clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pop Culture Corner: The Expanse and The Witcher prove that book-to-TV is just better

Great shows on a great medium

“The book was better than the movie.”

Surely you’ve heard that phrase before. Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself. So many movies and TV shows are adaptations of other media, and the most common adaptation is from book to movie or show. If you read the book, though, the visual representation often feels underwhelming.

Why? Well, this is the case so often because of one simple, irrefutable fact: books simply take much longer to consume than movies do. The average American adult reads at about 300 words per minute, and while novel word length varies wildly by genre the sweet spot for novels, according to literary agents, is around 90,000 words. As a result, most books take the average American five hours to read cover-to-cover, or about three times longer than the average film. In addition, a key difference for novels is that they are not beholden to word count the same way that films are beholden to a runtime; it’s almost unheard of for a theatrical film to run double the average length, but it’s easy to find novels that are double length.

This disparity compounds on itself the more books there are in a series. If you’re making a movie out of one book, you’re likely going to have to cut some information. But if there’s an entire series to be made, you have to start making more and more significant changes to the material. It’s why there’s no Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and it’s why the role of Quidditch was cut to nothing in the later Harry Potter films (to say nothing of larger, wholesale changes in both adaptations).

To be sure, there are more factors than simple run time and read time. But it’s a tangible way to represent just how much more in-depths books are as opposed to films. Thankfully, there’s a way to get around that through a slightly different visual medium—television. That’s why I’m so glad that the recent adaptations of The Expanse and The Witcher haven’t been films, but TV shows instead.

The Expanse is a series of novels written by James S.A. Corey, the pen name of co-authors David Abraham and Ty Franck. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, was released in 2012 and nominated for both the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel; seven more have been published with the final one to be published this year. The series is set a few hundred years in the future, a future where humans have colonized Mars and a variety of interplanetary asteroids known as the Belt. It primarily follows the crew of the spaceship Rocinante as they navigate a deeply complicated world marred by war and politics.

The Wicher is an adaptation of a collection works by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski published two short story collections as well as a five-novel series called the Saga. The series achieved immense popularity in Poland and was catapulted into the English speaking world by the success of the video games based on the series by Polish developer CD Projekt Red. The Witcher is a brutal fantasy whose setting is roughly akin to the Middle Ages but with monsters and magic. It follows the titular Geralt of Rivia as he navigates a deeply complicated world marred by war and politics.

Both series aren’t run-of-the-mill sci-fi or fantasy romps. They are deep and intricately constructed. Their characters are multifaceted. They are the best of their respective genres, exploring difficult issues like racism, power structures, class, and more while adeptly making use of their genre’s strengths (and avoiding their pitfalls). To portray them in movies is to lose out on the detail that makes them what they are.

And as someone who has read the books that inspired both shows, I can vouch for the adaptations’ excellence in regard to their portrayal of the books. You lose a little bit—The Expanse TV show doesn’t delve into the nitty-gritty science part of space travel as much, for instance, which is part of what makes the books so refreshing—but both shows make up for it by leaning into the visual aspect of the medium to tell clearer stories.

This December (barring a possible delay thanks to our friendly neighborhood virus or other reasons), we’ll see the first of two planned film adaptations of Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune. The novel comes in at over 182,000 words and is notoriously thick with plot and world-building. While the flashier, more prestigious medium of film has allowed its hilariously star-studded cast (including Timothee Chamalet, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Dave Bautista, Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, and more), I have my doubts that the movie duology will do its source material justice—the 1984 film sure didn’t.

A TV series would do better. I’m sure of it.

The Expanse

Amos and Naomi in the TV show The Expanse

Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video

Length: 46 episodes over 4 seasons; 43 minutes each

A good watch for: Sci-fi fans, drama fans, TV fans

A bad watch for: People who don’t like quality television, ensemble casts, or spaceships

The Witcher

The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, played by Henry Cavill

Watch it on: Netflix

Length: 8 episodes over 1 season; between 45-60 minutes each

A good watch for: Anybody who needs their fix of brooding fantasy in a post-Game of Thrones world, fans of the game series, those who enjoy non-linear storytelling

A bad watch for: People who avoided Game of Thrones for the sex and violence, those who do not enjoy non-linear storytelling, misers who won’t toss a coin to their Witcher