With the Mad Men finale set to air this Sunday, now seems like a great time to revisit the entire AMC series, and to examine the biggest differences between the iconic TV show and the literary source material—the six-and-counting Mad Men novels by little-known author T.W. Senduhran.* There are, of course, many similarities, but the points where the two works diverge might be the most interesting of all. Let’s examine these moments one by one, and disappear together down the Mad Men rabbit hole.
1. New York, New York?
On the show: The vast majority of Matthew Wiener’s drama takes place on Madison Avenue in New York City, which was once the center of the advertising universe.
In the books: Don Draper and his co-workers are actually based in Minneapolis, MN. Senduhran includes a few references to New York, but they are comprehensively negative. In the first novel of the series, The Trials of Draper, Don’s secretary approaches him to ask for vacation time because she and her family are taking a trip to Manhattan. “That place is a f***ing cesspool,” says Don, who eventually relents with the caveat that she is making a “terrible choice.” When the secretary returns, she has been fired for reasons that are never explained and is escorted out of the office by private security guards.
2. Big Companies, Big Products
On the show: Sterling Cooper, and its various descendants, represent some pretty huge companies—cigarettes, cars, and all manner of huge consumer products.
In the books: Don Draper limits himself to making commercials for local car dealerships, even though Senduhran is clear that it doesn’t bring him any joy. On the last page of book two, A Draper to Hang, the mysterious fortune teller asks Don to name his innermost desire. Draper looks at her for a long moment and simply says, “I wish all of these cars would sink into the earth…and I wish the birds would sink with them.” (Another minor difference: In the books, Don hates birds.)
On the show: Peggy Olson is a significant character from the start, and her path from secretary to high-powered copy chief represents one of TV’s most famous feminist narratives.
In the books: In contrast, Senduhran seemed to have little use for Peggy. She is seen only briefly in four separate chapters in book one, where she pickets a Planned Parenthood with religious-themed signs. Don enjoys shouting crass words at her as he drives by on the way to work, and he once throws a rock that hits her in the stomach. However, it’s made clear that Don doesn’t do this for any political reason—he just doesn’t like the way she looks.
4. Bert Cooper
On the show: Bert is a sage old executive with certain quirks, like the fact that he prefers to have visitors take their shoes off before entering his office.
In the books: Burt (spelled differently here) is Don’s boss at their small advertising firm, and he’s described as a “cretin with a carnival barker’s wild smile.” In book four, The Cost of Draper, he calls Don into his office and has a long conversation about the Minnesota Vikings. The entire time, he is pointing a pistol at Don’s temple. Neither man comments on the gun, but for Don, the trauma is a catalyst for his worsening alcoholism.
5. Married Life
On the show: Don has two wives, Betty and Megan. He eventually divorces both.
In the books: Don divorces Betty, but afterward, his only domestic “companion” is a mannequin that he dresses in his wife’s old clothing. There are times when he will shower with the mannequin in a non-erotic way, but the only time he ever speaks to “her” comes in the middle of book four, when a drunken Draper, about to fall asleep, looks up and says, “You vex me, Irene.”
6. Harry Crane
On the show: Harry is a “media buyer” who eventually heads up the television side of the firm. He has some success, but is routinely stymied in his efforts to become a partner.
In the books: Crane is first seen as a homeless man who aggressively washes Draper’s windshield when he’s forced to stop at a red light in the morning. The man infuriates Draper, who gets so angry one day that he forcefully drags Crane into his car and takes him into his office. There, as his rage mellows, the two have a long talk, and it turns out that Crane was once a minor league baseball player whose dreams went awry when he stuck his hand in an airplane turbine. Draper begins to like the man, and hires him on the spot, starting a long friendship. It is heavily implied, but never made explicit, that Crane is the one who eventually strangles Burt Cooper to death in a strip club restroom.
7. Paul Kinsey
On the show: Kinsey is a pretentious failed writer who eventually gets left behind, floats between advertising jobs, and becomes a Hare Krishna.
In the books: Kinsey is actually never seen in the flesh, and only appears as an entity in Draper’s diaries. This mostly happens in book three, Draper’s Diaries. Kinsey is referred to here as “the spirit that rises through my flesh in those brief moments of transcendence, when the pain and failures that have defined me ease into oblivion and I am once more able to fly, as I flew in my youth.” Later in the book, after ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms at a company picnic when Burt Cooper laced his tea, Draper writes, “Kinsey visited tonight—I have missed him.” Finally, in the last paragraph of the book, Draper is seen slumped over his diary. There are just three words on the page: “Kinsey is dead.”
8. Don’s Past
On the show: Draper was born as “Dick Whitman,” and stole the identity of a dead officer during the Korean War.
In the books: Draper never has a different name, but he does serve in Vietnam, where his entire platoon is wiped out in the Tet Offensive. Draper only escapes death because he is hungover in a brothel that morning rather than on the front lines. After he hears about his fellow soldiers, he nearly has a nervous breakdown and promises the prostitute that he’ll marry her. She’s delighted, but Draper leaves the country the next week after successfully faking a bout of insanity. He thinks about saying goodbye to his almost-bride, but then realizes he can’t remember her name, or what she looked like, or where she lives.