'Altered Carbon' on Netflix: Can it improve on the book?

Commentary: Here's what I hope the adaptation of the dystopian sci-fi novel keeps -- and cuts out. Yes to AI-controlled Hendrix Hotel. No to unsexy sex.

Nicholas Tufnell Associate Editor
6 min read

With Netflix's hard-boiled, cyberpunk, neo-noir extravaganza "Altered Carbon" one day from release, now's a great time to revisit Richard Morgan's novel of the same name.

First published in 2002 and winner of the Philip K. Dick award in 2003, the novel's a thrilling ride and, despite some flaws, a remarkable achievement for a debut. It's almost as if Morgan packed every awesome, bombastic sci-fi idea he ever had into one novel, just in case he never had the chance to do this sort of thing again.

Whether "Altered Carbon" will translate well into Netflix's multimillion-dollar adaptation remains to be seen. While we wait, here are some of my favourite (and least favourite) aspects of the book that I hope do (and hope do not) make it into the final cut.

The Good

The whole hard-boiled detective thing

The hardened, world-weary detective trope is so familiar and so overdone that it's hard to pull off without resorting to pastiche or some sort of intellectualised post-modern metafiction, a la Paul Auster.

Yet, in the right hands, some authors can still (kind of) get away with it. Except for a few clangers here and there, Morgan mostly presents a convincing take on the style.

I'd even go so far as to say that if it weren't for the occasional anachronism, you might struggle to differentiate some of Morgan's prose with that of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.

His writing undoubtedly does a good job of evoking the no-nonsense crime-fiction of old, without feeling trite or out of place. I love this. But can the adaptation deliver a modern mashup of Chandler/Hammett/Morgan set in a cyberpunk universe without feeling, well, a bit ridiculous? I certainly hope so.

The Hendrix Hotel

It's a dilapidated, artificially intelligent hotel with an inexplicably huge hologram of Jimi Hendrix sporting his best blistering guitar solo face for a facade. What's not to like?

For some reason the hotel's ceilings are equipped with twin-mounted 20-millimetre autocannons. Their existence even puzzles Takeshi Kovacs, the novel's protagonist, who is of course saved by their devastating firepower only moments after checking in (more on the violence later).


The cyberpunk setting looks stunning.


Other unexpected features include payments by DNA trace, holographic scans of the entire building for room selection and a deeply knowledgeable AI.

The AI may veer into deus ex machina territory when Kovacs finds himself in a bit of a bind, but the Hendrix is such a fun and frankly useful concept that these weaknesses can be overlooked. It reminds me of Murakami's Dolphin Hotel: deeply peculiar, memorable and a character in its own right.

Re-sleeving and notions of identity

Here's why the concept of re-sleeving (downloading the mind into a new body) is so powerful: It doesn't offer the vague platitude that, all told, eternal life probably wouldn't be a barrel of laughs as you watch the world crumble around you. Instead, it turns immortality into a tool used by the very rich and powerful to prop up their own self-interests at the expense of others.

What's more, it brings into question notions of identity. Let's say you're five re-sleeves deep -- you've experienced an Asian body, a Caucasian body, a female body, a mixed-race body, a young body, an old body. How important are the physical aspects of race, age and gender in a society that treats body swapping as a given?

The concept of re-sleeving disrupts our modern idea of identity because in "Altered Carbon," the physical self ceases to be anything other than a disposable vehicle for the mind.

This is such a compelling concept, particularly now in our age of identity politics, and one that I hope the show explores to its fullest.

Watching 'Altered Carbon' on Netflix? This was its creepy marketing campaign

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The Bad

The violence

Some of the violence in "Altered Carbon" feels gratuitous. The blow-by-blow fight scenes can come off as needless, even adolescent.

Yes, Kovacs is a retired elite soldier who isn't likely to sit down with a handful of bad guys to discuss their feelings over tea and cake. I get that. But how many examples of Kovacs murdering people do we really need to get this point across?

Does this mean I want a blanket reduction of all violence in the Netflix adaptation? Of course not. I just want there to be more of a
reason behind the violence.


Will the series tone down the novel's violence?


In fact, one of the most important sections in the book is possibly its most violent, but its existence is crucial to understanding the evils of the world Kovacs lives in. I'm talking about the scene in which our protagonist is re-sleeved into the body of a woman on her period. During a heightened sensory experience for the character, Kovacs is mercilessly tortured.

In a sadistic upending of our preconceived notions regarding the apparent benefits or desires of immortality, Morgan provides a disturbing example of how the utopian ideal of eternal life can be twisted and turned into a dark tool of dystopian destruction, imparting a misery far worse than death.

The Netflix series needs to focus more on these challenging and unique aspects of violence in "Altered Carbon" and less on the fight scenes, which offer nothing new and say very little.

Unsexy sex

The problem with the book's sex scenes isn't that they're not particularly sexy, which isn't a great start. Their worst crime is that they often made me laugh.

Maybe it's my British prudishness, but I kept smirking any moment things began to get a little steamy, with Morgan's awkward prose reminding me ever so slightly of Giles Coren's infamous "Zorro" performance.

Of course, sex is notoriously hard to get right in print and a part of me feels there's a certain amount of unfairness in my ribbing of Morgan on this. Many great writers have failed to capture the magic of love-making. He's in good company.

But a fair warning to those who have yet to read the novel: There's probably more sex than you're expecting. And it's very detailed. Perhaps it's the detail that throws me off. Descriptions like "elusive globes" for a woman's chest and "heated globes" for her buttocks just crack me up. And then there are the unexpected specifics, like this: "Bancroft nudged at it with her nose." I'm done.

Creepy Kovacs

While we're on the subject of sex, Kovacs' leering needs to go. Lines like these make him seem horribly creepy:

"There was finely toned muscle in her legs and a substantial bicep stood out when she lifted her arms. Exuberant breasts strained the fabric of the leotard."

"She tried to take the letter from me and I lifted it out of her reach. She stood facing me, flushed, breasts rising and falling distractingly."

"We made double time down the left-hand corridor, perhaps to make up for our unscheduled stop. With each step Mrs Bancroft's breasts jiggled under the thin material of the leotard."


Kovacs can get a little creepy.


I would find it harder to criticize Kovacs if he spent an equal amount of time describing the movement of men's crotches as they were doing something as innocuous as walking down a corridor -- or if he described men's physiques by starting with a general description of the size and/or weight of their penises. "The heavy-breasted girl put her hands on her hips." Really? Why not just, "The girl"?

But he doesn't.

I get that this plays into the noir-fiction homage, but I daresay that leering and objectification can be safely dropped in 2018 without sacrificing the core of Kovacs' character or the essential elements that make the noir motif so fun to begin with.

Whether the series can live up to the book's greatest moments and play down its (occasional) failures, only time will tell.

The novel has so much to offer with its rich and unusual setting, memorable characters and intricate plot details that I have high hopes that "Altered Carbon" (the series) has everything it needs at its disposal to be a refined and thrilling hit in its own right.

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