Why I Love Orange is the New Black
by Audrey Surprenant
While waiting for Netflix to announce the premiere date for season three of Orange is the New Black, I decided to read the novel of the same title which inspired the series. I am one of those people who prefers to read the book before watching the film adaptation (which is why I still haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy - yes, I know I am missing out), but I didn’t hear of this novel until after I had seen all of the twoseasons of OITNB currently on Netflix. I bought the book the same day I heard about its existence and snuggled into my comfy chair with Kindle and coffee in hand.
The novel follows Piper Kerman’s journey through the legal system and ultimately a women’s prison after her days living and traveling at the expense of a drug lord who her then-girlfriend was working for. Kerman illustrates the life of a woman’s prison and highlights many characters she comes in contact with. Her status as a WASP-y yet caring person helped her navigate her way through prison without much conflict.
The novel also focuses on the boredom that comes with prison life and Piper’s tribulations. No conflict makes for bad TV. Thus, I must say that Netflix has really done Piper’s story some good. Actually, I have to say that I like the Netflix series better than the book. Wait! Before you walk away, let me justify this.
Yes, I understand that if I had read the book first I may feel differently about the series, but I didn’t. Additionally, I feel that the novel has intricacies that a film adaptation could never portray properly, but seriously, Netflix did a good job with their adaptation.
By following the format of the novel, the Netflix series would have become a more of a documentary. The novel is intended to be an autobiography of Piper Kerman, and that's what it is; other characters are never explored and seldom receive more than a few paragraphs about their story. Netflix took the basic characters presented in the novel, fleshed them out, gave them backstories, and brought them to life.
For example, the ever powerful character Red is focused on in great detail in the series. Her influence as the head chef and ruler of the contraband flow is pivotal in the comfort of inmates. In the novel, the Red equivalent is still powerful but her backstory is not revealed and we never get to see anything from her perspective. Piper in the novel is also unaware of how the contraband flow works and so we never hear much about how it gets into the prison.
Another fan favorite, Crazy Eyes, is all but left out of the novel. There are a few paragraphs over which Piper focuses on a new inmate that strongly comes on to her and happens to have crazy eyes - ultimately this character has little influence over Piper and gives up on her after being turned down a few times. The Netflix writers took this character and totally flew with it. The Crazy Eyes that we know and love was almost completely made up for the series.
The ingenuity of the Netflix writers and producers made it possible for viewers to follow multiple stories and understand how the prison system affects different socioeconomic classes and races through the wide variety of characters presented.
Prison seems kind of boring, actually.
Piper Kerman’s novel very specifically and thoroughly details the boredom in prison. Piper is not allowed to have a job for the first month she is down, and once she does get assigned a position, she throws herself into learning electric and wiring techniques. These are things that, in the real world, Piper would have never considered interesting. The lack of things to do made her latch on to anything and everything at her disposal.
The series focuses more on the drama - including deaths - of prison life. None of these moments come from the book, but make the TV series that much more compelling. Netflix almost goes as far as making prison sound appealing at times because there is so much happening.
Complete lack of privacy
One point the novel makes that the series does not is the complete loss of privacy in prison. The Netflix series shows ways for prisoners to get away with having sex in prison; the bathrooms and church aren’t well monitored and it seems acceptable for inmates to be in each other's rooms and beds. In the novel, Piper talks about how any physical contact is immediately thwarted by the guards. This inability to connect on a physical level really proves that prison is a lonely place where all your actions are watched.
The only real privacy that Piper gets is in her head, she spends a lot of her days thinking about her life, her religion, and what she aims to accomplish once she is free.
Piper doesn’t have sex in the novel
In the novel, there is no Alex Vause for Piper to have an affair with. Piper’s ex girlfriend, Nora Jansen, is in another prison and we don’t hear much about her until they land together in Chicago for the trial. As everyone knows, sex sells when it comes to TV. Adding the controversy and drama of a prison affair for Piper makes the tv series way more entertaining and special. Viewers are able to pick sides and find themselves rooting for one character or another.
In general, the grittiness of prison life in a low-security women’s prison is incredibly, yet appropriately, played up for the series. Netflix expanded on a world that gave viewers the opportunity to laugh and cry along with many different archetypal prison characters, and to grow to love the band of misfits. I really enjoyed reading Piper Kerman’s story and I think it is a valuable piece of literature, but I also really like Netflix’s take on the world of a women’s prison; I can’t wait to see where the show goes in season three.