Thoughts on Adapting Novels to Television

Thoughts on Adapting Novels to Television

Adaptation of novel to screen is a difficult process, and there’s a lot to be learned about the art of storytelling in there. So many people seem to assume that it’s terrible if the movie or show doesn’t slavishly follow every detail and piece of dialogue, but they don’t ealize that doing that creates something no one will enjoy watching, even superfans.

What are the story beats that are saved? Is the adaptation true to what you felt was the message and heart of the original story? These are the questions I tend to ask when watching an adaptation, and they really guide my feelings on the quality of the work.

One of my favorite aspects of watching Game of Thrones is actually the conversation after an episode, where my partner and I try to figure out the plot points of the show that are different from the book, and how in the world they’re going to end up achieving the same major story beats.

We get to do that with The Expanse now, too!

Season 2 of The Expanse premiered last week with a two part episode. I thought it was really good. I also just finished reading Calaban’s War, book 2 in the series, so my head was spinning a bit with the differences between the novels and the show.


Please note that the rest of this post is going to spoil the hell out of both the tv show and the first two books. You have been warned.

The first season of The Expanse included the introduction of Chrisjen Avasarala, an Earth politician at the highest level of government, with a lot of influence and power. In the books, she isn’t introduced until the second novel, and is a major point-of-view character. The politics of Earth and the solar system at large are pretty complicated. In the novels, this is taken care through bits of internal dialogue and other details that are difficult to communicate efficiently on screen. It requires different framing, and a different style of build up. Avasarala is extremely important, and just dropping her into the story in the second season wouldn’t work. She’s going to need to be established as a political powerhouse that will do whatever she has to to protect Earth, before events lead to her galavanting across the solar system.

They’re doing the same thing this season, but with a different character, Bobbie Draper. Currently in the show she’s only been referred to as ‘Gunny.’ Bobbie is a Martian Marine, and a terrifying badass. In the show, we’re being introduced to her as a respected officer who is fiercely loyal to Mars, and hates the UN/Earth with every fiber of her being. In the books, we meet her in the middle of an attack that leaves her as the only survivor, and in the grips of severe PTSD as she heads out on a journey to avenge her fellow marines.

I suppose they could have waited on introducing Bobbie until that event, but they’d have to use a ton of flashbacks and exposition to establish her character, which I suspect would have seriously gummed up the pacing in that particular story arc.

Those are the kinds of choices that have to be made when adapting a story from one medium to another. Many storytelling techniques in prose just do not translate well to the screen.

Last week I listened to an excellent episode of the podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy that interviewed Naren Shankar, showrunner of The Expanse. He’s been working in television, especially science fiction, for a long time. He got his start as the science advisor for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has stories about working with Harlan Ellison, who kind of taught him how to effectively adapt stories between mediums.

It’s really interesting, and you can listen to that episode here:

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy # 240: Naren Shankar

I suspect that once both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are completed, there’s going to be a few writing master classes pop up examining the adaptations. I hope The Expanse gets a class of its own; I think there may be a lot of lessons learned from Game of Thrones being applied here, and I’m excited to see how it all works out.

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