Since Richard K. Morgan’s acclaimed sci-fi cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon was published in 2002, fans have been speculating about a possible filmed adaptation. Its world being as complex as it is stunning, however, transporting Altered Carbon off the page has proven elusive.
Until writer and producer Laeta Kalogridis came along.
Kalogridis – screenwriter of Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys, and the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel; and a producer of White House Down and James Cameron’s record-breaking
blockbuster Avatar – teamed with Skydance Television and Netflix to launch Altered Carbon with a revolutionary, narratively expansive 10 episodes that let Morgan’s epic leap between mediums at last.
“Television was starting to make leaps into shorter seasons that were more cinematic, that had a very different kind of energy,” says Kalogridis. “And that allowed us to create a story that truly felt like an extended movie.”
The human element of sci-fi
Kalogridis, 52, says her love of Morgan’s story, which won the Philip K. Dick award for Best Novel in 2003, and its connection to elemental parts of the human experience fueled her innovative adaptation of Altered Carbon. Season one of the epic series is of a piece with the book, but stands alone in its own right.
“It’s a very serious sci-fi story about a technology that allows life to be extended indefinitely,” Kalogridis says of the work that serves as the series’ blueprint. “Yet in no way was the story removed from completely identifiable human emotions. It has all the bells and whistles of great sci-fi, but at its heart is a very human story. And it was noir, which I love.
“The book also beautifully redefines human beings’ relationship to our physicality,” says Kalogridis. “In the Altered Carbon world, you can exist in any body. It’s a fascinating idea that humans will have evolved over millions of years to exist in tandem with our physical body.”
Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Suicide Squad, Robocop, House of Cards), who plays lead character Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, says that Kalogridis’ passion inspired and raised everyone’s game.
“Working with Laeta has been an exciting experience,” says Kinnaman. “I read the book, and I sort of had one vision of Kovacs, while Laeta saw the character differently. And then when I understood her vision of it, and we sort of met halfway, and it created something that I think neither of us had imagined. We joined forces and created something new.
“Laeta has this show’s whole world in her mind,” adds Kinnaman. “You start talking about some little detail, and she’ll give you the 200-year backstory on that little detail. So you can always ask her about anything. She’s immersed in this world, and her passion for it really spread to everyone and every department. She really instilled that in everyone, because she was so immersed in it herself.”
That passion filled in every small detail on the show’s timelines and stories. An astute level of future-think that considers how we might actually get from today to tomorrow – from the world viewers are living in, to the one Altered Carbon takes them to – was part of the creative scaffolding for the show, Kalogridis says.
“We were trying very consciously to make this world feel as real as we could and as grounded as we could,” explains Kalogridis. “One very consistent element in the Altered Carbon world is the continuation of the societal divide, and how it grows ever greater. The future here might be lovely for the people at the top, as they acquire and can do more and more, but the people below – those whose existence involves less and less – will have a much more nightmarish existence.
“That’s especially true in this world as the people at the top can never be removed, and can never die,” she adds. “One concentrated group of people hold onto all the resources, and hold onto the most precious resource, life itself, without ever letting go. Everything else, and everyone else, is raw material to be exploited. And because we all know that that is truly the worst of human nature, that aspect of the story feels hauntingly real.”
Based on the classic cyberpunk noir novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is an intriguing story of murder, love, sex, and betrayal, set more than 300 years in the future. Society has been transformed by new technology: consciousness can be digitized; human bodies are interchangeable; death is no longer permanent. Altered Carbon launches on Netflix Friday, February 2.