Netflix’s cyberpunk series Altered Carbon is staying relatively faithful to Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel—with a few exceptions, like changing the Jimi Hendrix Hotel to one featuring Edgar Allen Poe. However, there is one controversial moment from the book that showrunner Laeta Kalogridis refused to keep.
Altered Carbon is about a man named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) who’s awoken hundreds of years after his death to solve the murder of a billionaire. In this dystopian future, the human consciousness has been digitized, so physical bodies are treated as disposable accessories and immortality is possible for those who can afford it. Since bodies are interchangeable, the real value is in a person’s “stack,” or digital consciousness. This leads people to go to extreme lengths to satisfy themselves... and deeply scar others.
The original novel features an extensive torture scene, where Takeshi Kovacs is being grilled for information by people who are threatened by his investigation. What makes the torture scene unique is that it’s entirely digital. Kovacs’ actual body isn’t being tortured—since those are interchangeable—but rather a virtual body in his mind. That was kind of interesting, since it showed us how valuable the “stack” has become.
However, there was one part of the torture scene that was less interesting and more horrifying: Kovacs is digitally turned into a woman. Kovacs’ torture takes place in the body of a premenstrual woman, the idea being that a girl on her period is the most receptive and vulnerable a human body can get (...although it’s worth mentioning that a recent study shows that women are biologically tougher than men in general and more able to endure ordeals like famine or slavery). The scene then puts Kovacs through some graphic and gender-specific torture, as described by the protagonist in the book:
There’s no kind of conditioning in the known universe that can prepare you for having your feet burnt off. Or your nails torn out.
Cigarettes stubbed out on your breasts.
A heated iron inserted into your vagina.
The pain. The humiliation.
The sequence has gotten mixed responses over the years. Some support its inclusion, because it puts Kovacs outside of his comfort zone—plus, since we’re in his head, we still identify him as the victim. On the other hand, it can come across as uncomfortable and sexist, choosing to debase a woman’s body rather than that of the man we spent hundreds of pages getting to know.
I asked the showrunner about this during my visit to the Altered Carbon set last year. After sitting back in her chair and replying, “Let’s talk about the torture scene,” Kalogridis revealed it was one of two things that, before production began, she told Morgan she was going to change—the other being an expansion of Lizzie Elliott’s character, since she was only a talking point in the book. Kalogridis didn’t have a problem with the original scene as portrayed in the book, since it was from Kovacs’ point-of-view, but she said it wouldn’t have translated to television without coming across as exploitation. She told io9:
There was no pushback from Netflix or Skydance [Media] about that sequence, but there was pushback from me...The whole point of that [scene] in the book is, I believe the quote is: “Women are the race.” Men are just fucking fighting machines. We have more nerves per square inch, we have heightened pain tolerance, we last longer. And the point of torturing a woman is that she feels more and she endures longer.
You can’t get that across [on television], there’s just no way. It’s going to turn into some torture porn thing, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. So preemptively—again, it was never a conversation with the studio or the network, it was my decision—that isn’t something I wanted to make. And if I PC’d myself, I seriously do not care.
Instead, Kalogridis said the torture sequence will feature protagonist Joel Kinnaman’s Kovacs, rather than putting him in someone else’s body, explaining that it made more sense to show the man we identify as Kovacs being tortured because it helps the audience connect with his plight. And it sounds like it’ll come across on the show: Kinnaman called the filming experience “very intense,” saying “it was a good week of me just crying for 14 hours a day.” It also makes that moment when he wakes up and brutally kills his captors more rewarding.
“Whoever got tortured has to be the person who gets up and does the killing,” Kalogridis said. “[Otherwise], the emotional math doesn’t add up. There’s no moment when I can really enjoy, for lack of a better word, the vengeance. Because what I’ve done is I’ve objectified the female form, made her the object of all the torture, and put a dude in the place of taking care of the business.”
That said, there are plenty of other examples of violence against women in Altered Carbon that Kalogridis did keep. There’s a whole industry where victims, both female and male (though mostly female), are subject to sexual humiliation and torture to appease wealthy clients. And the reason Kovacs decides to kill all his captors after being tortured isn’t just because he got angry, it’s also because he sees the disemboweled body of a woman he’d known. When asked about the book and show’s portrayal of violence against women, she had a realistic if somewhat defeatist attitude toward the situation: violence is inevitable in the world of Altered Carbon, much like the real world.
“I personally believe that violence against women in our society is not going anywhere,” she said. “So I think you extrapolate for 250 years or so—actually it’s about 365 years from now when the story is taking place—it’s still going to be there, especially as bodies become more disposable. The story involves the reality of how people who live too long would behave.”
Altered Carbon, from Netflix and Skydance, comes out February 2.