Saturday, May 18, 2024

Season 4 of The Expanse Does Adaptation Right

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Since it began, The Expanse has typically done a pretty great job of not only adapting, but sometimes improving the books upon which it is based. The decision to include Avasarala and the UN in the first season alongside the introductions of the Roci crew was a very welcome decision, for example. Characters like Naomi and Amos have been given characterization and personality exemplifying the advantages of live-action vs. print. While not perfect, you won’t find many adaptations as strong as The Expanse.

Season 4 had an interesting task ahead of it. While I certainly like it and find the Western tone to be both a fun experiment and an obvious direction post-Gates, Cibola Burn is considered the weakest book by many fans for good reason. It meanders in ways the others don’t. A couple of the POVs are weaker. Everything takes place on a single planet and its immediate orbit, limiting the epic, spacefaring scope. It is a necessary reset after Abaddon’s Gate ended the Earth-Mars war, resolved the protomolecule and Protogen plot, and introduced thousands of new worlds for humanity to explore, but with this reset comes a slow, measured plot that takes up more pages than was absolutely necessary.

In many ways, it plays the same role for the Expanse series that A Feast for Crows played for A Song of Ice and Fire. It also presents the same challenges that as that book did for Game of Thrones. The difference thankfully being that while Thrones utterly failed with its adaptation, and ended up being the herald of the show’s eventually disastrous final seasons, The Expanse did it completely right.

Some of these choices were natural extensions of choices made previously, while others were fantastic decisions to streamline or expand on certain parts of the books. In almost every case, I think The Expanse made the right choice, and we’re going to look why some of these choices made season 4 a perfect adaptation of the book story.

Warning, MAJOR SPOILERS below for both season 4 and Cibola Burn.

The Lucia/Basia Switch

In Cibola Burn, a Belter named Basia serves as a POV character responsible for the landing pad explosion which crashes a shuttle from the Edward Israel and causes the Belter/Royal Charter Energy conflict Holden is eventually sent to resolve. He spends the book feeling guilty for this, gets pressured into another disastrous attack on RCE security, eventually succumbs to his guilt and ends up being sheltered on the Rocinante, where he participates in saving his daughter and the Belter ship she resides on.

Honestly? I found him boring. He’s a massive hypocrite with few interesting qualities. He brings little to the story besides being a camera through which we view major events.

His wife Lucia is in the books as Ilus’s main doctor, and is essential to caring for and helping cure the blindness epidemic which strikes after the reactor blows and begins an apocalypse on the planet. I always found her to be the more interesting character compared to her husband. She clearly harbors the same conflicted feelings towards the RCE arrivals, yet does not approve of the attacks her husband participates in.

Season 4 adapts these two by making a very good choice; it gives Basia’s storyline to Lucia. Not only that, it lets her keep her role as doctor, so she retains most of what makes her interesting in the books. She is mostly the same character, but goes through Basia’s storyline, and she makes it much better.

This manifests in multiple ways. Having her as the parent resistant to letting their daughter Felcia leave makes more sense, since Felcia is leaving to be a doctor and so it feels like there is a greater connection between the two when all the Barbapiccola rescue efforts happen. She has greater personality because there’s more to her than a terrorist who isn’t sure he likes his terrorism. It makes more sense for the only doctor to have the kind of influence the Basia role did in the books. Since she retains most of what is interesting about the character, so I care more than I do about Basia’s blank slate.

Maybe my favorite consequence of the change comes with the dynamic between Lucia and Naomi. The Expanse almost always does a great job creating interesting scenes between Naomi and other women on the show, and Lucia definitely follows that trend. Lucia struggles with the guilt over blowing up the RCE shuttle and letting her daughter go, while Naomi has already committed a similar terrorist act and has already had a child taken from her in the aftermath. They share a commonality that does not exist in any capacity in the books with Basia. Lucia and Naomi are very similar people and this makes for very good scenes together as Naomi helps Lucia deal with her guilt.

She also has some terrific scenes with Alex, some of which did exist in the books, but all of which again prove more interesting with a more interesting character in Lucia.

In the end, when Lucia reunites with her family, it feels earned and rewarding in a way Basia never, ever did to me. I love everything about this change, and it ranks among the very, very best adaptational changes made for season 4.

The Expanded Side Characters

Lucia represents a larger trend where season 4 gives some of the side characters in Cibola Burn much more involved roles. Naomi sticks out, as she usually does in any given season, since the show has always given her much more to do. This season does so as well by having her try to work on the planet despite a physical inability to last and also by expanding on her backstory.

Amos also gets many more character moments. In Cibola Burn, he basically functions as muscle. He exists to be calm and collected during the most trying moments, always ready for significant violence in case it is needed. Season 4 mostly keeps him in this role but makes two key changes for the better.

First, during the blindness on Ilus that afflicts everyone except Holden, Amos has something of a panic attack relating to childhood trauma. I liked this much more than Amos just being the same old guy in the books, where he just relaxes in a tent away from everyone else and seems perfectly content to be blind and wait for that to change. Amos’s harsh childhood on Earth has always featured more on the show, and with good results. He comes across as a more genuine person with moments like these.

Call it the benefit of acting. Wes Chatham has always done an outstanding job bringing the book character to life and giving him even more.

The second change relates to the improvements made to Cibola Burn’s side characters by expanding the character of Wei and adding an explicit romance between her and Amos. Just like the books, Wei is the second-in-command to Adolphus Murtry, who leads RCE’s security team and serves as the main antagonist of the book. Amos and Wei clearly like each other in the book and you can read a possible off-screen relationship between the two.

Season 4 makes this relationship explicit and uses it to give Wei a real arc. We see exactly what she and Amos have in common, why they are drawn to each other, and why she sticks with Murtry through everything. It sucks that she dies in the end, but I’ll take a fleshed out woman whose death fits her character over the mostly blank slate from Cibola Burn.

While not expanded upon as much, other side characters get shifted into different roles that have a more meaningful impact on the story. Instead of Fayez just being the guy spending his day drinking until he serves as sexual relief of Elvi, he gets to remain on the Edward Israel and genuinely help out. Felcia actively helps with the tethering system that helps keep the Barbapiccola from crashing onto Ilus. As a group, the Belters get a more active role in everything that happens.

Of course, in order to expand some characters, you need to cut others and you need to cut certain plots. Again, I think season 4 just about made the right decision every single time.

The Cut Content

The most obvious cutbacks occur with two POVs in Cibola Burn. I already mentioned Basia, who still exists on the show as Lucia’s husband but generally sits in the background and exists purely to serve Lucia’s arc. His content is given to her instead. The other major change comes from completely cutting a second POV, an RCE officer named Havelock who worked Star Helix security with Miller in both the first book and season.

Havelock returns in Cibola Burn as the viewpoint aboard the Edward Israel. Eventually, he joins the Rocinante after helping free Naomi after RCE security takes her captive at one point. Honestly? He was completely unnecessary. He is even more of a blank slate camera than Basia. I’m not sure if The Expanse cut him because they couldn’t get the season 1 actor back or they realized they didn’t need him, but either way, the season benefited for his absence.

He represents a larger problem with Cibola Burn, which is plot bloat. In order to justify his existence, multiple plots are created involving him training a militia onboard the Edward Israel, Naomi trying to disarm a weaponized shuttle and being captured, Havelock watching over and eventually freeing him, and him helping defend the Rocinante from the militia he created.

The Expanse bypasses all this by giving Naomi the on-planet plot instead, having her help Lucia escape, and then just having the weaponized shuttle attack happen without any of the failed disarmament or jail segments. Without those parts, Havelock serves no purpose and everyone else can get more focus instead. Season 4 proves just how unnecessary those parts are and why they don’t need to exist outside of making Cibola Burn longer.

It’s this absence that lets Wei have more plot, Naomi have her plots on Ilus and with Lucia, and lets the whole thing move at a better, more exciting pace with no real unnecessary bloat.

Another great cut is the Elvi/Holden “romance” from Cibola Burn. I’ll admit, I found it pretty amusing when Elvi’s feelings for Holden were just pent-up sexual frustration, especially when literally every ounce of her attraction to him vanished once she and Fayez hooked up. Still, Holden has enough of a problem as the Chosen White Guy of The Expanse and keeping Elvi’s attraction to him would have exacerbated the problem. By cutting it, she gets more room to shine for who she is.

I do think Elvi may be the one example where not every change was a good one. As annoying as Elvi’s obsession with Holden was, it still gave us a lot of time with her and made her one of my favorite characters in the books. Book!Elvi is highly active in the plot and the kind of person who cannot sit back while others act. She plays a very active role throughout the entirety of the book. Show Elvi doesn’t get quite as much exposure until the end, where she works with Miller to shut down the technology on the planet.

Does this lesser involvement outweigh the benefits of cutting the Holden romance? Not at all. In the end, Elvi still gets to cure the blindness and help save the day. She retains everything interesting about her.

The Non-Ilus Storylines

Now, it’s hard to really speak on the storylines with Avasarala, Bobbie, and Drummer/Marcos Inaros in season 4 because I have not read the books past Cibola Burn. From what I understand, much of this sets up the storylines in Nemesis Games or is from that book. I enjoyed them, and I can decide on the job The Expanse did adapting it later.

Really, though that’s irrelevant. They were a necessary adaptational change to Cibola Burn for season 4 for the same reason adding Avasarala and the UN were good changes in season 1. They maintain the larger intergalactic scope that helps make The Expanse so good.

The Expanse has often been called a sci-fi A Song of Ice and Fire because of the epic political scope present at all times. Cibola Burn is often purely political, at least in the justifications each side uses to lay claim to Ilus. The off-Ilus plots reinforce these events in a way missing from the book. Thematically, it’s the same conflict. The Belters lay claim to an unexplored area of space (Ilus/The Slow Zone), Earth and Mars come calling to lay their own claim, and hostilities occur.

Including these events off of Ilus, though, shows us both why the Belters were so desperate to lay claim to the new worlds beyond the Rings and also begin to transition the story away from our familiar solar system. Humanity is leaving home and we can see exactly how the familiar societies which sustained it so far are crumbling. Yet the same conflicts exist on these new worlds as well.

With Earth seemingly on the verge of a devastating attack by Marcos Inaros and Mars crumbling from corruption, the Ring worlds are the future of humans. These storylines contrast and compare in fascinating ways missing from Cibola Burn, and undoubtedly for the better.

All these decisions just continue to make The Expanse one of the best adaptations of a book or book series that I’ve ever seen.

However, not EVERY decision is unquestionably better. I’m sure people will disagree with some of my points. And to be fair, I didn’t like every decision. There was one, specifically, that was not a major issue but kind of disappointed me.

The (Lack of) Apocalypse

In season 4, a reactor beneath a chain of islands opposite the continent of the Ilus settlement in dispute explodes after Holden brings Miller to the planet and the protomolecule ghost begins activating the dormant systems on the planet in hopes of finding answers about the long-dead race which created it. This explosion creates a shockwave and tsunami which runs the length of the planet, destroys the colony, and if not for the shelter they find in some nearby alien ruins, would have killed every human on the planet. It also activates all the defense systems on the planet, which knocks out the reactors of every ship in orbit.

Now, this is mostly the same in Cibola Burn. However, the effect of the reactor explosion creates a different sort of effect. Rather than a tsunami, the explosion creates a massive planet-wide storm constant lightning, Jupiter-storm level winds, and fierce rains that lasts for days. The humans on the planet take shelter because nothing in the settlement could stand up to the storm. Even when the rains stop, a nuclear winter begins.

Again, the same effect is achieved on the show. They have to stay in the ruins, the death slugs emerge, everyone is in danger. I still looked forward to seeing this days-long catastrophic storm play out on screen. A tsunami flood that disappears in a few days doesn’t quite have the same impact. I think that, in general, season 4 rushes the timeline a little bit in a way that lessens the impact of everything that happens and makes the character decisions a little bit unreasonable.

It’s a bit harder to understand the extremes reached over 4 days rather than months of tension. Murtry looks entirely laughably villainous sometimes because of this timeline change.

Though really, it says something when this is my biggest adaptational complaint about the season.

So what awaits in season 5? I’m sure I won’t go in completely blind. The chances I won’t read Nemesis Games before then are slim to none. I can be confident that it will be a fantastic adaptation of the book, because The Expanse always manages to be a fantastic adaptation of the books, if not outright better at times. Season 4 was a perfect example of how an adaptation can elevate beyond its source material.

Images Courtesy of Amazon

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