We Read the Book: How does Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' stack up to Richard K. Morgan's novel?

We Read the Book: How does Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' stack up to Richard K. Morgan's novel?

I've seen headlines calling Netflix's Altered Carbon everything from a Blade Runner ripoff to the next Game of Thrones. It's not really any of those things.

Based on Richard K. Morgan's 2002 debut novel, Altered Carbon centers around spec ops soldier turned private eye Takeshi Kovacs as he's charged with investigating a magnate's murder.

Before we can dive into the comparisons between the novel and the series, let's cover some vernacular. 

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In the world of AC, human consciousness can now be stored digitally in a small metal hard drive in the spinal column called a "cortical stack." When someone's body dies, the stack can be extracted and transplanted into another real or synthetic body referred to as a "sleeve." This dynamic allows for the extremely wealthy to essentially live as long as they choose. Those who live several lifespans are called "Meths," in reference to the biblical figure Methuselah. Meths also keep copies of their consciousness in remote storage which they update wirelessly. Due to their wealth and longevity, Meths serve as the elite.

Virtual Reality also plays a large role in the world. Nearly indistinguishable from reality or "the real," VR is now a dimension in which we see characters do everything from serve lengthy prison sentences to living out heinous sexual fantasies. Stacks can also be "put on ice," a sort of digital stasis for individuals waiting to be re-sleeved. 

Killed hundreds of years before AC takes place, Kovacs is "spun up" from being "on stack" to investigate the death of a Meth named Laurens Bancroft. After he's re-sleeved following his own apparent suicide, Bancroft purchases Kovacs' stack and has him sleeved into the body of former Bay City (San Francisco) policeman Elias Ryker. Ryker is serving a criminal sentence on stack, freeing up his sleeve to the highest bidder. Yep, pretty messed up.

So what's so special about Kovacs? It's time for our first major departure from the novel.

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The Envoys.

In Morgan's novel, Kovacs is a former "Envoy," an elite shock trooper dispatched around the galaxy to annihilate whatever target they're assigned. The Envoy Corp. relied heavily on mental training and specialized tradecraft, so much so that they were banned from holding any sort of public office or influential post on most worlds. Transmitted across the galaxy into waiting sleeves via "needlecast," the Envoys needed to be able to adapt quickly to a new sleeve, placing preference on mental acuity over physical ability. 

The series largely tosses this backstory, turning the Envoys into a sort of rebel militia cult. When Kovacs is recruited to join the Envoys by leader Quellcrist Falconer he's a disillusioned member of CTAC, the Colonial Tactical Assault Corp. The series swaps Kovacs' Envoy training with the teachings of Falconer, a violent anti-government philosopher/strategist looking to disrupt the power structure. 

If you bounce around Twitter or a few message boards you'll find that this change doesn't sit well with most book readers. So much of Kovacs' character in the novel references his Envoy experience so to see it marginalized in the series really takes some bite out of our protagonist. 

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The Cast.

You knew going in that any sort of adaptation of AC would need a fleshed out cast of characters. The novel is a hardboiled detective story told in the first person. Even with Joel Kinnaman doing a lot of the heavy lifting he can't be on-screen for 10 hours. The series helped spread the workload by developing a number of ancillary characters from the novel. The character of Lt. Kristen Ortega was nearly elevated to a leading role, but never so much that it stymied the flow of the story.

The most welcomed additions came in the forms of Poe and the Elliot family. While novel Kovacs is much more of a lone wolf, Netflix surrounded him will allies you'll actually care about. The series turned Kovacs' automated hotel hideaway into a quirky AI that felt more human than not. Taken from Edgar Allen, Poe's lonely hotel The Raven made for one of the best sets in the series.

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The Elliots were a happy surprise. In the novel, Vernon and Eva Elliot are tragic, downtrodden figures who find themselves on the business end of fate after their daughter falls victim to the Bancrofts. Netflix did the couple justice in letting them get their's.

Reileen Kawahara

Aside from the Envoys, this may be the biggest departure from the original story. 

Sprinkled throughout the novel, Reileen Kawahara reveals herself to be the cunning manipulator pulling the strings to the entire plot. A low-born orphan from Earth, Kawahara rose through the ranks of the Yukaza. Among other intimidation methods she forced debtors to drink radioactive water as their families looked on in horror. Wild stuff.

Kawahara eventually becomes a Meth herself after establishing legitimate business with her ill-gotten gains. She owns one of the major houses of prostitution or "Houses," of which Bancroft is a patron. Kawahara reveals that she was behind Bancroft's decision to hire Kovacs in the first place. She believed she had leverage over Kovacs from a prior encounter, seemingly giving her leverage over Bancroft. 

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In the series, Kawahara is revealed to be Kovacs' long lost sister, a change that also hasn't sat well with book readers. Where the book almost has sort of a Scooby-Doo ending feel, the series made an effort to add stakes to the eventual climax. Was it a bit on the nose? Sure, but it managed to keep with the integral beats of the story. 

There are countless other changes between the novel and series, some major and some minor, but these feel the most impactful. Overall, Netflix did an admirable adaptation that services the source material. Am I still a little upset about the Wei Clinic interrogation/ massacre scene? You bet. Buy hey, that's life.

(image via Netflix)


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