Constructed World Novel Creative Process Discussion of film/TV series Review of science fiction

Going off the rails – Too many alterations in the TV version of “Altered Carbon”

In my review of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, I wrote that season 1 of the TV version of the book was true to the essence of the book and the moral questions posed by the author, and very similar with regard to aspects like characterization and plot. I’m afraid that was a whopper of a misstatement and I’ve since removed it. I failed to notice a whopper of a change in the TV show’s screenplay, the result of the writers going off the rails with the plot. The more I think about the differences between the book and the TV show that followed the more I am convinced that I don’t like the TV show.

The TV show plot goes off the rails

Everything tootles along nicely in the TV show, matching the important aspects of the book with acceptable fluctuations, until the end of episode 6, Man with my Face, after which, in episode 7, Nora Inu, it just completely diverges.

Episode 7 of the Altered Carbon TV show – No, Kovacs, that is not your sister.

Nora Inu was written by Nevin Densham and Casey Fisher. Episode 6, Man with my Face, in which this brick of a revelation is dropped in the last seconds, was written by Steve Blackman. Episodes 5 to 1 were written by Nevin Densham (#5), Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner (#4), Brian Nelson (#3);  Steve Blackman (#2) and Laeta Kalogridis (#1). The first episode keeps closely to the book – then with every episodes there are more deviations. So, it’s not as if the change in plot can be blamed on a single change in script writers. The writers rotated all the time.

Plot hole # 1 – The villain is his sister?!

At the end of episode # 6, a badly damaged “Takeshi Kovacs” wakes up to see someone who he calls “Rei”, and she identifies herself as his “sister”, from his youth on “Harlan’s World” where they were abused by their horrible father. This is just wrong. His sister?! “She’s Reileen Kawahara”?! Why, for goodness’ sake?! In episode #7, this idea is expanded. In the Fandom for Altered Carbon, the fans have made their own sense of the tangled plot of this episode – and of these particularly strange changes.

In the book, “Reileen (Rei) Kawahara” is the ultimate antagonist, not a family member, and Kovacs only ever mentions himself and his father in the book, not a sister (this is basically explained in pages 403 to 404). In fact, the definitive reveal about Kovacs’ past and his life’s philosophy is between him and himself (his duplicate), not between him and his “sister Rei”.

“Rei” and “Tak” as children in the TV version of the story. No, Kovacs, your mother’s corpse is not about to be dumped into an acid pool.

Plot hole #2 – His sister kills his muse/leader?!

In another important change in the dynamics of the story, the character of “Quellcrist (Quell) Falconer” dies in the TV show (episode 7) in an explosion arranged by Reileen Kawahara, who then keeps Quell’s sleeve in storage – which Kovacs discovers, to his horror. She gets blown out of the sky? Again, just…why?!

Contradictions and conflations

1. “Quell” – An attempt to squeeze two characters into one

In the book, “Quellcrist Falconer” is the assumed name used by “Nadia Makita”, a political activist  and writer-philosopher who led the uprisings on Harlan’s World and was the founder of the political movement “Quellism”.

In the TV show, this character, “Quellcrist Falconer”, is a rebel leader who trains Takeshi Kovacs to fight, spouting philosophy and explaining about how the only effective weapon is the person themselves, and that to survive an Envoy needs to form a sort of posse of locals.

Is that the Quell from the book? Not by a long shot. Kovacs, stop the hero-worshipping already.

But in the book, the character of the martial arts trainer and person responsible for Kovac’s mental conditioning is called “Virginia Vidaura”. She teaches him how to survive torture:

A weapon – any weapon – is a tool, she told us. Cradled in her arms was a Sunjet particle gun. Designed for a specific purpose, just as any tool is.” (p. 136)

Neither Vidaura nor Quellcrist dies in a space ship explosion as an act of entirely misplaced sibling affection by Reileen Kawahara.

2. “Rei” – From very bad person to loving sister

In the novel, Reileen Kawahara is the ultimate evil-to-the-bone, universal wheeler-dealer and megalomaniac. Kovacs finally meets her in person, after extensive detective work, on  p. 285 of the novel.

“Reileen Kawahara stepped from a doorway to one side of the circular chamber where the basilica ended and made an ironic bow. She followed me into Amanglic flawlessly.
‘Perhaps you should have seen it coming, yes,’ she mused. ‘But if there’s a single thing that I like about you, Kovacs, it is your endless capacity to be surprised. For all your veteran posturing, you remain at core an innocent.’ […]
She stepped forward into the light then, and the force of my hate came up and hit me in the pit of the stomach as I looked at her. Reileen Kawahara claimed upbringing among the contaminated slums of Fission City, Western Australia, but if it was true, she had long ago left behind any trace of her origins.” […] (pp. 285 – 286)

Kawahara’s evil nature is known to Kovacs, having had dealings with her in the past, which is why he hates her.

“I remembered the way Reileen Kawahara had dealt with two unfaithful minions. The animal sound they had made came back to me in dreams for a long time afterwards. Reileen’s arguments, framed as she peeled an apple against the backdrop of those screams, was that since no one really dies any more, punishment can only come through suffering.” (p. 43)

Why the TV show and the book do not align

The ending of the first novel in Morgan’s series is about the final showdown between Kawahara and Kovacs. It is extremely, terminally violent. What makes it work (and bearable) is that the reader realizes, from the flashbacks and foreshadowing in the novel, that it is where all the plot lines have been leading to. It makes sense from a characterization, structural and thematic point of view, and the denouement in the last pages ties the mystery up neatly and allows for the possibility of another book. Altered Carbon is, at its essence, a Sci-Fi detective novel, and it is important, in order for the story to work, that the plot holds water.

Therefore, be warned, if you haven’t already seen the TV show, that from the final moments in episode 5, onwards, the plot has gone to hell in a hand-basket. If you just like watching it for the Sci-Fi elements of the story – the changes of sleeves, the raunchy sex scenes and the brutal fight scenes – or the slick and colourful cinematography, or even the reinvented plot, then you have much to look forward to. If you are trying to make sense of the story, well, that’s an entirely different problem.

It is understandable, since it happens fairly often when books are make into films and TV shows, that the characters have been conflated. The character of Quell becoming a meld of “Virginia Vidaura”, the philosopher-revolutionary “Quellcrist Falconer”, and Kovacs’s love interest, is strange but bearable. The change of the character of Reileen Kawahara to become Kovacs’s long lost sister who has a somewhat incestuous passion for him, is quite unbearable. No wonder the writers spent so much of episode 7 trying to justify that final shoot-out and explosion that led to Quell’s death with new cooked-up philosophies, relationships and back-stories.

Right now, the TV show does not work for me. I should’ve caught on when there were more and more flashbacks to the two children suffering at the hands of their father from episode 5. The small changes led to an avalanche of differences that, frankly, created a new narrative that is nowhere, but nowhere, near as good as the story by Richard Morgan.

Is it wrong to change a story when it is filmed?

Is it wrong? Not necessarily. This is where it gets complicated and where you need a lawyer. (This article is not legal advice. You should consult an attorney if you have legal questions that relate to specific publishing issues and projects.)

When an author sells the rights to their novel to a film company for development, it usually starts with a publishing agreement with a publisher, in which the author grants the publisher certain rights. The “grant of rights” clause in a publishing contract is one of the most important clauses because it enumerates the specific rights – including copyright – granted to the publisher by the author.

While you cannot copyright an idea, copyright covers original works of authorship, and protects the specifics of a book after it has been written. Copyright ownership of a literary work consists of a bundle of rights which an author, at least theoretically, may assign, or grant, to the publisher in any manner they choose. Thus, an author may assign all or only a part of their rights to one or more publishers while retaining particular rights for themselves.

Such a grant of rights includes primary rights about how, where and when the book would be published, and subsidiary rights. One of the types of subsidiary rights is dramatic rights for film, TV and stage versions of the book. If the author is sensible and looking ahead, they might exclude the “subsidiary” film/TV/dramatic rights from the publishing contract.

The first step in getting a book made into a film is getting it “optioned”. It is extremely rare for a book to go from “optioned” to getting the “green light” to go into a film project. It is even rarer for a book to go straight from being published, or even unpublished, to being green-lit. But let’s say a miracle happens, and the author negotiates a dramatic rights license:

“This usually involves a complex, extensively negotiated purchase agreement, containing the details of the dramatic rights license and ancillary rights involving merchandising, novelization, syndication, international distribution, sequels, and use of characters, that automatically becomes effective at the time the option is exercised.”

When an author has been lucky enough to sell the dramatic rights of their book to a film or TV studio, unless negotiated otherwise, the studio will own the rights to the characters in the book. This usually means life rights, and, as Doug Richardson, writer of Die Hard II, explains to screenplay authors in The Writer’s Digest,:

 “…a very big parent corporation who not only owns or has exclusively secured the rights to (the character) but has also made a significant capital investment in exploiting those rights”, will not tolerate anyone else but their own screenplay writers using that character.

In short, an author who has sold the dramatic rights to their book has signed away their ownership of the characters or the Constructed World that they have created. Good money. Probably leads to a bad case of cynicism in the writers. Some producers and directors, recognizing a good thing when they see it, make an effort to keep as close as possible to the original novel. But that may be out of respect to the author, not because they are contractually obliged to do so. A good example of this kind of fidelity is Sergei Bondarchuk’s acclaimed Russian film version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that was made in 1966/1967.

Another scenario in which the characters in a novel can change is in Fan Fiction. When a novel creates a fandom, the fans start to feel that they “own” the characters or are their co-creators. The result is Fan Fiction. Changes to the story are almost inevitable when the fans start to reinvent it. But as Sci-Fi author John Scalzi explained in a long-ago but still valid post:

“So here’s the thing: Fanfic writers appear to have two choices here: Accept that what they’re doing is fundamentally a violation of copyright and do it on the down low, and in doing so, have the freedom to play with the characters they love any way they want — or play the FanLib game, in which they’re controlled and exploited as cheap labor by the copyright holders.” (John Scalzi, FanLib to Fanficcers)


So changes to a novel may be legal or illegal. But is “playing with the characters” a good idea? No. It happens to books, particularly popular books. But it doesn’t often work, and I rarely like the results.

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