A Risky Adaptation: Syfy’s The Expanse

Google is an amazing resource. For example, searching “define adaptation” quickly yields: a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment. Also, a film about a confused L.A. screenwriter overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, sexual frustration, self-loathing, and the screenwriting ambitions of his freeloading twin brother Donald.

God damn it, Donald.

Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman knew something when they made Adaptation (2002), because the adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels into The Expanse television series from Syfy is fraught with expectation. And, of course, with expectation comes the fear of failure, inadequacy if you will, and, perhaps, sexual frustration. Nothing hurts the libido more than nerves, after all.

This challenge has always been one that filmmakers were willing to take on, even more so in recent years, and all without a little blue pill. It has been a huge success, with examples like Game of Thrones, True Blood, The Martian, The Man in High Castle, and comic books galore. Hollywood is increasingly aware that it’s easier to generate interest in a project with a built-in audience. Why develop Firefly when there’s a perfectly good set of characters and stories already adored by thousands of loyal readers? Contrary to popular belief Hollywood isn’t stupid, and so, we get adaptations.

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Risks exist, in that an adaptation must conquer not only the standard mountains of filmmaking (i.e. not sucking), but it must also bear the often burdensome weight of canon. This omnipresent threat from those same thousands of fans, waiting for reassurance that this new property will not betray the thing they love so much, cannot be ignored. So it is both of these aspects that this review of The Expanse‘s pilot episode must examine—taking a twofold approach, once for quality and twice for faithfulness. Boy, this sounds disturbingly like horse breeding.

To set the stage, for those unfamiliar with the book series, or merely curious about how the show handles the milieu, The Expanse begins at a critical juncture in human history. Humanity has moved beyond Earth to inhabit the entire solar system. There are two primary colonies—Mars and Ceres Station—which have become independent powers in their own right relative to Earth and her interests. Ceres Station, home to the Belters (a group of humans raised in low-gravity environments), is a powder keg of dissatisfaction. Earth and Mars have been exploiting their labor and they may not take it for much longer.

This stage setting is the first mountain The Expanse will have to climb for a viewership unfamiliar with the source material. The paragraph above is essentially offered in the text-based opening, which provides insufficient texture to the conflict in which Corey’s characters find themselves. Early on, the show gives viewers a hint about how they might handle this moving forward with an appearance from Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a character who is not even mentioned in Leviathan Wakes, the first installment in the Expanse novels. How these additions are handled is sure to be one of the running subplots for long-time fans of the books.

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The story begins with Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), trapped in a storage locker aboard a disabled ship. For readers, this is immediately a good sign as the next few minutes follow Leviathan Wakes, the first of Corey’s novels, nearly scene for scene. It captures the creeping dread of what being alone on an unmoored space vessel might be like. From this point forward, again like the books, the show is presented primarily from two points of view—Joe Miller and Jim Holden: the former, a hard-nosed detective on Ceres Station, the latter a self-righteous merchant ship’s officer.

Throughout the pilot, Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) and his partner, Dimitri Havelock (Jay Hernandez), are shown going about their business of criminal investigation, coupled with a fair amount of bribe-accepting for good measure. Miller’s personality is strongly established around a concept of justice, albeit one that plays fast and loose with the actual law, and a taste of chauvinism and alcohol abuse. Miller operates both inside and outside the system, which is why his boss assigns him an off-the-books missing person’s case for one Julie Mao. Jane portrays these characteristics uncomfortably well, quickly establishing himself as the star of the show.

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Meanwhile, out among the stars is Jim Holden (Steven Strait), soon to be Executive Officer of the Canterbury, an ice-hauling rust bucket delivering water to the Belt. When the Cant picks up a distress signal for a crippled ship, they are compelled to offer it succor. Although many aboard the Cant would just as soon leave the damaged hull to its own devices, Holden can’t let sleeping dogs lie and reports it. Where Miller is a by-any-means-necessary kind of character, it’s quite clear that Holden is not—the means matter very much. Where Jane immediately stands out as Detective Miller, Strait tends to fade more into the background. One of the show’s biggest challenges will be finding a way for Strait and his performance to pop more, and to up the interest level on Holden, who too often comes across as a two-dimensional goody-two-shoes in the novels.

That said, the characterizations are extremely faithful to the source material, while still managing to establish an interesting narrative baseline and juxtaposition between the show’s primary characters. The rest of the cast, including Alex, Amos, and Naomi—Holden’s crew—are immediately given depth in just a few brief moments. For Alex, it’s the picture of his wife and kid. For Naomi, it’s her tattoos and disgust for Holden. For Amos, it’s his ruggedness and big muscles. There is recognition of history with each of them that will demand further exploration.

As noted, there are several small instances where the show has taken a different direction than the novels, like giving Alex a family. In every instance these small adjustments have paid huge dividends, including a clever scene between the Canterbury’s XO and Holden. The scene manages to capture the fear of the vast blackness beyond the walls of the ship, and leads to Holden’s ascension as second-in-command. This deft interplay provides not only this rich emotional soil to till, but also gives us an extra peek into Holden’s character that simply could not be demonstrated elsewise, sans Corey’s prose.

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The Expanse does fall down in places though, primarily with its dialogue. The ambient noise in the background, which does lend something to the overall tone, can often make the banter difficult to pick up. Additionally, Belter characters communicate in a patois that, while perfectly understandable in print, is nigh incomprehensible on screen. There’s cause to celebrate Syfy for embracing this tremendously unique facet of Corey’s creation, but without subtitles it may be a bridge too far for those who simply want to know what’s being said.

The show also employs bold and unique cinematography, rotating and zooming and panning in an almost nauseating way. These shots can be jarring and difficult to comprehend in two-dimensional viewing, but the barf-inducing camera tricks also manage to create a truly immersive experience. Combined with brilliant sets that engender a claustrophobic tightening effect on the narrative, The Expanse becomes almost a crucible of discomfort. If there is one thing the show should be applauded for, it is this. These aren’t the wide, comfortable hallways of Star Trek: The Next Generation or even Stargate: Universe. These space stations and ships are tiny tin cans carrying carbon-based sardines across the black, bleakness of space, where survival is unlikely even when death is rare. It is unusual for television to be that transportive, and it is an accomplishment that The Expanse should be able to crow about for years to come.

James S.A. Corey knows he has a hit. The New York Times Best Seller list told him that two years ago. The new question is whether or not Syfy can say the same with The Expanse. Based on the pilot, it seems very much like they might—although the show will have some growing pains communicating the depth of the Corey’s narrative, it appears to be in good hands. There’s no doubt that viewers will be clamoring for Episode Two after the early pilot premiere on November 23.

Justin Landon used to run Staffer’s Book Review. Now he kinda blogs at justlandon.com. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

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