Sex and the City: The book is better than the TV show. Yes. It is.
Today I come not to bury Carrie Bradshaw, but to praise her. I’m talking, of course, about the real Carrie Bradshaw, found only in Candace Bushnell’s book, Sex and the City. Being a heterosexual man, I could never watch the TV show for more than a few minutes without itching all over and running out of the room.
Some people may view Bushnell’s new novel, The Carrie Diaries, as a cynical bid to find readers in the Gossip Girl demographic. But it looks to me like a smart attempt on the part of a writer to regain proprietorship of a character that’s been co-opted by television.
Bushnell’s extensive book tour brings her to the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Sponsored by Books & Books, this is a ticketed event. For more information, visit the bookstore’s website.
Just how completely Bushnell has lost control of Carrie and her story is, among other things, a testament to the power of television. If you want proof, graze through a few readers’ comments at amazon.com or bn.com. A representative sample: “The Carrie Bradshaw that was depicted in the book is not like the Carrie Bradshaw from the series at all, at least not as far as I can tell.”
Aw — you say that like it’s a bad thing.
It’s forgivable for civilian fans of the show to fall into this type of confusion, less so when expressed by a professional critic. At the usually reliable Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams complains that Bushnell, in telling the story of Carrie’s high school years, doesn’t stay true to “to the clues of Carrie’s previous life glimpsed during the run of the series.”
The depth of stupidity in this comment is beyond reckoning. After all, Bushnell had little or nothing to do with creating the TV show. But she did start the whole Sex and the City empire with a column she wrote for the New York Observer in the mid-1990s. She has the right to tell Carrie’s story, with or without regard to what happens on the show.
Bushnell based the Observer column on her own experiences as a single woman in Manhattan. “Carrie Bradshaw” is an alter-ego, invented to give the author some fig leaf of privacy. The book Sex and the City, published in 1996, is a collection of essays — readers coming from the tv show are invariably disappointed it doesn’t have a stronger narrative arc. They seem to have no clue it’s not that kind of book.
When producer Darren Star bought rights to adapt Sex and the City into a television comedy, he approached Bushnell’s book the way a coal mining company approaches a mountain in West Virgina. He dumbed Carrie down with what Shane Watson, in a long Bushnell profile at the London Times, calls “little girly tics and self-conscious kookiness.”
Watson finds Bushnell “altogether smarter and funnier, and her story is way more interesting, because it has been ugly and sordid at times.” That’s a perfect description of how I’ve always viewed Carrie in the book vs. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie as a vapid, materialistic shoe fetishist.
By the time I read Sex and the City the TV phenomenon was already in full swing. Any criticism I offer here of the HBO series, I’ll admit, is like someone reporting on a party while banging on the ceiling of the apartment downstairs with a broom handle.
The number of episodes I’ve seen can be counted on one hand–not enough for a valid assessment. Still, I must note that it always seemed like a drag show to me, one in which the women talked and behaved, in their attitude toward romance, more like gay men than any women I’ve ever known. Many of which, I’ll concede, love the show.
Yet none of what made me itch about the show is present in Bushnell’s book. Yes, Carrie chases sex and romance, but she’s more focused on her career. She goes to a lot of glamorous parties and reports how empty and pointless they are. She struggles to make ends meet.
Most of all, the four-sided friendship that is the heart of the television show is completely absent from the book. Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda are minor characters, with personalities dramatically different from the TV versions. Far from a celebration of female bonding, Sex and the City, literary version, carries a strong note of alienation, isolation and female competition.
I’m not going to make a case for Bushnell as a great stylist, but she is competent. Sex and the City, the book, has far more depth and texture and honest observation than I’d expected. If readers can set aside the cotton-candy expectations enflamed by the sugar rush of the TV show, they might want to give The Carrie Diaries a chance.
Okay, now you can tell me how wrong I am, how the show is a brave and honest depiction of the way women really are.