“The Expanse” Gives “Leviathan Wakes” The Juice it Needed

People often complain that a movie or TV series isn’t “as good as the book.”

With SyFy’s The Expanse, the opposite is true: the writers have improved a dull, sometimes amateurish novel. Yes, I know Leviathan Wakes has a great cover blurb from George R.R. Martin. But that’s not surprising: one of the people who wrote it is his assistant (James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It also got a Hugo Award nomination. Again, anything with that kind of pedigree is sure to get noticed and generate sales.


But it’s a long-winded novel that never really lives up to the clever premise of fierce rivalry between Earth and its smarter, classier, richer colony Mars. Their mutual pawn is the resource-starved Asteroid Belt, peopled by low-gravity creole-speakers who resent being looked down on.

There are some good action sequences in Leviathan Wakes, which tries to blend a classic PI novel with “space opera,” but the book rarely comes alive. That’s too bad, because the authors have come up with some great details like carpeting that’s more durable than stone and a colorful Belter dialect that blends many languages.

expanse shotThe overall problem might be the co-authorship. Chapters alternate between the third person point of view of an executive officer of a ship bringing ice to the water-starved Belt (Holden) and a detective on the Belt looking for a lost rich girl (Miller). That girl weirdly becomes a major third character even after she dies, haunting Miller’s imagination (and worse). It’s a shame, because she’s a bore and just won’t shut up.

The low-gravity Belters are tall and thin-boned, angry, underprivileged, resentful, and violent–but we don’t see and hear enough of them. Instead, we get lots of shallow characterizations throughout; sketchy settings; a thinly-imagined future where they still have bagels, sushi, and metal coffee pots; and writing that barely serves its purpose or even falls flat. What’s it supposed to mean that Holden walks with “uncommented athleticism”?

Expanse_ShipHolden and Miller don’t meet for a few hundred pages and when they do, the writers retell events from each protagonist’s shallow perspective, which gets tedious. Neither one is very compelling when it comes down to it, and as a team, they’re twice as dull.  Almost as dull as the flat ending.

But none of that matters in The Expanse, which revs the book up with a sexy cast, excellent FX, and a tighter, leaner story line. Scenes that drag in the novel speed by. And you don’t have to deal with bad prose, just commercials which you can fast forward through.

Martin was more than kind to the authors of Leviathan Wakes, but they don’t even approach his mastery of the writing craft.

Lev Raphael’s books — from mystery to memoir — can be found on Amazon.

2 thoughts on ““The Expanse” Gives “Leviathan Wakes” The Juice it Needed”

  1. It’s hard for a movie to improve upon a novel, because so much has to be cut out. A story told in a movie is closer in print size to a novella. So it comes down to the skill of the screenwriter(s), the actors, director and the crew to pull together to make a good translation.

    HBO seems to be doing a great job of that.True Blood was a great translation of the Sookie Stackhouse books because they widened the focus of the vampires’ place in society and added other flair, including the often bizarre sex scenes. And Game of Thrones is much, much better than the books; more cohesive, more linear, zips along but with also enough time to deliver the quiet, character-building moments. The show could also make use of the medium unique ability to deliver subtitles, enabling them to create actual languages that help the believability of the world.

  2. Here’s where I’ll split the difference with you. I don’t think GOT is better on screen because I think Martin’s prose is wonderful. He enters characters’ states of mind beautifully; his descriptions of nature and battles are terrific; and the show skimps on major parts of the book–like the Dothraki, who get short shift on screen but who are absolutely a fascinating culture in the book.

    That being said, Books 5 & 6 are a mess. He lost his way, lost the linear narrative. A show or film can almost always improve on a badly written book, or a book that’s badly, loosely structured–but if the writing or voice (or both ) are very fine, or the book offers rich psychological insights, then those elements are lost (voice-overs don’t cut it).

    Merry Christmas, Bill!


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