Separation of Sleeve and State: Adaptation and Altered Carbon

This post contains spoilers – including the endings – for the Altered Carbon book and television series.

Without question, Altered Carbon is my favourite book. I first picked it up thirteen years ago from my uncle’s garage sale, mostly because my 15-year-old visually-oriented self thought the shiny cover looked kickass. Turned out the words inside were pretty great, too.

The cover of my original copy was really, really shiny.

Today, I can’t count how many times I’ve read it (my Goodreads profile has it pegged as at least 5 since I joined the site in 2012, and I’m currently undertaking a sixth). Sure, there are things about it that don’t work no matter how hard you squint, and some problematic scenes that were, thankfully, spared from adaptation. Some of the prose is overly flowery, itself a habit of author Richard K. Morgan’s writing at large, and the conclusion to the overarching murder plot is a wee bit convoluted; even with at least five documented rereads, bits of the how and why elude me. But I still get a funny little jolt of joy whenever I crack it open, from the first pages of Takeshi Kovacs’ gruesome death and imprisonment by the Protectorate, all the way to that note perfect final exchange between Kovacs and Lieutenant Ortega. Morgan’s world is immersive, layered and brutal, at once an exotic depiction of a technology-rampant future and a strident polemic against our path towards it. The sequels Broken Angels and Woken Furies, though not quite as beloved as the first book, are also fantastic stories in their own right, flitting Kovacs fluidly between genres and settings without being overly jarring.

That meant the recent Netflix series had a tall hill to climb with me. I was intrigued by the trailers, which seemed to nail the visuals but miss the mark on some of the characters and dialogue. A cursory trawl through the accommodating Altered Carbon subreddit yielded no shortage of folks just as skeptical as me. But I did my best to remain optimistic, hoping against hope that the final result – enthusiastically endorsed by Morgan himself – was closer to a success than a failure.

In the end, it was an even split. There are parts of the series I love as well as the visuals; Joel Kinnaman is Kovacs, no question. I had my doubts on his casting, but they were quickly allayed by the end of the first episode. Ditto for Kristin Lehman’s turn as ancient seductress Miriam Bancroft, and Byron Mann’s far-too-brief appearances as Kovacs’ original sleeve.  The revamp of the Hendrix hotel into a Victorian, Edgar Allan Poe-styled parlour with AI to match – played with aplomb by Chris Conner – was an inspired choice, even if it was one presumably dictated in part by estate licensing rather than pure creative divergence.

And my goodness, that Nemex gun is a thing of beauty. Not since Blade Runner has there been a sci-fi gun this immediately cool.

But there are just as many parts I hated. Though actress and fellow Aussie Dichen Lachman kicks ass, the careening curves of Reileen Kawahara’s new storyline – shifting from corrupt corporate executive in the book to a yandere long-lost sister to Kovacs in the series – doesn’t sit well with me, not least of all because it hamfistedly wrecks the ending. Much of the dialogue, aside from lines cribbed right from the book, is devoid of subtext, preferring to (over)tell rather than show. Some of the violence and nudity steps right over the line from stylistic to exploitative; Taratino, this ain’t (and yes, I’m fully aware a lot of the book is ruthlessly vicious and overly sexual, but I’d argue the show goes a tad far in places).

But I still enjoyed the show, despite the above – and many other – flaws that gnawed at me throughout. It is, simply, an imperfect rendition of a personally-beloved book. The reason I liked it comes down to one thing: this is not my book.

I’d definitely have been kinder to the Altered Carbon TV series if it had had an entirely different name and characters. Granted, the hyper-violence would still be an issue, but a clean break from the roots of the story would’ve substantially changed my opinion for the better, not least of all because of how personally attached I am to the book. A number of the storytelling choices would’ve sat better if it weren’t my favourite story playing them out on screen. The show is an incarnation of the words on the page, bringing Kovacs, Ortega, Kawahara and all the rest to life (except for Trepp who, in a missed opportunity for the show, never shows up to go on a coke-fuelled rampage with Kovacs like in the book). But it’s not a perfect recreation the way something like the Watchmen movie tried to be – and look how that turned out.

What it is, is someone else’s interpretation; a new text of its own making that draws from the well of an established story. Series creator and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis read the book, had an idea for a TV show based on it, and the result is now sitting in your Netflix queue, quietly waiting for you to press play on Episode 1. Though both texts share the names of characters and places, plot turns and worldbuilding, the TV show is not Altered Carbon the book on screen; though it’s an adaptation of the book, it’s not a recreation of it.

Which, when I frame it like that, means that no version of this series – irrespective of how well it lifted scenes from the book, like Kovacs and Miriam Bancroft’s long, slow, intricately detailed and deeply discomfiting sex scene – could ever pass muster as an adaptation of the book. Even if we got Watchmen-esque levels of textual worship, slavishly bringing Morgan’s words to the screen with the kind of attachment to the book that would shame an industrial magnet, we’d be setting ourselves up for disappointment. However, if we read the book as one thing and the series as another then there is invariably a disconnect between our expectations as book readers and our enjoyment factor as viewers. At the same time, to dismiss the show’s connection to its source material is a fundamental error, given that it is those words (or a version of them) that are brought to life in 4KHD.

The Altered Carbon series fulfills a number of needs, beyond Kalogridis’s desire to tell a story based on another story. For an existing fan, it truly is viscerally enjoyable to see these words made flesh, watching Kinnaman’s Kovacs stomp down the streets of Bay City or weave through the twisted Star Trek-esque hallways of the flying brothel Head in the Clouds. It also caters well to newcomers, as the show’s reasonably warm online reception indicates. In a world dominated by the visual, it’s handy to provide viewers a way into a story if they’re not able or willing to sit down and read the book. Business-wise, the show offers Netflix an outlet to compete in the ever-increasing prestige genre television ball game (even though, despite claims to the contrary, it is definitely not Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones), compounded by the now-franchised nature of the story across the show, novels, audiobooks, social media ARG content and upcoming comic books, just for a start. Using that adaptation as a jumping-off point for more franchising options, potentially including another original novel from Morgan, suggests lots of exciting possibilities (I’d recommend everyone read Clare Parody’s awesome article, ‘Franchising/Adaptation‘, to get an idea of what those options might enable).

But more than anything, the adaptation of Altered Carbon firmed up something for me: there needs to be a disconnect. Not a complete divorce – as I’ve said ad nauseum in this piece, the book and the show are obviously and inextricably linked – but a separation. The series might be a visual incarnation of the words Morgan penned sixteen years ago, but it’s still just an incarnation. One version, potentially of many, where being able to separate those versions from one another could ultimately lead to a lot more enjoyment.

For me, the interplay between series and book hit that separation point with Episode 7, made almost entirely of content original to the show. I won’t mince words; I hated that episode, not just for completely misfiring with Kovacs’ backstory from a bookreader’s perspective, but also because it was a clunky, overwrought, predictable and thoroughly unsatisfying hour-and-change of television. But it was also the point where a little switch in my brain went from seeing the series as “text-on-screen” to more “version-of-text-on-screen”. It made the last three episodes – which maintained the skeleton of the book’s climax but veered off-script more than once – more enjoyable to watch, even if my inner book fan wasn’t quite happy with what I was seeing.

Though I was *really* happy when I saw this in Episode 1.

We’ve already seen so many screen adaptations of beloved stories since prestige television and internet streaming became widespread, and we know we’ll continue to see more. Hell, who’s to say there won’t be a reboot or a Battlestar Galactica-esque reimagining of this adaptation thirty years down the track? Would it be compared to the first Altered Carbon show from 2018, or the novel from 2002, or a combination of every Altered Carbon version made – every sleeve worn, if you will – up until that point? Or would we be able to take each version as its own, separate incarnation, tied to the same source but fundamentally distinct from one another?

Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who can’t read The Lord of the Rings anymore, feeling that the film trilogy has displaced it as the ur-text of the story (not so much The Hobbit films, though). The notion of a dominant version that overshadows all the others is certainly one you could argue. However, rather than preferencing one over the others as the key representation of the mother narrative, I choose instead to read them as the films being a superlative adaptation of an existing story, a version I happen to subjectively get more pleasure out of than the book, the same way I enjoy the reimagining of Battlestar over the original show, and the same way I prefer the book of Altered Carbon rather than the series Kalogridis and Netflix made of it. By separating the book and the show, rather than prioritising either or seeing one as a true embodiment of its source material, it’s easier to experience both as their own things, even if there’s one sleeve I like more than the other.

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