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There is no perfect way to adapt books to TV. These two Syfy shows display why.

The Expanse and The Magicians take completely different, but equally successful, approaches.

The Expanse's final three episodes are thrilling, the long-awaited payoff to a lot of setup. It just takes a while to get there.
The Expanse's final three episodes are thrilling, the long-awaited payoff to a lot of setup. It just takes a while to get there.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The eighth episode of Syfy's space opera The Expanse features one of the most thrilling moments I've seen on TV this year.

Detective Miller (Thomas Jane), who's been tracking a missing girl, finally comes in contact with the crew of a spaceship, who almost died when answering said missing girl's distress call out in the middle of the solar system. All these characters meet up in the middle of a firefight, meant to assassinate one member of the spaceship's crew. Oh, and they're also about to stumble upon what appears to be a horrifying experiment using alien technology on human beings.

It's a big, action-packed sequence, one that finally unites the majority of the show's disparate plots in one bigger story. It's a payoff, in other words, for a story that up until this point has desperately needed one.

Syfy is more and more branding itself as a network of novel adaptations

The Expanse
And guys with cool weaponry.

Prior to the season's final three hours (which began with that eighth episode), I had very much enjoyed The Expanse, especially in its go-for-broke action sequences and its bigger plot twists. However, I also had the feeling that most of the time, the series was only telling me half the story. Some of that was due to The Expanse being a mystery show, where the center of the story was finding this missing girl and figuring out what was so important about her. But just as much of it was about how TV shows adapted from books are written today.

This is of particular interest on Syfy, which is increasingly branding itself as the network to turn to if you want to watch (or create) strong genre series based on acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy books. The Expanse, for instance, is based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey (the pen name of the author duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), while the network's other big new series, The Magicians, is based on a trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman.

And with these two series, the network is experimenting with two of the most popular ways of adapting novels for TV. Neither is the best way, and both have disadvantages and advantages. But by airing The Expanse and The Magicians so close together, Syfy is conducting an accidental clinic on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

The Expanse takes the Game of Thrones model into space

The Expanse
Complete with action sequences.

It should be said that both The Expanse and The Magicians are more episodic than a lot of TV shows, especially those on HBO or streaming services. Every episode introduces some sort of new "problem" that is usually resolved by the end of the hour.

But where The Magicians usually puts that problem front and center, The Expanse is far more interested in building out its larger mysteries, which culminate in the final three episodes of the season.

Thus, The Expanse is somewhat like Game of Thrones, balancing a bunch of different storylines happening in a bunch of different places (all across the solar system), and which all have very thin but notable connections to each other. Thus, every episode moves the ball slightly forward on each of the show's major storylines — but without a strong center, any given installment can feel incredibly scattered.

In its debut season, Game of Thrones sidestepped the challenge of making everything feel cohesive with a tremendous cast (something The Expanse, though filled with solid actors, can't really boast) and with smaller-scale stories that kept the plot moving forward. That meant the show could stall its big revelations about some of what was really going on until the final two episodes of the season, when it pulled a bunch of rugs out from under the audience.

The Expanse is based on novels that are similar in structure to Game of Thrones' own source books — that's why it takes so long for the show to get where it's going — but it doesn't quite have the meat on its bones to make it compelling to hang out in its world without entirely understanding what's happening.

Don't get me wrong, it does a lot of great things. It carefully invested in character development throughout the season, so that when those characters came into real danger, the scenes held some weight. And it at least tried to create smaller goals for the characters to accomplish as they worked to solve the larger mysteries. It's just that those smaller goals often felt like the characters were simply progressing from point A to point B — a lot of pointless busywork for little reward.

However, the most important advantage of this particular structure is that it can make the biggest moments land with real impact. The Expanse's final three hours (aired over two weeks) are strong stuff, complete with a finale that feels straight out of a nightmare, as the characters try to escape a far-off outpost where very wicked things are happening. The series just took a little too long to get there.

The Magicians is closer to something like Lost

The Magicians
The cast of The Magicians aims to do some conjuring.

When it comes to source material, The Magicians has the opposite problem of The Expanse. Though Grossman's books are terrific, they're carefully structured so that the first book is written in only one character's point of view, and then the subsequent two books open up the world more and more, until the final book is told from the point of view of almost every major character. It's the literary equivalent of the way we slowly come to better empathize with others as we get older.

But because TV works the way it does, The Magicians can't wait until its second season to make use of its female lead, Julia (Stella Maeve), even though book two is where she becomes a real force. Thus, it needs to start telling her story from book two in its first season.

In the series' timeline, this works — Julia's storyline from book two is presented as an extended flashback to what she was up to while everybody else was doing other things in book one — but in terms of how The Magicians approaches world building, constructing a mythology, and a whole bunch of other things, it messes things up.

The thing about Julia is that she's driven by a motivation to prove to Brakebills — the magical university at the center of the series that rejected her from enrolling as a student — that she is, indeed, good enough to attend. This initiative sends her on a dark journey through the magical equivalent of the black market, and the result is a neat metaphor for how privilege works in the US: While putative protagonist Quentin (Jason Ralph) lives in relative comfort at Brakebills, Julia has to scrape for every spare inch.

This setup, however, has also forced the show to be more skeptical about Brakebills than the books were, at least initially. In the first novel, Quentin could find Brakebills to be a safe haven where he finally felt like he belonged — and he wouldn't really seriously question that until considering things from Julia's point of view a whole book later. By putting Julia right there on screen, the TV series is essentially calling its world into question even as it is actively building it.

That leaves The Magicians feeling much more like the early going of something like Lost or even Mad Men. After a very busy pilot, every episode has focused on some sort of "magical problem of the week," which functions roughly similarly to the case of the week on a detective show. However, the characters' attempts to solve those magical problems flesh out the series' world, stacking new elements of interest atop one another, piece by piece. The show is mostly adapting the books — it's just that everything is out of any order readers would recognize.

It's procedural world building — each episode a discrete unit or short story that, nonetheless, must still be seen to appreciate the breadth of the show's universe. Most shows with this structure eventually leave it behind in later seasons, once the world is established, but for now, The Magicians is using it to create a sense of immediacy that The Expanse can lack. Regardless of how you feel about it, there's always something happening.

So which approach is better?

The Magicians
On The Magicians, Alice and Quentin try to figure out what they're doing.

As I hope I've made clear, both of these basic structures have their pros and cons. It's impossible to say that either one should be considered optimal in a world where more and more TV shows are based on books and comics. Indeed, there are lots and lots of examples where choosing the wrong adaptation structure for a particular project sinks everything.

The question for writers, then, is what the work they're trying to adapt is aiming for. The Magicians, for all its fantastical trappings, is primarily a story about a collection of characters who find themselves in the middle of a larger story but are always more worried about their own personal failings. The Expanse is the story of an epic quest. The characters might be developed through that quest, but solving the mystery is what truly matters.

Both series are successful, ultimately, but both series also reveal the struggles of their respective approaches. Thus, the true answer might be to focus on the source material.

More character-centric works probably need an approach that's more short-story-like, because that will provide a good window into characters over the course of a season. Stories with a stronger, more plot-driven thrust are better situated to the directly serialized approach, because they'll feature cliffhangers that will ostensibly keep us tuning in, week after week.

But as TV turns more and more to the literary world for its source material, these questions will only become more pressing. And because there's no one answer, understanding the way adaptations work will be more important for both those who create TV and those who love to watch it.

The Expanse's first season can be viewed on demand. It's also available for digital download. The Magicians airs Mondays on Syfy at 9 pm Eastern.