How Altered Carbon Made It To Netflix

Richard Morgan's cyberpunk noir made it out of development hell and into the streaming world.

On February 2nd, Netflix will release its most ambitious sci-fi series yet, an adaptation of Richard Morgan’s sprawling 2002 cyberpunk detective novel Altered Carbon. In Morgan’s version of the 25th century, consciousness can be downloaded into a device called a “stack,” which makes death merely an inconvenience as humans can shed their bodies for a new one (called a “sleeve”). The adaptation went through a few different sleeves of its own before Laeta Kalogridis–a writer and producer known for genre fare such as Alexander, Avatar, Shutter Island, and Terminator Genisys–found it a home on Netflix.

Not long after Morgan published Altered Carbon, the novel was optioned by producer Joel Silver, who’s producer credits include a long list of action-movie hits, including the Lethal Weapon series and The Matrix. Warner Bros. was interested in making it into a film, though with a PG-13 rating, a curious choice for a novel with intense action and mature concepts.

While the 2008 Writers Guild of America Strike put the project in limbo, it remained a hot prospect. At one point, V for Vendetta director James McTeigue was circling the project and helped work on the script with Silver. Around 2012, Kalogridis got wind of the project and went directly to Morgan with a promise to write a “hard R version” of the book.

Speaking with Den of Geek on the set of Altered Carbon, Kalogridis said she first approached Morgan with her vision: a two-hour film, keeping it as close to the book as possible with a couple of kind of caveats and a condensed timeline.

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“I fully expected him to say no, because I was just trying to be as honest as I possibly could about the limitations I had,” Kalogridis said. “Keeping the content, which means we’re gonna be searching for a while for a home, made him more inclined to do it, not less.”

Kalogridis got to work on a spec script and they began a search for directors.

“This was before Prometheus. So a hard R, non-branded, piece of science fiction with a premise like this, is a little bit more difficult to get made,” she said. “And at that point, it was just kinda the beginning of peak TV. You know and the whole kind of rise of, among other things, anthology television.”

With the main character, anti-hero detective Takeshi Kovacs, in a new sleeve in each of the three novels written by Morgan, Kalogridis recognized an opportunity to alter her approach to the adaptation. She was working with Skydance on another project at the time when she floated the idea of Altered Carbon as a “10-hour movie.”

“It’s just very challenging to get all the ideas of that book into a two hour film and do it justice,” she said. “So, we thought, ‘let’s go to Netflix, and see what they say.’ And that’s how we ended up here.”

It may have taken well over a decade to find the right fit for Altered Carbon, but Netflix is spending big to do the novel justice.

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“It’s very inspiring when you’re trying to do this kind of hard sci-fi at this scale because it’s not yet an area that’s sort of been widely explored in television,” Kalogridis said.

“But I think the central tenet of all of it was the rise of a certain kind of narrative art form in television that wasn’t there, maybe 10, 15 years ago? That made it possible to do something that is extended, but close ended. Like a chapter book, that we couldn’t otherwise have achieved.”