I'm completely hooked on the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," so I was anxious to read the memoir that is the basis for the show. I'd heard an interview with Piper Kerman on "Fresh Air" several months ago, so I already knew that the book is notably different than the show.
Here's the plot in a nutshell if you're not familiar with the show. Rich, Smith-educated white girl smuggles drug money for her girlfriend. Ten years later, after she has reinvented her life and gone to the other side (she's engaged to a man), the feds show up at her door. She has to go to prison for 15 months (13 months with time off for good behavior) because of the mistake she made as a young woman.
She serves her time in Danbury Prison in Connecticut, and toward the end of her sentence she gets transferred to even worse places--Oklahoma City and Chicago. While in prison, she makes friends and learns how to survive.
Here's what is most different about the book and show, and what I preferred:
- When she first arrives at Danbury, many of the other prisoners reached out to her and helped her. Not so in the show, at least not right away. Win: book.
- In the show, we learn the back stories (and actually see them) of the other prisoners. In the book, this rarely happens. It's mostly about Kerman's experience alone. Win: show, by far (this is the best part of the show!). Apparently in reality, it wasn't cool to ask why a woman was in prison, so Kerman didn't often know the back stories.
- In the show, Piper is housed at Danbury with Alex, her former girlfriend. They have an affair and she becomes attached to her again. Her long-suffering fiance Larry finds out and breaks off their engagement. In the book, she runs into
AlexNora in the end, as they are rounded up to testify against someone else (part of their plea bargain). But they do not have an affair. They develop a tenuous friendship instead. Win: book, although the show is much more dramatic and interesting to watch.
- We hear more about prison creativity in the book. Piper becomes an expert at making "prison cheesecake" with a variety of ingredients...in the movie, we don't get this level of detail. Win: book.
- "Crazy Eyes" is an exaggeration of the show, as are several of the other characters. A woman flirts with Piper in the book, but not so aggressively as in the show.
RedPop doesn't bully her by starving her in the beginning of the stay, but she is an important character. Crazy, meth-addicted fundamentalist Christian who tries to kill Piper seems to be another fantasy. Win: book. The show plays into the stereotype of lesbian (and other types of) aggression in prison. In fact, there's a lot more lesbian sex in the show than in the book.
- "Pornstache" (a perverted, masochistic guard) is much bigger in the show than "Gay Porn Star" in the book. He doesn't last long in reality, and he doesn't deal drugs or sleep with prisoners. Win: book (reality).
- Larry is much more neurotic and self-obsessed in the show than in the book. He takes advantage of the information he gets from Piper to go on "This American Life" and share personal stories of the prisoners. He breaks it off with Piper when he discovers she's back with
NoraAlex. None of this happens in the book. They are both loyal and much less interesting to a TV audience. Win: the book (for love, at least, if not for TV viewing).
When Piper moves to Oklahoma City and then Chicago to testify, it's much more horrific and bare than Danbury, which seems almost "comfortable" in comparison. It's hard to know how they will address this, if ever, in the show.
As Kit Steinkellner writes in this article on BookRiot,
"Orange is the New Black is a fine memoir. Orange is the New Black is a revolutionary first season of television."I have to agree. I enjoyed the book, but the TV show is so much fuller, mostly because the stories of the diverse prisoners are so much more interesting than the rich white woman's. I'm glad Piper Kerman wrote her story, though, because it's called attention to the bad conditions of women in prison and their lack of control over their environment.