When the Show's Protagonist is Way Better then the Book's


#1

Spoilers for The Expanse season two and book two of the series: Caliban's War to follow.

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I’m very, very excited about the return of The Expanse—Syfy’s adaptation of James SA Corey’s book series about political upheaval and adventure in the middle-distance future, where humanity has a solid foothold in the solar system. Season three will begin next week, but something is new on my end: I’ve actually been reading the books this time (my introduction to the series was via the TV show), and man, there are a lot of major differences.

I’m not sure which I actually like better—the books are much more meandering, but give, of course, those important character insights that only POV chapters (or, the dreaded cinematic technique of voiceover, I guess) can do. In most cases, it’s wonderful: Detective Miller, a down and out space cop who gets caught in way over his head on a kidnapping case, is much more likable when you’re privy to his inner thoughts and motivations. Bobbie Draper—a badass Martian Marine who witnesses something profoundly awful—experiences a far less dramatic turn of events in the books, but she’s funnier and more interesting. Avasarala, a salty elder politician who wields power and profanity with equal grace, is just wonderful in both.

But James Holden, handsome space captain dude who always tries to do the right thing (and is something of the de facto protagonist of the show and the books, despite both being an ensemble series) is positively insufferable in the books. On the show, he’s a fairly bland but likeable hero—a guy who gets faced with a series of impossible challenges and does his best. He’s naive, yes, but he’s a good captain, clearly cares about his crew and doing Good Deeds.

In the books, though, we’re privy to his inner thoughts. And he is the absolute worst. A privileged asshole who grew up with multiple parents, all of whom poured love and attention on him, he is self-centered, obnoxious, and kind of toxic. He thinks thoughts about how he is the only one of his crew who grew up rich enough to have real wood furnishings at home. He constantly broadcasts inflammatory things across the solar system, hailing “everyone has a right to know!” while basically never taking responsibility for the wars he starts. But perhaps worst of all are his dealings with Naomi, his genius executive officer and (spoiler!) later girlfriend, who he first describes in the least flattering fashion, in his inner dialogue.

He claims something along the lines of “no one would ever mistake her for being classically beautiful, but there’s something there…” like a horny space PUA. Later, when he gets together with her and wants her to meet his parents, this scene happens.

Holden and Naomi are in bed. Holden goes over a conversation he had with his racist mom in his head, about how, upon meeting her, their racist beliefs (based on bad stereotypes from entertainment, would you believe it!) will melt away and they'll love her as much as he does.

Woof.

Classic clueless dude, right? But it’s dangerous. Like so much of his thinking, it’s so self-centered and unaware and infuriating. And because Holden is a classic Man of Action, he doesn’t just think shitty things, he does shitty things. People die because he thinks he can Captain Kirk his way out of bad situations. I have no idea what Naomi is doing with him, and so far, we haven't had Naomi POV chapters to explain WTF is happening there.

To its credit, I’m pretty sure the book also thinks Holden is a doofus. Avasarala certainly thinks he is, and Bobbie’s appraisal of him as a guy she would think about sleeping with if he weren’t so full of himself made me laugh out loud while reading one night. I’m not sure the first book knew Holden sucked so much, but by the second book (with the appearance of Avasarala and Bobbie especially), it’s clear that James SA Corey is aware of how bad Holden’s naive-but-helluva-guy schtick smells.

Like the showrunners and writers on Syfy’s other current (and excellent) book adaptation The Magicians, the show knows the book protagonist is a turd, and they’ve ameliorated the problem onscreen. The Magicians is possibly more interesting, since the show is practically centered on how much it knows its protagonist is a thoroughly useless dork (and you could read it as a pretty mean takedown of fanboy culture), but The Expanse instead mutes Holden’s worst qualities and lets its much more interesting characters shine brightly.

It's not that the TV version of the character isn't privileged, or sometimes shitty. It's that they decided to present this character in a way that feels less like he's sucking up all the air in the room. And that is very much the right call here.

How about you, readers? Is there an adaptation that you’ve read/watched/played that did major improvements to a character? Or have you ever gone back to the source material of something you love, only to find some… need for improvements? Sound off in the forums!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/3kj5nw/the-expanse-the-magicians-books-tv

#2

I’m just glad I’m not the only one that felt this way about Holden. He’s the main reason I haven’t started the third book yet. All of the characters are dealing with interesting dilemmas and reacting in interesting ways and then Holden shows up and repeatedly slams his face into the same wall for four days. And yeah, the whole relationship with Naomi…ugh.

Looks like I need to give the show a shot. I’m interested in seeing what they do with the character. Also, Avasarala is the best. But to the thread’s question…

I can’t help but think Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is far superior to/sexier than Thomas Harris’, but then…I basically love Mads in just about anything, and we’re talking about a Bryan Fuller show that also features Scully and Hugh Dancy…guys have you SEEN that fucking show? It’s so good. Jonny Lee Miller + Lucy Liu in Elementary are also way more interesting than anything Doyle ever did with Sherlock (largely because Lucy Liu as Watson is fucking brilliant and refuses to put up with a lot of JLM’s bullshit [and also because Doyle was a raging fuckbag]).


#3

I was extremely impressed by Gillian Flynn’s own screenplay adaptation of her novel, Gone Girl. I loved watching Amy shift across the course of the film. Her arc in the novel is startling and awesome to behold, but Rosamund Pike’s performance is extraordinary, and some of the alterations to her actions were smart. I physically got chills at the climax of the film.

Just about every character is deftly translated and accurately portrayed, but I want to draw special attention to the lead detective. In the novel, her trepidation and suspicion is palpable, but it felt much more measured as it developed across the investigation. Watching it explode with force and authority in the film made the culmination of the investigation feel a lot more powerful - which is saying a fucking LOT if you’ve read the book, because that book is fucking fierce. The only character I actually think is weaker in the movie is Desi, who lacks the mother-may-I perversion that twists his character in just the right way.

Watch Gone Girl AND read the book, they are both incredible and the payoff in both is fucking sublime.


#4

I’ve read up to book 6. While Holden’s character does have some growth, he never really stops being ‘that dude.’ Just a slightly better version more like the shows Holden. Instead the authors grow the characters around him. Naomi POV chapters are in your future. You’ll eventually get to learn about her past, and I can already see the article you will most likely write.

My favorite characters in the books are Bobbie, Amos and Naomi. Just push past book 4. We, uh, don’t really talk about book 4. :confused:


#5

The movie 30 Days of Night is way better than its source material. It’s a weird case since books typically contain lots of detail that movies don’t have the time to explore, but the 30 Days of Night graphic novel is really freaking short. The movie actually takes way more time than the book does to explore the characters, and it’s better for it.


#6

SyFy’s The Magicians, especially starting with the second season, just does way better and more interesting things with all of the characters. It’s like they kept the very basics of the books and then just decided: “actually here’s the stories we want to tell, and aren’t these stories so much better?”

I’d almost just start at the second season, and just watch from there. It’s real fun.


#7

I still haven’t started on The Expanse books - I kinda want to keep being surprised by the show, so I’m wary of spoiling myself - but I’ll be braced for a much more insufferable Holden when I do. I’m glad that the show decided to abridge his character for the sake of everyone else.

Kinda bummed by the idea we missed out on a Bobbi who likes to joke around, though–wonder if the showrunners have any intention of moving her character more in that direction as the show goes on? I usually enjoy it when characters cope with their lives spinning out of control by growing increasingly goofy–I love Crichton from Farscape.

Anyway, for another example of a work that was improved dramatically in the transition from page to screen… It doesn’t fit perfectly, 'cause it’s not just a matter of changing the protagonist - more the entire context of the story - but there’s an anime I used to absolutely love called Usagi Drop. It’s a beautiful, incredibly touching story about found family…

Whereas the manga is, uh, not that at all. Honestly, learning where it went kiiiiiinda ruined the show for me–I haven’t been able to go back and watch it since. I really, really don’t want to go into the details of exactly what happened - it bums me out every time I think about it, and I haven’t actually read all of it anyway - but suffice to say, it fucking sucked.

I’m still hoping I’ll be able to go back and enjoy the anime for what it was again, someday–but it’s been years and I’m still not there yet, so maybe not.


#8

This is not quite accurate.

The anime didn’t improve or change the source material. It simply ignored the existence of the 2nd half of the manga. It was easy enough to do this, because Vol 5 starts with a time skip that never happens in the anime. I’ve read that the live action adaptation does the same thing.

I think part of the reason the backlash against the franchise was so severe, is because there were absolutely no hints in the first half where the author intended it to go. I often wonder if the anime producers who kept harping on the story from a single parent/family friendly angle, were taken as aback as everyone else was when the 2nd half came out. We’ll never know, because no way in hell will they ever go on record about that.

(Don’t look up the ending, seriously.)


#9

Right, that’s what I meant by ‘changing the entire context’–without that time skip, and the events therein, Usagi Drop reads in a completely different way. Since the anime didn’t have the timeskip, I came away from it thinking, ‘wow, that’s one of the most touching anime I’ve ever watched’, which I very much wouldn’t have if it’d included the timeskip/I’d already known where the manga went.


#10

I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I can actually recommend either the anime or the manga, given how the manga ends. It’s kind of impossible to watch the anime without wanting to read further … and that always ends badly.


#11

Yeah, it’s difficult.

I genuinely think the anime holds up fine by itself. Like, I didn’t actually find out about what happened in the manga until years after I’d watched the show, 'cause I never felt the need to follow it up with the manga–I think I discovered it through someone bringing it up when I mentioned the show in an anime recommendation thread, or something like that.

BUT, that said, I’m honestly not sure how I’d feel about recommending the show and not bringing up the fact that the manga does what it does. As you say, I wouldn’t want someone stumbling into it. And, honestly, I’m really not sure the show can escape the shadow of what the manga did, regardless of whether a given viewer knows about it or not.


#12

Anyone who’s read further in the series knows that that changes big time. The world knows he’s insufferable and calls him out constantly for being the kind of privileged that he is, even if he means well and is competent (generally). Without spoiling too much; the last point literally starts pointing this out from Bobby’s p.o.v.

For me, show-Holden was much more bland and a little dull, more cliché too, while book-Holden is more interesting and rounded even if that makes him a worse person. I don’t mind my characters being not all that ‘good’ as long as they’re interesting, and as long as the world around them reacts to them in a believable manner. And honestly, people react pretty believably to Holden’s nature from the moment he started shouting about Mars supposedly blowing up the Canterbury. Someone will call him out, and all the characters often have to deal with the fallout of his actions.

Fo real? That’s the consensus on book 4? Man I loved that little side-mission down the you-know-what.


#13

Hi, I’ve read the 3rd and 4th Expanse books and Holden does not get better…but its great. His self centeredness continues to get him in trouble and cause problems, and he makes bad decisions constantly, but his crew sometimes literally holds him back going “no dumbass.”

He pulls it together a lot more in the 4th book, but that actually just gets him in more trouble because his reputation as the guy who keeps fucking up continues to ruin things.

So…he doesn’t get much better, but he gets kicked in the balls a whole lot more and that can be entertaining.

It is super annoying that his mistakes continue to get people killed but he keeps getting free passes because he “means well” though. That continues and it sucks.
Its one of the many reasons I can’t get through book 5.


#14

I think both those characters are a lot more interesting in their source texts but probably neither of them would really work on screen as they were.
Holden is a cipher on the show and imo it’s because they tone him down too much.
Like Holden is a dumbass but he is also a very good person in a material sense. I think the writing is in some sense honest about the innocence that moves him to act the way he does. Holden is idealistic and optimistic because he’s sheltered and privileged. Holden is annoying and full of himself because he is sheltered and privileged.


#15

Popped into the thread just to elaborate about The Magicians, (or see if anyone else had called it out) and as usual the Waypoint community does not disappoint!

I enjoyed the books in spite of most of the characters feeling like a cavalcade of privileged assholes, but the series is 10x as woke and seems genuinely interested in finding things to like about most characters in spite of their flaws. By comparison, the novels were interesting examinations of flawed people, but by the end I didn’t actually LIKE any of them.

Coldwater read like the mother of all unreliable narrators, and since the perspective is much more locked onto Quentin, you sort of experience Grossman’s world through that character’s “filter” and I think everything is uglier for it. The Magicians alludes to Harry Potter frequently and may be attempting to examine/criticize Rowling’s Harry-centric structure…

Regardless, the show is an ensemble doing lots of different things much better than the books in my opinion, and the different perspectives are refreshing by comparison.


#16

I think if Quentin is an unreliable narrator it’s in the way that the books portray mental illness though his pov. Good things happen to Quentin, like wherever he goes the mood disorder is at his heels ready to make him feel a bad way about a good thing. I thought that was quite well done. For me it captures that chemically inevitable vibe of mental illness that can also come with mourning or any big sad. You know its gonna happen, you know the steps of the dance but you only get a few lucid moments to tell that it’s happening, not enough to do change. Quentin is so at the mercy of his own mood.

I like the show though. The fact that it is explicitly in the same multiverse as the books makes it easier to enjoy on its own terms. I thought that was very clever.


#17

I never felt the need to like them, though. In a way the books gave me a kind of Californication vibe, showing the vapidity of these people. I enjoyed seeing these at-first seemingly perfect people having no clue about how to deal with the amount of power they’ve gained and the real world they’re suddenly dumped in. I can’t remember exactly up until which episode I saw the TV adaptation, but I never quite got that “Look at these awful people” idea, I kind of got a “MTV’s The Hills but with magic” vibe.


#18

I forget if it was 2/3rds of the way through the book or 1/2 of the way through the second season, but at some point it occurred to me that everything I didn’t really enjoy about The Expanse in either form could be solved if Naomi was the protagonist/main POV character.

I understand the impulse to have Holden be there because, being from Earth, he can look at the cultures of Mars and The Belt with an outsider’s eye for the benefit of the reader. And you need someone to be braver than they are smart to make a lot of the bad decisions that get the plot rolling, sure. But then Miller’s arc has a bunch of Belter stuff explained for the reader anyway, and once Earth and Mars are on a war footing, the setting is sufficiently dynamic and unstable that you don’t really need a single shit disturber par excellence running around continuing to stir the pot; every small mistake is now upgraded to a big mistake at no extra cost!

At which point, Holden sorta becomes dead weight. He doesn’t have Amos’ technical know-how, he’s not half the pilot that Alex is, and he’s frankly not as cool as Naomi.

So why not make Naomi captain?

As far as I can tell, it’s so that she can be the love interest.

It took Dark Matter a whole season to figure it out, but they had essentially the same problem; once the world and characters are introduced, the bland white guy who doesn’t really do anything special is just…deadweight. So they kill him. 2, already the de facto captain, fully takes over the show and runs with it, AND she’s freed from a pretty dull romantic subplot. It’s exactly what they should do with Holden, IMO.

Farscape, which someone already mentioned, takes the opposite tack. Crichton is in over his head and has to submit to the cruel absurdity of the universe or else it will break him. I imagine this doesn’t work as well on a show as po-faced as The Expanse, but if you absolutely must have a Holden, the least you could do is make him interesting.

My final gripe with Holden is that I think he’s supposed to be a kind of everyman protagonist, but ultimately that just centres whiteness and maleness in a Universe that, logically, shouldn’t be nearly as white or male dominated. And any time he could be a little more interesting (like how he has polyamorous parents), the books lean right back out of that (IIRC he’s serially monogamous).


#19

I’m at Book 5 now and for me it’s:

Amos (the brute mechanic) >>>> Alex (the slightly depressive camaraderie pilot) >> Holden ( the “always do the morally right thing no matter what” Captain) >>>>>>> Naomi (the beautiful, smart engineer from Belter culture)

I get why people might think Holden is boring, but I couldn’t disagree more that he’s unlikeable.
He is the Captain because his crew believes in doing the right thing, making the “good” happen. Sure, make a few bucks on the way, but never compromise and all of them would trust James Holden more than themselves to make the (morally) right decisions.
If he had character traits that would make him interesting and more difficult, these other persons wouldn’t follow him, they wouldn’t be a family.

That Danielle makes him a racist, because he thinks his parents are good people despite their prejudices, is just too harsh. Another thing misjudges in my opinion is Holden’s competence and privilegedness. He had more priviledges, but he knows that it’s only by chance and that actually all his crew members are more competent overall than himself.

If there is one person on the Rocinante crew I wouldn’t trust on a battlefield in a war to risk their own ass to rescue a fellow soldier, it’s Naomi - I could see her bailing out. Holden I’d even trust to risk his life to rescue a defenseless enemy soldier. [I say this because it’s a character test I do with a lot of people I’m close with]

Side note: I have not watched the show and never will because I don’t want to ruin the visual picture I’ve made of the characters from the book descriptions over the years.


#20

The Authors have him, mentally, putting Naomi in the position of having to speak for, and serve as an exemplar for all Belters, everywhere. Even if Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck know that this isn’t a great spot to put a person in, clearly Holden doesn’t; Danielle hasn’t “made him” anything he isn’t in the text.

Also, this is a point a little outside of the debate, but if Holden’s parents are politically active at all, it’s possible that they have—even in some small way—contributed to the suffering of Belters like Naomi. “Good people despite their prejudices” assumes that those prejudices don’t, in small and large ways, affect material conditions in the world.

This is, again, the same problem that Dark Matter has in its first season. Having a single character serve as a moral conscience for the others robs those characters of interesting opportunities for character growth.