Less than faithful.
Adapting Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon as a TV show was a tough ask. The series consists of three books that intricately detail a sci-fi future where technology has made immortality an everyday fact of life, and fitting the story of Takeshi Kovacs into a single 10-episode Netflix series represents several unique challenges.
In order to make the story work in a different medium, the show had to make a number of changes. While some are far more drastic than others, all of them end up setting the show apart from the books it’s based on. New characters were added or removed while others were reimagined to the point that they may as well be the show’s inventions entirely. Other plot elements were added or dropped, altering the story very mildly in some cases and enormously in others.
Here’s 18 of the ways Altered Carbon, the show, is different from Altered Carbon, the book.
18. The Book’s Envoys Weren’t Rebels Or Terrorists
Probably the most noticeable change from book to show is the Envoys, an elite paramilitary group Kovacs belongs to in both versions of Altered Carbon. In the book, Envoys are a highly-trained, almost supernaturally gifted squad belonging to the fiction’s incredibly powerful government forces. In the show, they’re just as impressive as warriors, but are reversed into anti-authoritarian rebels.
17. Reileen Kawahara Wasn’t Kovacs’ Sister In The Books
The character of Reileen isn’t related to Kovacs in the book, which makes the decision to reuse her name a bit confusing. The show mixes Rei with its protagonist’s origin story in a way that more directly ties the Bancroft mystery in with Kovacs’ personal life. This, like the Envoy reinterpretation, has pretty dramatic consequences for the plot.
16. Quell and Kovacs Didn’t Know Each Other
In the book, Quell is referenced through her writings, which inspired an anti-capitalist movement followed by many people across the galaxy. In the show she becomes a prominent on-screen character who Kovacs knew personally. It’s a little like rewriting history so that Marx and Engles were Lenin’s personal friends.
15. The AI Hotel Wasn’t Based on Edgar Allen Poe
One of the show’s most memorable characters is the artificially intelligent hotel that manifests itself as a digital version of Edgar Allen Poe. In the book, the hotel is based on Jimi Hendrix, though he doesn’t interact with Kovacs by walking around as a hologram like Poe. While it’s sad to lose Hendrix, the show’s version of Poe is entertaining enough to take some of the sting out of the alteration.
14. The Show’s Flashback Added New Details
In the book’s prologue, Kovacs and Sarah’s deaths are more the consequence of a criminal mishap than a personal vendetta. In the show, Kovacs’ former Protectorate commander executes Sarah to intentionally take revenge on his former protégé.
13. The AIs Didn’t Hang Around Talking To Each Other in The Books
The TV show features a few scenes in which Poe appears in a dingy backroom bar to chat with other AIs. In the book, we never get to see the hotel interact with anyone but the story’s human characters, which robs readers of some of the show’s (much appreciated) further exploration of what the AI gets up to in its off time.
12. Vernon Elliot Is A Much Less Important Character
While Vernon Elliot (first name changed for TV) is an important character in terms of advancing the book’s plot, he isn’t nearly as prominent in the story on a scene by scene basis. The show makes Elliot a constant presence, talking with the AI hotel, grappling with his lost family, and even accompanying Kovacs on a fact-finding mission by going undercover as a waiter at one of the Bancroft’s swanky parties.
11. The Bancroft Children Are Given A Lot More To Do
The TV version of Altered Carbon features memorable scenes starring Isaac Bancroft, a snotty enfant terrible, and Naomi Bancroft, a similarly entitled child of Laurens and Miriam whose first appearance sees her borrowing one of her mom’s sleeves to get to know one of the family’s bodyguards a little better. In the book, Bancroft’s children are mentioned, but never actually take part in the story itself.
10. The Book’s Ortega Doesn’t Get To Star In A Police Procedural Subplot
Ortega is an important character in the book, but she doesn’t show up more than a few times until its latter half. The show ensures viewers have a better idea of who she is by interweaving her own detective work with Kovacs,’ adding scenes where she attempts to unravel the story’s central mystery without the protagonist’s involvement.
9. Ortega’s Family Didn’t Exist
Ortega gets a larger supporting cast in the show, from a clingy mother and “neo-Catholic” brother to a host of nieces and nephews and, most memorably, a grandmother who is temporarily re-sleeved into a hulking criminal for a Day of the Dead celebration. In the book, we don’t get to meet any of these characters.
8. Bancroft’s Plague-Focused Charity Is New
A scene that reinforces the immensity of Laurens Bancroft’s wealth, his visit to a plague center where he knowingly contracts a skin-blistering disease as an act of charity is one of the show’s many inventions. It’s a good choice, giving viewers a better understanding of a character who would otherwise be underserved by the main plot.
7. The Isaac Subplot Is Completely New
Isaac Bancroft sleeving himself as his father and meddling in the family’s business while impersonating him is completely new. It’s an interesting decision, complicating the mystery at the heart of the story, but ultimately feels like an unnecessary addition, adding new elements to the plot that seem to exist only to stretch it out a bit further.
6. The “Ghostwalker” Is A Brand New Character
The murderous, theologically obsessed “Ghostwalker” doesn’t appear in the book, but he’s a fantastic addition to the show. Not only is his frightening skill at extracting flesh with a weapon that looks like an evil head massager one of the most wondrously gruesome parts of the series, but his constant desire to discuss religion helps reinforce one of the story’s core themes.
5. Kovacs Has Become “The Last Envoy”
Likely hoping to add some extra, mythological standing to Kovacs’ combat and intellectual prowess, the show stresses that he’s “the last Envoy,” which isn’t mentioned in the first book. It’s ultimately an inconsequential change, but one that feels a little cheesy–as if the stakes of Star Wars’ vanishing Jedi Order have been thrown into a story that doesn’t need the addition.
4. The Stacks Are Bigger
The book’s stacks are described as tiny while the show makes them larger. It’s a small change that works well for a visual format–we need to be able to easily see the stacks when they’re being handled–but the bigger size makes the supposedly sophisticated technology seem a little less so.
3. The AI Hotel Is Now A Virtual Reality Counselor
In the show, Poe spends much of his time helping Elliot’s daughter overcome trauma by coaching her through virtual reality exercises. In the book, the AI hotel doesn’t do any of this, interacting almost entirely with human characters and showing no care for anyone who isn’t one of its treasured guests.
2. The Wei Clinic Torture Is Horrifying On Another Level
In both book and TV series, Kovacs undergoes hellish torture at the Wei Clinic, dying and being reborn over and over again under his interrogator’s hand. While the show version is suitably grim, the book goes a step further into outright bad taste, seeing Kovacs virtually reconstructed as a young woman whose torture takes on an anatomically specific bent under the direction of programs meant to resemble religious terrorists.
1. The Mystery Unravels Pretty Differently
Though the broad strokes of Altered Carbon’s central mystery remain the same–particularly the initial set-up and elements from the ending–the show’s version takes a more personal approach to its plot that gives the story a much different tone. All of its changes, especially the approach it takes to the Envoys, Reileen, and Quell, end up snowballing into something that comes to a close with a very different mood than the source material.