty getting over The Eye™. Dammit, Jackson, there wasn’t literally “a giant eye;” it was a metaphor.
***In some cases, film conversions seem to put things in without context, specifically catering to fans of the book. I know I have a particularly film in mind when I say this, but as I write I can’t remember what it is. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was another film that seemed to show portions of the the story but failed to complete the whole, thus being only entirely comprehensible to prior readers of the book.
****Yet another shortcoming of Fellowship of the Rings, which I only pick on because it is one of the better film versions of a great novel that has been created, follows: By the time Aragorn is revealed to be the heir to the throne of Gondor, the Hobbits have all come to know him as Strider, the Ranger. So have we, the reader. In the film, though, it seems that no sooner do we meet this mysterious stranger than all about him is revealed. Emotionally, this can’t be reproduced on the screen without the passage of time. This is yet another reason why today’s film industry has become so dominated by sequels. Characters become familiar faces, already invested with emotional depth at the start of a serial film.