Orange is the New Black: Why the TV Show is Better than the Book

Vada Voices

Like everyone else in the western world, I watched and got addicted to Orange is the New Black last month. Then I squealed, “Oh my God, how could they end it like that?” And weeping, gin and stick-thin mentholated cigarette in hand, I decided to see if there were any clues in the book as to what might happen in Series Two.

In case you don’t know, the TV series about a middle-class  American woman’s internment in prison is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman. Kerman was arrested for  drug-trafficking ten years after she did it. She got engaged to her boyfriend when she was called to the federal prison, and eventually, after the sentence, married him.

In her critically acclaimed memoir, Orange Is the New Black (2010), Kerman talks about the abject way in which prisoners are treated. She gives an honest and entertaining account of her year in prison. It’s not as glamorous or airbrushed as Bad Girls. But what Kerman really notices is the build-up of prison families, the growth of cliques and relationships and terrible living conditions at the hands of the legal system.

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Kerman reflects on her own privilege, being white, educated, cisgendered, and so on – giving her advantages the others do not have. She watches the others, bonds with them, and learns to respect those members of society she had been brought up to ignore. She meets some very colourful characters: one of the only ones appearing under her real name is Sister Ardrethe Platte, a nun who was arrested for sprinkling blood on a fighter jet.

Kerman also learns about her sexuality, reflecting on her unfortunate relationship with “Nora”, which lands her in jail and opens her up all over again in the course of events. There is a social message: “Lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime.” And there is a personal message: “People are remarkably resilient.” She still comes across as a bit stuck-up, but it’s an eye-opening read.

Ultimately, Piper Kerman, who now works on prison advisory boards, urges that the system should change, quoting a famous warden who said: “We shall turn this prison from a scrap heap into a repair shop.”

The series is a different animal altogether. For one thing it’s fiction. So while Kerman is giving us a slightly tailored version of her real experiences, the show can be a lot funnier, sillier, more melodramatic. And her fiancé, played by Jason Biggs can be a total douche. In the book, of course, he is a wonderful, patient partner. But having him as a sulky, secretive turd is much more fun.

Second, while Kerman observes her fellow inmates from her own point of view, the series gets stuck into everyone. All the characters are given backstories, and the series follows everyone more or less equally. This is what’s got us queer types all excited. On the surface, Orange is the New Black is just another show about a nice blonde middle-class girl (who happens to be bisexual) trapped in a world of ethnic and sexual minorities. But just watch one episode and you realise how arbitrary her starring role is. The focus is on everyone.

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Tragicomically, and without judgment, we’re shown snapshots from all kinds of lives: there is real depth and nuance to some of the stories. Race, class, religion, sexuality, and gender identity are all dealt with brilliantly. And while “Piper Chapman” (Taylor Schilling) has been whisked away from her safe, smug life and made into a number, we now get to see that less lucky members of society were just numbers before prison.

In the book, everyone else is almost part of the furniture; part of Piper’s story. In the series, she is part of theirs. Maybe the series isn’t better than the book. Maybe they just do different things. I didn’t read the book for the plot. Not after Chapter One, anyway. I read it to listen. I watched the show to follow the plot and empathise with the characters.

Plus there are religious nut jobs and colourful characters called Red, Mad Eyes, and Taystee. So, yeah, check it out.

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