Because I’m a New York transplant, I naturally gravitate toward the books that highlight the trials and tribulations of this overwhelming place (see Still Me, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, The Futures, and about a million others I haven’t reviewed yet). Stephanie Danler‘s Sweetbitter fit that mold, which is why I added it to my bookshelf in 2017.
This storyline makes for great TV too, and on May 6, Starz premiered a six-episode Sweetbitter based on a screenplay written by Danler who also worked as an executive producer. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, coproduced the series.
It would be a shame if Big Little Literature let this opportunity pass; therefore, it’s time for Sweetbitter to go toe to toe: book versus TV show.
For the readers who haven’t had a chance to pick up Danler’s 2016 bestseller, let’s quickly recap. Sweetbitter follows 22-year-old, Tess, who moves to New York without a friend or an idea of what she’s doing. She lands a job at a prestigious cafe — which many speculate is Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe where Danler herself worked. (I suggest you make a rez there asap.) Tess discovers that working at elite restaurants isn’t just a job to help pay the rent in between gigs; it’s the real deal, and she’s thrown into a frenetic world of food, wine, drugs, and drama.
Now that we have that covered, let’s sound the alarm.
Round 1: Characters
Sweetbitter, whether that’s the book or the show, has some very interesting characters who really affect your emotions. They’re infuriating, have distinct personalities, and give you a lot of anxiety. I have no problem with characters that have you frequently hashtagging SMH; some of the best books have no real “good guy.” But they need to at least be fully fleshed out so we can understand their feelings and the reasons for their actions. My biggest issue with the book is that it does not do that. At the end of the story, I still didn’t understand characters Jake and Simone, and I had no idea where Tess was headed (though she probably didn’t either). I yearned for some better character development.
This carried over to the show. There were a lot of dramatic pauses and dismayed looks between the characters that were loaded with meaning, but as a viewer, I could not decipher what that was. Characters can’t read each other’s minds, so how are viewers supposed to do that?
Winner: Show. Yes, sometimes this lack of communication made it more frustrating to watch than read; not being privy to Tess’ thoughts as with the book also hurt. However, I have to admit that the actors nailed the roles, and the casting was done well. Like I said, these characters were pretty unique, and the actors fulfilled my expectations to that regard. Body language might not be everything, and directors and writers should not rely on viewers to comprehend every little eyebrow raise or pouty lip. There was, though, a certain emotion that the actors portrayed, which allowed me to better understand the characters they played. Had they been given better dialogue, round 1 wouldn’t have been as close as it was.
Round 2: Setting
One reason Sweetbitter became a bestseller and received rave reviews was because of the way Danler captivated the senses in her writing.
“SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.” — Sweetbitter
It’s nearly impossible to match the literary power of the written word in an adapted screenplay. The winner of this category is clear.
Winner: Book. There’s a scene in one of the first episodes where Tess tastes an oyster for the first time. She closes her eyes and moans, enamored with this tiny creature. It’s not convincing though. Viewers can’t quite discern the power the oysters have over her like they do in the book. Where words can help us smell, taste, touch, hear, and see, television only give us the latter.
It doesn’t matter how spectacularly a screenplay is written, it will never capture a character’s emotions quite like a book can. Not to give too much away, but there’s a scene in both the book and show where Tess goes on an alcohol and drug binge, and you’re asking “How is she still alive?” Trust me when I say I felt a panic attack rising while reading about it. Sure, I was anxious while watching it on TV too, but nothing compares to the way that chapter made me feel.
Round 3: Plot
For the most part, the TV series follows the novel pretty closely. I’m sure having Danler write the script and on set made a difference. The biggest change between the two Sweetbitters is the time period in which the stories evolve. While the book takes us through an entire year of Tess’ life, the show follows only a few weeks, with the finale culminating in her final test to earn her back-waiter stripes.
Winner: Book. The show’s ending was enjoyable because we had this big moment that the series had been working toward. But it lacked context and power; there’s only so much the writers and actors can give us in six 30-minute episodes. Many reviews of the book wrote that it was fascinating to witness Tess getting an education — in wine, cocaine, and everything in between. We miss out on that in the show.
Sure, the series shows her first oyster, her first hit of cocaine, the first time her palette understood wine’s mystical features, but we don’t witness her life evolve from these moments. We don’t get to see her spiral or her self-awareness, self-doubt, and recognition. We don’t see her education of becoming an adult. Depth is the result of character development, and cutting a character to six episodes can leave her in a very shallow pool.
“I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t know.” –Sweetbitter
Overall Winner: Book
Admittedly, I would only dole out three flames to the book. I wanted to like it more (I really did!), and many of my friends fell in love with it. I even attended a Stephanie Danler event with one of them. She fangirled hard core, and I’m pretty sure she’s reaching her fifth go-through of the book.
I was expecting to like the TV show more because the formula for a great story is present in Sweetbitter. Although I still enjoyed the series, it made me appreciate the book more. I may never love Danler’s book like so many young women have, but not having her words in front of me changed how I viewed this story. She’s poetic and provides description more meticulously than most writers. Going toe to toe with the Sweetbitter book and show emphasized the importance of words and the impact they can have on you. So sorry, technology, you lose this one.
“There are so many things to be blasé about: your youth, your health, your employment. But real food — gifts from the ocean, no less — is not one of them.” — Sweetbitter