Altered Carbon is the first of the Takeshi Kovacs novels written by Richard Morgan. It should come as no surprise that the books are better, but that doesn’t mean that the show isn’t absolutely fantastic.
Altered Carbon is a Cyberpunk-Noir story, following Takeshi Kovacs as he solves the murder of Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft is a “Meth” of the highest calibre, being over 600 years old, thanks to the cortical stack and human cloning technology, he is unbelievably wealthy and, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Pulling Kovacs, a convicted war criminal and terrorist, out of storage in order to solve a murder that looks and smells like suicide seems like an incredibly expensive waste of time, because at first glance it’s an open and shut case, but as Kovacs digs deeper then, well that’s when everything gets interesting.
The show explodes out of the gate and really hits the ground running, a pace which it manages to maintain throughout. One thing is for sure, Altered Carbon is not family friendly by any stretch. There is gratuitous amounts of swearing, graphic violence, sex and drug use pretty much from the off, which is almost exactly like the book.
As with all screen adaptations, Altered Carbon loses a little of itself from the book, however it makes up for it in other ways. In the books, Kovacs (pronounced with a soft “ch-s”) is a member of a highly elite military unit called Envoys. They’re sent in by the Protectorate to handle all manner of different tasks, from destabilising a government to full scale military conflicts. If shit gets thick, you send in the Envoys and stand well back. The series changes this slightly, instead of being a Protectorate military force the Envoys are fighting against the Protectorate, but still posses the impressive range of talents they have in the books.
For anyone who has read the book, all of the key scenes are still there, if a little tweaked to fit with the slightly altered narrative of the show. The plot is virtually unchanged between the two, there are a few changes to certain characters and their back stories but mostly the series stays very true to the source material. Admittedly I’m a stickler for detail when it comes to book adaptations (which is why I’m usually disappointed with them) but Altered Carbon sets a new standard.
When reading the book you get a certain image in your head for how everyone looks and behaves, something that TV/Movie adaptations often fail to achieve. That’s not the case here, they couldn’t have picked a better cast for all of the characters in the series. The two actors playing Kovacs, Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, are quite simply perfect for the role. Despite the vastly different experiences of the two Kovacs’, they’re still very much recognisable as the same. This is huge considering how a big theme in Altered Carbon is re-sleeving and how anyone could be in someone else’s body. Martha Higareda’s portrayal of Kristin Ortega is flawless and the choices for Miriam and Laurens Bancroft are spot on too. I would love to see a spin-off detective series focused around Ortega and Bay City, making full use of the setting.
Altered Carbon has to balance it time between the real and the virtual, something it handles brilliantly. Not only does the cast more than live up to expectations but the setting is superb too. All of the visual aesthetics are exactly as you’d imagine them in the books, especially the opening where Ortega and Kovacs leave the re-sleeving clinic. The towering cityscape of Bay City is immaculate at first glance, full of shining skyscrapers built from glass and steel. As the series progresses you get totally immersed in the city, as all Envoys are trained to do, and you notice the rust and ruin, the degradation brought on by the cortical stack and artificially long-lived humanity. Scenes taking place in Virtual are easily identified by the vibrant colours and use of a fish-eye lens to give a weird perspective.
The book holds nothing back with regards to the sheer brutality of the enraged Kovacs, something the series supports perfectly. One of the most iconic and memorable scenes in both the book and the series is what happens after Kovacs is captured and interrogated in Virtual. Despite only seeing the initial burst of primal rage, you still get the whole picture of just how unhinged and dangerous Kovacs really is. All of the action scenes feature a similar style, choreographed to perfection and showcasing every brutal second in exquisite detail.
While the series isn’t completely true to the books, and no adaptation ever is, its pretty damn close. The changes that have been made, have been made for the sake of the story and making it translate to screen coherently. They do have potential ramifications when it comes to adapting the other two books, Woken Furies and Broken Angels, as these both focus more heavily on the Envoys and their history. That being said, Altered Carbon is brilliant. Fans of the book won’t be disappointed and newcomers won’t be lost in backstory that isn’t explained.