When the Show's Protagonist Is Way Better Than the Book's

On 'The Expanse,' TV Holden is an okay dude who cares about duty and honor. Book Holden is a privileged asshole.
All images courtesy Syfy

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.

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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.

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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!