The Expanse Season 4 and The Art Of Adaptation

People on Ilus

The Expanse Season 4 was released a while ago. And I suspect any self-proclaiming science-fiction fan to already be up to date with the show. But, if you’re not up to date, please note, there are Season 4 spoilers ahead.

Part of what makes The Expanse such a compelling series is its source material. The uninitiated few may be surprised to learn that the hit TV show is an adaptation from a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, was released in 2011, and every book since then roughly equates to one season of the show. Having such a rich source material at its foundation is partly the reason for its success. But the show doesn’t follow the novels exactly, and Season 4 was the loosest adaptation from its corresponding novel, Cibola Burn, since the show began.

Television adaptations contain many changes from their book counterparts: some big, some small. Screen writers and directors minimize dialogue, consolidate characters, and rearrange the structures. They make these changes because what works in books doesn’t always translate to the screen. The Expanse Season 4 deviated from Book 4 more than any other season so far. Those who have read Cibola Burn will already know all the changes, but I’ll tell you the three major adaptations that have a lasting consequence for the following seasons.

Mars’ Power Vacuum

People are abandoning Mars and the dream of terraforming its surface. Instead they are flocking to the gates in search of a new world with their own patch of fresh air and open sky. In the vacuum created by this exodus, opportunist Martians are selling off weapons and ships under the noses of a weakening government, and Bobby gets caught up in this world. The novel and the show are not aligned on the Mars problem. While Cibola Burn alludes to the social breakdown and the rise of black market trading, it is Book 5 (Nemesis Games) where most of these details emerge. And, without spoiling too much, Bobby’s adventure is entirely different.

Mars struggling against a mass emigration to the new planets beyond the rings.
Mars struggling against a mass emigration to the new planets beyond the rings.

Avasarala’s and U.N. politics

The second major change in television adaptation is Avasarala using her position to halt the emigration of humanity through the gates while at the same time defending her Secretary General position against Nancy Gao. In contrast, Book 4 has Avasarala helping Nancy Gao defeat Esteban Sorrento-Gillis to be Secretary General. That said, only the epilogue is focused on Avasarala. Apart from giving Holden his orders, she hardly features at all until Book 5.

Avasarala and Nancy Gao debating before the U.N. elections
Avasarala and Nancy Gao debating before the Secretary-General of the United Nations elections.     

Belt’s Identity Crisis

The last consequential change to the television adaptation of Season 4 is the introduction of Belter faction leader, Marco Inaros. We’re introduced to him as we follow Drummer and Ashford navigating the new status quo in the solar system. The Belt finally has a foothold of power as the gate’s keepers. But it is a power that may be fleeting. More and more Belters are seeing the appeal of sanctuary on an uninhabited world. To Marco, giving up space to live on a planet couldn’t be a higher betrayal of their kind. None of the Drummer/Ashford/Marco storyline is explicit in the Book 4. However, Marco is a central figure in Books 5 and 6.

Drummer and Ashford disagreeing over how the Inners treat them.
Belter leaders, Drummer and Ashford, disagreeing over their treatment by the Inners.

Diehard fans of the novels might complain about all the changes in the Season 4 adaptation, and they could very well be right about the minor things. But I’m here to tell you these three changes are master strokes. I’m sure a faithful adaptation of the Book 4 would’ve been entertaining, but without changing the series as we’ve seen above, it could’ve been the last season we ever saw on the screen. Much like the Belters on Ilus, we would have been left on a rock with nowhere to go.

A large portion of Book 4, Cibola Burn, takes place on planet Ilus, also known as New Terra. The world is the first to be settled by humans since the gates opened. It has a rocky surface, breathable air, flowing water, and a little over one gravity. In other words, it is a convenient place for humans to settle. And barring the billion-year-old massive alien structures and thirteen moons, it’s similarity to Earth is uncanny. It is a good progression of The Expanse universe, but is it really what we want to see? We watch our heroes on a planet—not on a ship or station, walking about—not floating, and breathing happily without a vac suit. It’s fine in small doses but after a whole book, or a whole season, we begin to lose a part of what made the series so special: living, fighting, surviving, in space—in zero G.

Yes, the book contains some legendary space scenes, but the adaptation to television gives us more. Not just action, but life in space as we could one day be living it. Avasarala’s story arc gives us the U.N. One ship shuttling her and her entourage around in high orbits, their mag books clicking on the deck under their formal attire.

Drummer and Ashford chasing down rouge OPA ships in the belt provides another chance for us to watch and enjoy life in space with real physics. There is one amazing scene on the OPA ship, Tynan. An OPA soldier walks away from the brig. The camera floats past them to focus on Ashford and Drummer seemingly standing on the ceiling. Beyond them, Marco is floating below their feet. These realistic life-in-space scenes are part of the reason I love The Expanse and we would have missed it if Season 4 had been a closer adaption of the book.

Drummer and Ashford interrogate Marco Inaros in zero G
Drummer and Ashford interrogate Marco Inaros in zero G. The crew stand using mag boots, while Marco floats in the brig.

Rather than lets us see life in space, Cibola Burn focuses on Ilus and stays there. The planet and its settlement become a microcosm of the political situation playing out in the solar system—Belter’s surviving against all odds, and once finding something of value, having it taken away by Inners with more firepower. All the while, their hostile surroundings are inadvertently trying to kill them. It’s interesting for sure. But it feels redundant after reading three books, or watching three seasons, of exactly the same struggle on a much larger scale.

Ilus is also just one planet out of 1300. Each one will have its own complications as humans try to settle them. This washes out the uniqueness of their situation. Avasarala’s political career, Mars’ power vacuum, and the Belt’s identity crisis were all missing from Book 4. But, by incorporating these story arcs into the television adaptation, we keep our broad view of humanity across the two systems and in turn, don’t get bored.

In fact, the three major adaptations saved the show. In Cibola Burn, the Belter settlers lose their mined lithium, and Murtry gets captured; the alien technology is shut off, and Miller finally disappears for good. That is to say, the whole Ilus storyline is self-contained. Nothing from the entire novel carries over into Book 5 and beyond. It’s too neat. There’s no cliffhanger. The television adaptation puts in motion story arcs that carry though to Seasons 5 and 6. What will happen to all the high-tech black market Martian military equipment? How will the U.N’s shift in power ripple out throughout the solar system and through the gates? Most importantly, what is Marco Inaros planning? I can’t wait to find out. Truth be told, I’ve read all the books, and the best is yet to come.

Books 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, of The Expanse series.
Books 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, of The Expanse series.

Looking back at the entire series of so far, the first three seasons functioned as a trilogy. It was the story of the protomolecule and humans from all around the solar system finding their true place in the vast scale of the universe. Season 4 sets in motion a new trilogy. A new story. One that builds off the first three seasons but is entirely different. It manages this by including elements of Book 5 as well as some completely new threads. I’m a big fan of the books, but I’m glad the adaptation to television included these three story changes. Hopefully the cliffhangers suck in new fans that help keep the show alive for years to come.

To read more about The Expanse and how it’s cemented itself as one of the greatest science fiction series of all time, check out this article: The Expanse and The Holy Trinity of Science Fiction.

Written by Ryan Lucia

Ryan lives in the french alps with partner and cat. When not writing and reading SF articles, or stories, or poems, he enjoys skiing, music, and eating cheese.

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