They say the truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s not the case with Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the inspiration for Netflix’s hit series of the same name.
Orange is the New Black, the TV show, was last year’s best new series, full of wonderful characters, witty humour and compelling drama. It was intriguing, exciting and dangerous, while at the same time making some insightful comments about society, human nature and the US prison system. The second season, which aired earlier this year, started off a little slow, but by the end of it I was convinced that it was just as good, if not better, than the first season.
It was with such high expectations that I decided to read the book on which the series is based. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison details how Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the show) served 13 months of her 15-month drug trafficking sentence at FCI Danbury, a minimum security prison in Connecticut. I wanted to find out more behind-the-scenes stuff and learn about what the “real” Piper is like, but instead the book turned out to be a strange and disappointing read. There were familiar names and characters, and a few incidents here and there that I vaguely recognized, but for the most part the book and the show could not be more different.
To be honest, the book was a so much less interesting and boring than the show, which says two things: 1. Women’s prison in real life is nowhere near as dangerous or exciting as the show makes it out to be; and 2. The people who make the TV show are geniuses for creating such compelling television from this source material.
The book, published in 2010, is a fairly straightforward, mostly chronological memoir with 18 chapters for a total of 327 pages (paperback). It begins with some early details of Kerman’s life and how she got into a lesbian relationship with a drug smuggler, and how that dalliance came back to bite her a decade later when she was charged for her minor role in the drug ring. After making a plea bargain, she is sent to Danbury for 15 months, while her fiance Larry (played by Jason Biggs in the show) waits for her patiently on the outside.
The central narrative is Kerman’s individual experience, and each chapter deals with different aspects of minimum-security prison life, whether it is her fellow inmates, their families, strip searches, wardens, prison workshops, labour or meal time. Kerman is a fairly good writer and knew exactly what kind of book she wanted to write, and many of her observations are astute and reflective, especially those about how poorly the US justice and prison systems are run. There are dashes of humour, but most of the book is dedicated to documenting her journey of self-discovery, the people she met and how she came to accept responsibility for her actions, and in doing so became a stronger, better person.
Fans of the TV show will recognise many of the names in the book (most of which were changed from their real life counterparts). Of course there’s Piper and Larry, but a lot of the other characters on the show are completely new inventions or a mish-mash of people from the book. Alex (played by Laura Prepon), for example, is Nora, and she never sets foot in Danbury. Characters with names like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) exist, but they are different people, while Red (Kate Mulgrew) is known as Pop in the book (though there is another Red) and “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) is known by the significantly less witty nickname of Gay Pornstar. Kerman’s relationship with each of these characters is also nothing like they are in the series. In other words, don’t read the book if you are looking to learn more about the series.
After two seasons and 26 episodes of around 50-60 minutes in length (and another season coming), the TV show has outgrown its source material. In the book, we only see things from Piper’s perspective, and even her closest friends in the prison are only given brief intros. As a result, we don’t get to know them as well as we do in the series, and we don’t care about them nearly as much. It’s not a knock on the book or Kerman’s writing, just an inevitable truth that comes with a more expansive and dynamic medium.
More importantly, the book sticks largely to the facts (as far as we know), whereas the TV series has been given free rein to exaggerate and embellish. This is why, after seeing how much conflict and danger and backstabbing and sex there is in the show, I got bored reading the extremely bland lifestyle in Danbury, where the most exciting thing for the inmates was wondering whether Martha Stewart would be sent there (she wasn’t). At Danbury, Kerman was rarely involved in any conflict with other inmates (if at all), and there were few suggestions that other inmates were in conflicts with one another. She was not starved, she was not beat up, she did not engage in a sexual relationship with anyone, and she certainly was never in danger of being stabbed or sent to the SHU. Good for her, but not so good for us readers expecting something more explosive and scandalous.
Ultimately, I found Orange is the New Black to be a solid read — nothing special but insightful enough to keep my attention. If you’re a big fan of the TV series like I am, however, it’s not a book I would recommend, especially if you think it might help you learn more about the characters or what might happen to them further down the track.