The Book Was Better (or was it?): The Expanse

Banner: Space opera Sunday (base image - Space by Codex41 @flickr)

I had decided not to read The Expanse – until a SFFReadalong was announced last year (willpower: I’ve heard about it), which I just couldn’t resist (I like reading with friends, okay?). And I’m ever so glad I let the gang’s enthusiasm drag me along, as it’s now one of my all-time favourite space operas. I turned the tables for SciFiMonth and dragged Lisa and M into debating the Big Question with me: sure, the tv show is good, but was the book better?

A note up front: for those new to The Expanse, this discussion is pretty much spoiler-free (we hint at a few things; we don’t go into detail) – and we talk specifically about whether you should start with the book or the show!

It’s funny: I have fewer trust issues about translations from book to screen when it’s going to tv rather than to a movie. Some of that is naive optimism (let’s face it, TV writers and producers can screw up just as easily as their film counterparts), but some of it comes from the knowledge that you’ve got more time in TV. The conversion will still take a great big pair of scissors to my beloved book, but less material should end up on the cutting room floor. In theory (Altered Carbon, we’ll get to you another month).

That said, every book in The Expanse is a doorstop – plus it’s an ambitious space opera, with Leviathan Wakes set exclusively off-world on spaceships and asteroids – so I knew I’d need to curb my expectations. TV may have more screen time to play with, but it typically has a helluva lot less budget…

So, having acknowledged that you can’t make a tv show without cutting some corners – how do feel about the narrative changes in the tv show? Does it work on its own merits? Does it work better? Is anything missing that bothers you?

Lisa: The thing about having so many characters scattered over so many plot lines is that some stand out a lot and others don’t, and that will always be relative to different readers. I would have to reread the books to have a firmer picture in mind of some characters but that’s a lot of reading to do…

imyril: I know this is going to sound really stupid, but the thing I side-eyed the most was that they changed the opening sequence aboard the Cant. It has no effect on what comes later, so it’s completely by the by – but when I read the beginning of Leviathan Wakes, it read like a script to me. It gave me the setting, it moved me around the ship, it introduced the characters and it did just enough so that when it all went to hell a few pages later, it mattered. Yet they mostly rewrote that opening for the show, and I couldn’t really see why.

M: I find most of the series reads like a nice script, and have always been boggled why they deviate so much. On the other hand, I do understand why they need to blend some characters together (budget, time) and I also get the feeling they rushed some of it because they weren’t sure they’d get a chance to cover it.

(if the show got cancelled, which it eventually was – however briefly. Here’s hoping Amazon gives it MOAR budget!)

M: But there are so many scenes I would like to see exactly as written. I definitely think they missed out on some characterisation and some beautifully, elegantly-done scenes from the books – but I think the TV series still has a lot to offer. Although I’m not sure they are going to have the budget to do the planet-side sequences in Cibola Burn etc.

imyril: The series does read like it was written for tv, but … the books are also very chunky! And there’s bits <cough> most of Cibola Burn <cough> that I wouldn’t miss …and I’m conscious of the irony given the Slow Zone – I felt most of Abaddon’s Gate could have been speeded up. But I know I’m a bad fan!

M: See, I have enjoyed each and every book at the speed of light. But the least popular book is also my favourite, so I might be skewed.

imyril: One thing I did miss was the nuance of Holden and crew working security for Fred and how that tarnished Holden’s shiny white knight demeanour. Holden in Caliban’s War is a very different Holden to the one we meet in Leviathan’s Wake, and I loved the subplot that introduced the idea of Naomi having red lines and becoming conflicted …so I get what you mean: I think the tv show works on its own terms, but I’m with you on missing some of the characterisation and the angles from the book.

M: Yes, that’s what I miss. That said, I know someone who didn’t read the books who is watching the show and he is thrilled with the gritty scifi and the characterisation that is coming through. He’s even putting off reading the books so he can enjoy the series independently.

imyril: One change I did love was that they brought Avasarala in from Season 1. The narrative actually makes more sense to me when it includes the context of the manoeuvring back on Earth – and it sets up Caliban’s War perfectly.

Lisa: I agree. And I think it would have been harder to present Avasarala in an immediately engaging light if we had to make room in our minds for her after a whole season without her, especially given a) how integral she is to everything going on on the political stage and b) how abrasive she is. Chrisjen is not one for soft openings!

imyril: …although I do remember watching S1 and thinking she should swear more!

Lisa: Oh, she’s got spare ammo for sure.

Don’t worry, Chrisjen Avasarala gets more sweary in Season 2. And maybe you can’t ever make bookworms entirely happy about not being able to fit the whole damn book into your tv show.


Since we’re talking mostly about characters let’s move on to talk about the thing that can make/break an adaptation right from the start: casting. Did the tv faces live up to your imagination?

imyril: I’ll happily kick off here: for me, Holden is too damn… boyband? Young? Shiny? I’m not even sure what it is about Steven Strait that bothers me, but he bothers me. Even though the book tells us he’s pretty – he’s the one I probably have the hardest time with. Actually (looking at a still), I know exactly what bothers me – he has puppy dog eyes.

Lisa: I kind of get what you mean, yeah. I always considered Book!Holden to be someone who was generally the sort of Hero Type, but who learned to be harder of skin as the story went on/as he needed to be. Something about Steven Strait kind of undermines that hardness? But! He does nail the approachable, unassuming quality that Holden has, I think. I’m not sure those are the right words but there’s a scale of one to sociopath, and Holden is One, heh.

imyril: Scale of one to sociopath is my new favourite yardstick! And I take your point about Steven Strait capturing how approachable Holden is – he has the face for the idealism.

Lisa: Literal poster boy. Moving on to the others – I have absolutely no issues with the women of the cast. Avasarala is perfect. Bobbie is perfect (and SO MANY KUDOS to the casting people for putting that effort into her!). Naomi is freaking amazing. Amos isn’t very close to what I pictured in my head from the books, but this is totally OK because what we get on screen is so damn good.

imyril: yeah, Amos doesn’t look the way I imagined him… but he looks just fine! Same with Avasarala – the book is always making the point that she’s a grandma, so she had silvery hair in my mind, but it took me no time at all to get comfortable with her on-screen presence …or her awesomely elaborate wardrobe ❤

So basically, we love the cast. Even that one central character who bothers me is actually really well cast – and crucially, he can act the part even if he does have puppy-dog eyes!

Looking past the faces, how do you feel about the characters from book to show? Do you prefer any in the book vs the show (or vice versa!) – in which case who/why – or do you love the same ones in both formats?

imyril: <cough> NAOMI ❤ <cough>

There will never be a world where I do not just flail helplessly over Naomi Nagata.

imyril: …and while it took me a while to be a card-carrying member of Team Murdersnuggles in the book, getting that casting right was a make or break for me – and hell yes, the casting for Amos ended up being perfect. I love that the show hasn’t toned him down, and how well Wes Chatham swaps between amiable Amos and absolutely disturbing Amos.

Murdersnuggles is the nickname the TV crew gave Amos. We adopted it, because it’s perfect.

Lisa: Murdersnuggles for life. And yes – there will never be a world in which I don’t love Naomi, regardless of the medium. I was going to be happy if they just got her character right, and I think they did, so.

Although … OK, maybe somebody who didn’t look like they had any rough edges would not make a good Naomi. Naomi needs some hardness, especially in light of how much of that Holden appears to lack.

Yes, okay, we still mostly talked about looks to begin with.

imyril: I think (I need to rewatch Season 1 to be sure) I like Miller better in the show than in the book. In the book, he pissed me off quite a bit – he felt like a cookie cutter noir detective obsessing over this pretty young woman he’d never even met. And it’s not that those elements aren’t there in the show, but he’s got a bit more – well, I’m not sure charm is the right word – but he feels like he has more dimensions. I also warmed up to Alex way faster on-screen. He’s the cinnamon roll in the show, whereas in the first few books he was just a bit bland.

Lisa: Yes, and yes. I think Thomas Jane was a great choice to play Miller. He was never going to be a likeable character, as such, but the TV version of him definitely had more depth. Alex was definitely more memorable in the show, too.

M: I wasn’t happy with Prax on the show – I felt he lost a lot of his science-minded innocence. On the other hand, Murdersnuggles is way cuter on TV than he is described in the books!

imyril: Huh, interesting. I felt the show captured Prax’s sense of OMG WHAT IS GOING ON naïveté reasonably well. Although I wasn’t sure why they added extra elements to shake him up even more (I don’t remember the scene where SPOILER (mouse over to read) his friends all got airlocked being in the book).

M: Perhaps what I’m missing in Prax is his internal monologue (Prax is a POV character in Caliban’s War). And no that scene wasn’t in the books – he didn’t leave Ganymede.

imyril: That’s what I thought. Because of the changes, his narrative confused me quite a bit on-screen because I kept trying to second-guess whether I’d forgotten the book or whether they were just changing things wholesale (they changed things wholesale) so I didn’t just relax into watching it first time around. I guess the compression of timelines made things a bit awkward narratively speaking so the show just needed to move things along quickly.

Space is big, and budgets are… not as big. Does the show live up to your imagination (visually speaking)?

imyril: …again, you can laugh at me on this one – but apart from the fact that some of the crowd scenes really don’t involve a crowd (I’d have gone for tighter angle shots to fake the crowds into looking bigger, but maaaybe I should just take myself in hand and think smaller in terms of likely populations in the Belt) – for me, Ceres was just too clean. It was always really grubby in my imagination, so the shiny chrome and plants etc sort of took me by surprise.

Lisa: What I remember most is actually the effect that the use of sound effects had on me. I vaguely recall hearing/reading somewhere that James S A Corey has a background in video games, and there are Eros scenes toward the end of Season 1 that definitely had a kind of survival-horror feel to them. I don’t enjoy being creeped out, exactly, but I’m always impressed when it happens because that’s down to somebody doing their job right!

imyril: …the sound design on Eros was AMAZING and yes omg so creepy.

Lisa: When Naomi was trying use her OPA knowhow to find a way out, I think? There is so much more to making a good impression than just throwing CGI at something until it sticks, and while there will always be hits and misses (like with the crowd scenes as you say) I really think they nailed the atmospheric moments more often than not.

imyril: The escape from Eros was one of the sequences where it felt like they reworked the narrative quite heavily, but I really. Did. Not. Care. because what they did with it worked so well.

Lisa: Yes. Every deviation from source material will be a risk, but when it pays off, it really pays off.

imyril: One thing I’ve definitely loved on screen so far is the Rocinante – she doesn’t feel too big and she does feel badass, although I sort of miss the gel couches and I worry EVERY SINGLE TIME Holden drinks coffee from an unsealed cup!

Lisa: Yes! The drinking bulbs would have been a nice little touch, and the gel couches are just sensible, come on TV show people.

M: Ha, yes the lack of zero g is a pain, but I have made peace with the fact that they can’t think of (or afford) everything. And if they had a bigger budget, they could have more of the original characters – I think one of the reasons they merge characters is because they can’t afford to hire the actors, especially when you need a very GOOD actor to be Drummer AND Pa etc.

Lisa: All of that is fair, yeah. Not everything can be a Lord of the Rings trilogy, though I am nerdy enough about some things to wish they could!

Okay, time for the big question: is the book better? (or are they different but equally good?)

Lisa: They both have good points and flaws. I usually find it difficult to answer that question when the quality comparison doesn’t feel clean cut. I think there are definite upsides to having inner monologues and more set-up time (which you get in the books), but not everyone is a book nerd.

imyril: I think both versions are great. I wouldn’t hesitate to push the show at anyone, although I would say that if they’re a reader they should also read the books

Lisa: LOL fair.

imyril: I’m curious to watch the show with my beloved to see how it goes over without the books for context

So given we’d happily recommend both versions to someone, any strong feelings on whether they should watch or read first?

Lisa: Depends on who I’m recommending to? I did recommend the show to my younger brother because he’s one of those people who doesn’t enjoy reading

imyril: With someone you suspect will ultimately both watch and read The Expanse, do you think there’s a right/wrong order to do that in? …I don’t think that there is? Although, I have warned a couple of friends who were watching and reading simultaneously to set their expectations about where the seasons end vs where the books end

(Season 1 does not cover all of Book 1 – and the show increasingly plays fast and loose by introducing elements from later books as early as possible, changing timelines as it goes)

imyril: …I guess what I mean to say is that I don’t think watching the show makes the books less rewarding. Yes, there are spoilers, but you get so much out of the books …and well, whichever order you do this in, you pick up the second format because you loved the story the first time around. So you either get the joy of reading MOAR of the universe / characters by reading the books,  or the joy of seeing it brought to life on screen (vs say The Girl With All The Gifts, where I would 100% say that if you are going to do both, then READ IT FIRST).

M: I think the books were better, but I would still suggest to folks they watch the show first, THEN read the books. Because I can’t get the books out of my head enough when watching to really just BE in the moment.


I commented in a previous Book was Better that the true test of watching a story on screen was whether it made me feel that I’d never (need to) pick the books up again. In spite of the fact that stacking all 7 (currently; eventually 9) books of The Expanse in front of a door means nobody is ever getting through it, I can absolutely see myself reading them again rather than ‘just’ watching the show (…although I’m also really looking forward to rewatching the show with my beloved).

M hits the nail on the head: the books are better, because of the extra levels of characterisation and the additional nuances they have room to explore. But if you can’t find time in your life to tackle them? Go ahead and watch the show. Sure, we can find faults because we’re big fans of the books – but taken on its own merits? It’s great.