Series vs. Memoir: Orange is the New Black

I understand that there is a difference between fiction and non-fiction. I further understand that film versions of books leave something to be desired. I may see expressions and body language on film that I as the viewer interpret as conveying particular thoughts or emotions. When I am instead reading, I gain greater depth and insight into the characters in the work. The printed, verbal description gives a more fully expressed portrait of characters.

It’s not uncommon that I see the film version before I read the book. I’ve probably picked up the book because I liked the characters enough to want to learn more–but I still expect to have two versions of the story. I can suspend disbelief and let go of nit-picky detail if the film version is generally faithful to the original work. My expectation of consistency between the two is even greater if the story is based on actual, real-world events.

I–like many others–got hooked this summer on Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black”. The series caught my interest initially because I had enjoyed Ms. Cohen’s darkly hilarious “Weeds”. I was interested in seeing more of her work. Once I started the series, I was touched by the many strong female characters, if somewhat dismayed by the use of sexual images and stereotypes of the womens’ prison environment. I consider myself something of a feminist and fancy I have at least some awareness of the wide range of ills that plague our society. Nonetheless, I confess that I enjoyed the salty, sassy and frequently coarse humor.

In many cases, desperate circumstances, lack of resources, a dearth of truly good choices, and a fair share of plain bad luck conspired to get these women into the predicament of prison. The series’ edginess is balanced by portrayals of many of the female prisoners as not only strong, but possessed of dignity and a fairly solid moral compass in spite of their circumstances. The lead character and real-life Piper Kerman in the television version showed an evolving awareness of her place in the world and the consequences of her actions upon it. I found that compelling.

The series over, I found I hadn’t quite got my fill, so I was happy to have a chance to continue the journey with these women. I decided to download and devour the real-life, written version to dig deeper. I wanted to know more about these colorful characters and how “every sentence is a story.” I had just completed the book, when hard on its heels appeared the New York Times Op-Ed written by none other than the author Ms. Kerman. Upon completing both the book and the article, I found I had a bone (or three) to pick.

The book bears–in my opinion–a less than satisfactory resemblance to the show. In her book, Ms. Kerman writes compassionately of the women who she learns are so much more than they appear. She notes how she grew personally, a growth propelled as she learned to recognize that despite her white, upper-class, waspy upbringing there was precious little difference between her and everyone else who shared her prison home that year. Further, she states an awareness of how her complicity in the drug world had inadvertently affected the lives of other women just like these. She calls them friends. At the close of her book, she provides a brief activist’s statement about the effect of the “war on drugs” on families and communities that were already struggling. It is accompanied by a lengthy list of organizations and resources germane to the issue.

The most compelling aspects of the memoir are lost in translation on the show. Stereotypes abound: the crazy ones, the victims, the manipulators, the blatant lesbianism, the lecherous and amoral prison staff. And about that lesbian thing: once again the media proves that it will sink to the least common denominator and allow that sex sells. The real-life Piper has only passing contact with her former lover, none of it as lurid and physical as that depicted by the show. Piper and Alex, along with various other characters engage in graphic lesbian scenes, though the heterosexual folk are not left out of the equation either. I am a nurse by profession, so I am far from shy of naked flesh and well aware of the seamier side of life. Yet, one of the most discomforting aspects of the program was the abundance of graphic scenes of sexual activity. Sexual activity is far from prevalent in the book. Prison staff may be careless, apathetic, and even abusive in the book, certainly. This is a far cry from lecherous rapist-guards who abuse their power smuggling drugs to the inside, to name but a few transgressions.

All of this is to say nothing of how the relationship between Ms. Kerman and her fiance is affected by her sentence. Larry in book form is kind, sweet, supportive and caring. Larry on film is a wimp and a cry-baby. Kerman’s real life family and friends seem to have offered an outpouring of remarkable love and support which she claims buoyed her throughout her time. The series’ portrayal of her mother and best friend are, shall we say, less than flattering.

Yes, I know, the objection will be that the Netflix series is fiction. That it is merely “based on” the memoir. In that case, I feel rather strongly that a firmer line ought have been drawn between the two. Downplaying Ms. Kerman’s role in the creation of the series might have helped. A change in the title of the series to delineate its separate identity might also have been a good start. I can’t help but be left with the uncomfortable feeling that the creation of the series was something of an elaborate marketing plan to sell more books and make more money. To me, the biggest insult is that the show heaps an additional helping of humiliation on the women it portrays. The tone of the book which seeks to shed new light on a sad, societal problem that has yet to be adequately addressed seems wildly different, more honest, more real. The book, if less dramatic is less of an insult to the less privileged women that populate the prison. The book is far more of a tribute to the sad circumstances of the poor and disadvantaged, their grit and drive to survive. It is also a testament to the terrible price paid by minor players in the all too real yet incredibly farcical “war on drugs.”

Kathleen Ronan is a writer and a nurse, specializing in meditation for medical applications. She’s also a harpist, a bookworm, and a renaissance woman.


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