Movie adaptations are rarely better than the books on which they’re based. There are some (this is the best list I’ve seen), but they are few and far between.
But, oddly, TV shows are often (usually, even?) better than the books. Some obvious examples: Sex and the City and True Blood. I haven’t read Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones, but I have a feeling those TV shows are better than the books, too (and Flavorwire agrees).
Maybe it’s simply because the books aren’t very good (that is definitely the case for both Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels). But I think it’s also because a TV series has a lot more time to get things right. Entire episodes (or even seasons) can be devoted to characters and plot points, developing them more fully and, often, making them more interesting.
At any rate, it’s not a huge surprise that I now have another example to add to the the-TV-show-is-better list: Orange Is the New Black.
Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a memoir about a WASP-y, upper-middle-class Smith graduate’s thirteen months in a minimum-security prison for her minor and decade-old participation in a drug ring.
The TV show based on this memoir is a Netflix original series that premiered in July. If you haven’t seen it, then watch this trailer and immediately add it to your streaming queue (if you don’t have Netflix streaming, then sign up for one free month and spend that month watching Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards):
Like any adaptation, there are lots of differences between the memoir and the TV show. And there are TONS of lists out there detailing those differences. This one on Buzzfeed is generalized but accurate, and this one on That Was Not in the Book is ridiculously specific but also spoiler-y. And then there’s this Book Riot piece, describing one major difference between the book and the show, that gets it just right:
As a memoir, Orange is the New Black is cover-blurbed by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, and this makes ALL the sense in the world. Orange is the New Black is of the Eat, Pray, Love tradition: a skinny, blonde, upper-middle-class white woman becomes a fish out of water and through her misadventures, finds herself. The world is interesting enough, the prose is good enough, every problem is resolved and tied up with a neat and pretty bow. [. . .]
As a television show, Orange is the New Black is a game-changer.
The TV show is great. Critics have lauded it for being funny, female-centric, and authentic. It is engaging, hilarious, shocking, and depressing. It’s a fun, soap opera-y look at life in lady prison.
But all the good stuff, the fun stuff, the exciting stuff, the juicy stuff in the TV show? It’s not from the book.
Now, I realize that the TV show is fictionalized, so there’s a lot more leeway to embellish or simply create crazy, ridiculous characters and situations for shock and entertainment value. In contrast, the memoir is supposedly limited by reality. The problem is, in the book, it seems like Kerman is embellishing in the opposite direction. She’s playing a little too nice a lot of the time. It’s all hugs and foot-rubs; they might as well be in summer camp. She seems to be trying to convince us that people–even in prison–are inherently good. But here’s the thing: crazy and ridiculous is far more entertaining.
The best thing about the TV show, hands down, is the cast of unique and interesting characters (like Pennsatucky, the crazy meth-addict/Jesus freak; Red, the Russian head of the kitchen; and Pornstache, the dirty prison guard).
Those characters are all derived from the book . . . sort of. But, in the book, they’re all friendly and welcoming and not nearly as crazy. They get along and like each other. Perhaps you saw this Buzzfeed list: 28 Times The Cast Of “Orange Is The New Black” Was Adorable Together On Instagram. If the cast of the TV show were acting out the book as written, then the TV show would look a lot like those Instagram photos. Cute, yes. But definitely not as fun and interesting and exciting as the TV show.
I had also hoped that the book would provide background stories on the inmates. The TV show occasionally gives you glimpses into some of their pre-prison pasts through flashbacks. The flashbacks are usually short and incomplete, but they provide a little context for how these ladies ended up in prison. Sadly, by and large, these background vignettes are entirely fictionalized. In the book, Piper explains that prison etiquette prevents inmates from asking each other personal questions, especially about the nature of their crimes. Occasionally, information is volunteered (like Sister Platt, who “was a political prisoner, one of several nuns who are peace activists and served long federal sentences for trespassing in a nonviolent protest at a Minuteman II missile silo in Colorado.“). But Piper focuses very little attention on the women’s pre-prison pasts.
Oh, and Larry, Piper’s fiancée? On the show, in an effort to further his career, he exploits Piper by writing a New York Times piece about all the stuff she’s told him about prison and her fellow inmates. Well . . . it’s true that he wrote a piece for the Times while Piper was in prison, and that piece is excerpted in the book. Here it is. It’s not about her prison stay; it’s about how he wants to marry her. The Larry/Piper relationship in the book is picture-perfect. He stands by her and supports her undyingly through it all. There is no love triangle with Piper’s ex-lover, and Piper has no prison romances.
Rating: 2.5/5 🔒
Basically, the TV show takes the book and cranks it up about twenty notches. Compared to the TV show, the book is just plain boring. There’s no used-tampon sandwich, no guard/inmate love affairs, no vicious fights.
Piper Kerman is no dummy, and she writes decently well (a nice surprise when you’re reading a memoir). The problem is that the book is a little too kumbaya for my taste. Piper learns to rely on the kindness and support of others, even in the most unlikely of places. Trite city.
That said, I can’t hate on the book too much, because it did give me a recipe for Prison Cheesecake. It involves Laughing Cow cheese, vanilla pudding, and lots of lemon juice. Nom nom nom! Worth the read, for sure.
Who should read it: If you’re in a book club that doesn’t focus exclusively on serious literature and is comprised of TV watchers, then this could be a fun choice. I can envision interesting discussions about the characters, comparisons between the book and movie, the prison system, etc.
One final note: I’m really hoping Francesca LaRue gets introduced in season two of the TV show. She plays a very minor role in the book, but based on this description of her, I think she would be a delightful addition to the show: “Francesca LaRue, a vicious and crazy Jesus freak in B Dorm, had been disfigured by extreme plastic surgery. A bizarre sight with balloonlike breasts, duck lips, and even ass implants, she was rumored to have performed illegitimate backroom cosmetic surgery procedures and to have ‘injected people with transmission fluid’ to dissolve cellulite.”