Orange is the New Black, the new Netflix series, has garnered critical acclaim this summer for its feminism, diversity, compelling storylines, and winning combination of raw and shocking comedy and drama. But this series began life as a memoir, and in comparing the true story to the screen story, it’s interesting to see just how much is different.
In Piper Kerman’s account of her time in a women’s federal prison, she already had to take dramatic license to protect those involved. When dealing with such a sensitive subject as a term of incarceration, you would certainly need to change identifying details and names. Thus, we’re already at one step removed from reality, not to mention that a memoir is seldom a verbatim account of every conversation and moment, unless these events were recorded for verification. A memoir captures the spirit of reality—events should be accurate, even if the words spoken by those involved are not precise.
Adapting a memoir for the screen is trickier. Film has the ability to merely condense events, as in Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, for example. But to sustain an ongoing television series, unless you’re making a documentary in real time, you have a much more difficult task. Thus, the television adaptation of Orange is the New Black is definitely fiction. Characters already slightly changed are changed even further, to the point where Kerman’s real-life ex Nora bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to fictional Piper Chapman’s ex Alex. Where Kerman’s fiancé Larry visited every weekend and was a constant and positive presence in her prison life, Chapman’s fiancé Larry is real-life Larry in name only. Not only is he not a constant, but he flails about cluelessly, undermining Piper’s rehabilitation efforts and driving her back into Alex’s eager arms.
But this isn’t to just enumerate the differences. What I’m really getting at here is to question at what point things stop being real and what is it about memoir that we expect to be sacrosanct. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle made the literary world suspicious, and rightly so. However, if Frey had released his book as a novel, no one would have batted an eye, and any resemblance to real life would have simply lent the book an air of verisimilitude. The problem is that we live in an age where reality sells. Reality is cheap, and it’s what we’re used to from endless reams of bad cable programming (Kardashian et al). When a book purports to be real, we have been trained in the last few decades to invest more, feel more because it happened to real people.
And yet the craft of designing stories that feel true but are not, stories about characters we care about—even if they only began life as ink on a page—is definitely more difficult. As I read Kerman’s memoir, I enjoyed it because of the points she made about the failings of the American prison system, but it’s not the same enjoyment I felt at the TV flashbacks to Sophia or Red or Alex’s life before they became criminals. These people were absent from the memoir, and yet it’s the show’s inmates I cared about more. Kerman’s book is all Piper (a much more likable and regular girl than Piper Chapman, who is Flawed with a capital F); other players in her life are mere shadows seen only through her eyes. The TV series allows for the POV shifts impossible in memoir, which is always first person. This is how we’re able to care not just about our protagonist but the supporting characters as well.
I definitely recommend both versions of this title, but I hesitate to call it two versions of the same story. They’re two vastly different ways of telling a similar story at two different points on the fact/fiction spectrum.