In 2013, creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) adapted Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (2011), for one of Netflix’s most successful original series to date.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Piper Kerman (who becomes Piper Chapman in the series) fell in with the wrong crowd in her early twenties. In the midst of her lesbian love affair with her then-girlfriend, Nora Jansen (who becomes Alex Vause in Kohan’s adaptation), Kerman is persuaded into smuggling a suitcase stuffed with drug money to Belgium, a deed that could have gotten her arrested on the spot. However, she managed to escape unscathed . . . except for the fact that someone dropped her name in court ten years later, thus earning her a year at Litchfield, a Connecticut women’s prison (which is relocated to New York for the series). As a white, upper-middle class Smith College graduate, Kerman simply does not “belong” in jail, despite her crime. Much to her surprise, many of the women in Litchfield don’t either.
The memoir is more free-formed than the Netflix drama. Kerman delineates the events leading up to her involvement in the drug ring, but she is more interested in exploring her experiences on the inside from a racial and class standpoint. The discussion questions included in the appendix of the novel, regarding the use of imprisonment in place of reformation as well as the imbalance of sentencing between white women and women of color, were intended to open a dialogue on one of the largest, money-sucking institutions of the United States. Kohan took this initiative and ran with it. Kohan’s success, however, lies in the hilarious ways in which her dynamic characters deliver their points of view, despite the fact that the series is regularly categorized as a drama.
While the memoir is an important polemic on the over-usage of the prison system, it lacks the multitude of stories that Kohan constructs in order to represent the different populations within each prison’s walls. Although Kerman is just one woman, taking in all she can, she does nod toward the different groups: the black women, Latinas, and the “Golden Oldies.” Kohan’s attention to detail and dedication to developing the stories of not only the protagonist, but of nearly a dozen other women as well, elaborates on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and education, making Litchfield a microcosm of the United States. While Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black seems to be a mere prison drama about lesbians, the lack of hot water, and the catty antics resulting from too many women quartered in such a small space (ranging from serving a bloody tampon on an English muffin for breakfast to an enemy to being forced to chop off a prominent lock of hair as a peace offering), Jenji Kohan makes it her mission to illuminate these closely-linked issues to bring to her audience both entertainment and awareness.
Kohan strategically moves beyond Piper Kerman’s story. The switch of her name from Kerman to Chapman in this Netflix series signals the difference between the memoir and this fictional work. The fictional Piper is also a college graduate who went to prison for the same reason, who is engaged to her fiancée, Larry; however, this is where the similarities between truth and fiction stop. The vital addition of dynamic characters with varying backgrounds – ranging from Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, the hypocritical, anti-abortion meth head, to Sophia Burset, the black transsexual woman who went to jail for identity theft (a crime committed to pay for her Gender Reassignment Surgery, an attempt to be happy in her own skin) – provides a more diverse look at the problems with the prison system, especially in season two, rather than focusing strictly on the preppy white girl.
Kohan has obviously adapted the memoir with a similar political agenda to Kerman’s, with a greater emphasis on the United States’ racially biased justice system. While Kohan has invented plot twists and turns that Kerman did not experience, Kerman’s memoir contains many other juicy details that are bound to end up somewhere in the series. I began watching the Netflix series before I picked up Kerman’s memoir. I approached the book, expecting an intensely informational read; however, I feel I have learned more from the series than the memoir itself. Where the memoir ends — confined to the middle class, white woman’s perspective — Kohan picks up. Although Kohan is a white woman herself, I believe she does justice to the diversity of the prison system.
While filming the second season in early 2014, Riverhead correctional facility in Riverhead, New York made the news for its detestable conditions, specifically in regards to the instability and unreliability of its plumbing. This was only given news coverage because the widely popular and critically-acclaimed series was being filmed there.
If Kohan continues to expand the colorful cast and elaborate on both issues of the justice system, as well as those of American society as a whole, I believe that Orange Is the New Black will make an impact on history. I highly recommend this series to anyone interested in the aforementioned issues, as well as those who enjoy a good laugh.
All fourteen glorious episodes of season three will be released on Netflix on June 6, 2015.