The memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman follows her time in the women’s facility while not only exposing flaws in our prison system, but also giving insight on her and other prisoners time there. In 2013, Kerman’s memoir was created into a Netflix original series. The show along with Kermans experience in the women’s prison system brings light to many controversial issues that we face today. After the first couple of seasons into the show, it’s safe to say that some of the events that take place are not related to what must have happened in real life.
In order to receive good ratings, Netflix dramatized and changed most of Kerman’s plot to make the show more memorable and standout in the public’s eye.
Although the show had to change certain aspects of Kerman’s memoir to keep the audience hooked, the main plot of the show is very similar to Piper Kerman’s life and memoir.
The characters that Kerman met during her thirteen months in the women’s facility had a lot to do with her memoir, she was inspired with all of the different kinds of people she had met during her time there. Kerman served thirteen months of her fifteen month sentence in a women’s facility due to a drug smuggling charge. Kerman fell for a woman who got her caught up in the international drug ring which led to her indictment because she smuggled $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels, Belgium during her time with this woman.
Kerman had almost got away with her illegal activity, but these charges caught up to her 10 years after she had committed the crime (Kerman, 2010). One of the most interesting parts about the Netflix series is the diverse and dynamic group of characters that Kerman introduces throughout her memoir and show. Most of these characters are said to be fictional, the rest were inspired by real inmates who served time with her. In order to examine the true nature of these character and their relationship to Kerman, it’s important to dig deeper into each character on the show versus how kerman portrays them in her memoir. The distinction between Kerman’s real life and memoir versus the show is pretty obvious.
The main character on the show Piper Chapman is very similar to the real Piper Kerman in many ways. Chapman and Kerman went to prison for smuggling drug money for the interest of a woman she was interested in. Although Kerman’s time in the women’s facility was drama-free, Chapman’s time was dramatized to bring in ratings from the audience. The real Piper only spent a total of 13 out of her 15 month in prison, while on the show Piper seems to have a never-ending time in prison. Although Piper learns about her criminal charges only a few days before turning herself in prison on the show, both in the book and real life “we learn her case dragged on for four years, she cooperated, had a good lawyer, and nearly 10 years after her criminal conduct, she was sentenced to serve a greatly reduced term of 15 months at Danbury, FCI, in Connecticut (Marino, 2010). The real Piper never owned a soap-making business, but on the netflix show they make piper seem more humanly by giving her an innocent face than she was in real life. In the book and real life, Kerman worked for a big corporate company as a creative director. The show, memoir, and real life depicts the issues of the women’s prison system in our society. In the memoir, Kerman constantly reviews how poorly the prison system makes an effort to help these women prepare for the outside world (Marino, 2010). Even though the Netflix show is a mixture of a comedy and drama series, in the memoir Kerman focuses more the whole women’s prison experience as her autobiography based on her life. The writers had amplified Kerman’s character by taking artistic liberty for the show to make her seem more interesting and to build drama around her character.
Another character on the show is known as Piper’s ex, Alex Vause. Although in the book, Kerman named her ex as Nora, the show changed her name to Alex. Kerman used fake names in her book to protect the identity of the people mentioned, the person who was influenced by the character of Alex and Nora is known as Cleary Wolters in real life. Nora or Alex were both part of the international drug smuggling ring, which was the real fact. Although on the netflix show Alex and Piper end up spending a lot of time together in Prison, this was not the case in the book or real life. Nora and Piper Kerman had only crossed paths while they were being detained in Chicago for a brief five weeks. On the show however, Alex and Piper spend lots of time locked up together and they also reignite their love. In real life, however, Piper spends most of her time being angry at Wolters and eventually forgiving her, but they never reunite their love as shown on the show(Kerman, 2010). The show also emphasizes on a world of lesbian sexuality and uses piper as a proxy to someone who never clearly identifies her sexuality, she is simply seen with larry and shows her flashbacks with Vause (Symes, 2017). In real life, there is no instance of lesbian sex in the prison system included in Kerman’s book or spoken about in real life interviews. By using Piper as someone who never actually identifies herself, yet she is open to her encounter with Alex, it invites a heterosexual female audience to interact with forms of LGBTQ media (Symes, 2017). The use of the sex scenes on the show were to not only generate audience, but also to invite women to watch and engage in lesbian sexuality.
Both in the memoir and the show Piper’s fiance is known as Larry. Larry is with Piper as she prepares to go to prison and during her time in season one in the show. In the memoir, Larry sticks by Piper and supports her throughout her time in prison, they are still together in real life today (kerman, 2010). On the show Larry and his family feel it’s best to detach themselves from Piper. On the show, however, Larry starts out as a supportive fiance, who then turns into the fans most hated character. The netflix show depicts Larry’s character as a whiny and insecure cheater (Orange is the New black, 2013). In the memoir, Larry writes an essay about Kerman, which she enjoys and finds to be sweet. On the show, however, Larry writes an article about Piper for the New York Times and talks about Piper on a radio show which eventually drives them apart from each other. In the memoir and real life, Piper pleads her case and waits for five years after being indicted for her sentence. On the show, Piper tells Larry and his family about her situation only a short time before she actually goes to prison.
A popular character both on the show and the book is an inmate who piper grows close with! Although she is known as Red on the netflix version, Kerman calls her Pop in her book. Red is known as the kitchen cook on the show and the book. On the show, Red turns on Piper during the first season, and starts to starve her out because piper insults her food (Orange is the New Black, 2013). Although in the book, Pop is not as vengeful as Red and piper does not get starved out shortly after becoming incarcerated. It is mentioned in the book that Piper had insulted her food, but Pop gives her a stern warning and never mentions anything about starving piper out (Kerman, 2010). After this warning piper got from Pop, she became more of a mother-figure to Piper and piper looked up to her. Eventually the two become very good friends, and Piper Kerman even dedicates her memoir to Pop. A major difference between the show and the book is the character of Lorna. On the show, the character of Lorna is an Italian-American women who loves to wear a lot of makeup and becomes obsessed with her pretend wedding (Orange is the New Black, 2013). This character was actually created with the influence of two characters from the book, who Kerman was incarcerated with. These two characters in the book are known as Minetta, a friendly woman who likes to wear a lot of makeup, and Rosemarie, a woman obsessed with weddings (Kerman, 2010). This was an interesting concept because the use of two characters to inspire one gave Netflix a chance to make this outstanding character on the show. In order to protect the identities of these inmates, Kerman also used fake names in her book and the show used her overall idea to create or dramatize these fictional characters.
One of the most memorable things from season one of the show is Daya, an inmate, and her relationship with John, a guard. The show romanticized their relationship and made it seem like a forbidden love story. Although, their relationship was never as serious in the book as it is portrayed on the show. In the book, Piper described a rumor about an officer who was said to be having a thing with an inmate named Cormorant. After their love affair was revealed by other inmates who had witnessed them passing love notes, Cormorant was sent to solitary and the officer quit his job (Kerman, 2010). Their relationship was overly dramatized as being very romantic and serious on the show, however, in the book it was just something that happened commonly among inmates and officers. Another character who was portrayed as a bigger part of the plot in the show than the book is Janae, or known as “little Janet” in the book. She is a twenty year old woman from Brooklyn who arrives at the prison at the same time as Piper. This part was the only part that matched the show because the rest of Janae’s character on the show was completely fictionalized. On the show Janae is fiesty and often had issues with Piper, but in real life little Janet and Piper were actually very good friends from orientation day up until the day little Janet got early release from Prison.
One of my favorite characters on the show is known as Suzanne or as the inmates call her, “crazy eyes.” The show uses Suzanne’s character to bring the issue of mental illness in the prison system. Although Suzanne’s character starts out as the inmate who almost stalks and develops a strong crush on piper, the audience can sense her struggle with mental illness throughout the show.