When I finally got Netflix one of the first things I wanted to watch was the highly-acclaimed series Orange is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir. About three episodes in and really enjoying the series, I decided to read the book. I was afraid reading the book might give me some spoilers for the TV series but really, they are so different that reading/watching one will have no impact on your enjoyment of the other. Orange is the New Black is an excellent and interesting memoir, and Orange is the New Black is a great TV series, but apart from superficial, surface similarities they don’t have a lot of do with each other.
The surface similarity is: both the book and the TV show that it inspired are about a middle-class, well-educated white woman named Piper who is sentenced to 15 years in a medium-security women’s prison for a drug-smuggling crime she committed ten years earlier. Piper, who is bisexual, used to be involved with a woman who ran drugs for a living and briefly got involved in crime through that relationship. Years later, when she is living a fairly typical middle-class New York life and engaged to be married to a man named Larry, Piper’s past catches up with her when her former girlfriend is arrested and charged and names Piper as having been involved in the drug-running operation. Piper pleads guilty and goes to prison for a short but eye-opening stay.
That’s the story of the book, and it’s pretty much the story of the TV series so far (although the series has been so successful I’m worried about that fifteen-month sentence; I wonder if they’re going to have Piper committing crimes in prison to get her stay extended so the series can stay on the air for ten years. I wouldn’t put it past American TV). But there the similarities end. Piper Kerman, the book’s author, shares only a first name and a few biographical details with Piper Chapman, the TV series character played so well by Taylor Schilling. The real Piper Kerman is a lot smarter and a lot more mature, and her stay in prison, while giving her a lot of insight into the lives of people different from her and into the problems inherent in the US prison system, passes fairly quietly and without a lot of drama. The other women she meets in prison are fascinating character sketches, but it’s a short book and their characters are not developed in-depth.
The TV series takes these background characters and fleshes them out wonderfully with a brilliant cast. It also adds all the drama the memoir lacks. I respect the real Piper Kerman greatly and think she’s an admirable person; she doesn’t seem like she would ever have been dumb enough or self-absorbed enough to make some of the bad decisions Piper Chapman makes on TV. But of course, it’s the results of those terrible decisions that make for compelling viewing!
One thing I liked a lot in the book that is missing from the TV series is that Piper Kerman had the opportunity, while in prison, to see the results of heroin addiction in real people’s lives, which led her for the first time to feel genuine remorse about her involvement in smuggling and selling that drug. That was an important revelation: while it’s obvious (and Kerman frequently asserts) that the “War on Drugs” in the US has been badly mismanaged and led to a lot of people serving prison sentences who probably shouldn’t be, it’s important also to have the balancing realization that a lot of these drugs are deadly and the people who help put them on the streets are genuinely hurting others. Even though a character in the TV series dies from a drug overdose, the focus of the story is on the corrupt guard who brought drugs into the prison; TV Piper never has the self-awareness to connect such horrific outcomes to her own crime.
I highly recommend both reading the book and watching the series (though the series, being made for Netflix rather than the networks, is definitely not for those who are uncomfortable with raw language and graphic scenes!!). Just remember that they are two very different works of art, each great in their own way.