The 15 Biggest Differences Between the Mad Men Books and the TV Show

Books Lists Mad Men

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.)


3. Peggy

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.


9. Roger Sterling

On the show: Roger Sterling is a borderline alcoholic who has suffered a heart attack, but maintains his wit and energy even as he ages.

In the books: Sterling is far less resilient in the books. In fact, by book five, Draper Unveiled, he is addicted to opium, and spends most days in his office having very detailed, dark fantasies about lighting the building on fire. By book six, Why Draper Why, he finally acts on his impulse, and severely burns Harry Crane in the process. Sterling is put in an asylum, but he breaks out after a year and is last seen fleeing into the forest near the Canadian border, just moments before Crane, recovered but permanently disfigured, can seek his revenge.


10. Lee Garner, Jr.

On the show: Garner is the head of Lucky Strike cigarettes, and one of the company’s most important early clients. He is a closet homosexual, and when he makes an advance on Sal Romano, it results in Romano’s firing.

In the books: As the head of “Garner’s Toyota,” Garner is one of Draper’s main clients. Draper occasionally refers to his “vision” of a perfect car commercial, but Garner insists on starring in his own ads. A former boxer, he punctuates each 30-second spot with his trademark catch phrase: “Get down to Garner’s Toyota, or I will KNOCK. YOU. OUT.” In an excerpt for book seven, My Name is Donald, which will be released this fall, Garner finally gives Don permission to create his perfect car commercial. As it turns out, Don’s “vision” is little more than a group of obese men dressed in elf costumes, jumping around and shouting the word “cars” over and over. Garner’s dealership isn’t mentioned once in the ad, and Draper is fired.


11. The Speeches

On the show: Don is known for his inspiring speeches at pitch meetings, where he often secures a client by the strength of his charisma.

In the books: Harry Crane is the one who speaks at most meetings, where he gives rambling diatribes that have very little to do with any kind of advertising plan. At one point, he refuses to let a team from a Nissan dealership leave the room until he has described the apocalypse in great detail, which takes the better part of five hours. His technique is modestly effective, but only because Draper’s firm has very little competition in Minneapolis. After Crane is burned by Sterling’s fire, the site of him disgusts most clients, and the firm goes bankrupt.


12. Time

On the show: Mad Men begins in 1960, and will end in 1970.

In the books: Senduhran changes the dates of the action seemingly at random. Whether this is a purposeful “unreliable narrator” technique or just poor plotting is never made clear. Draper is said to be born in the year 1854 on a riverboat, but is later referred to as a “virile 50-year-old” in 1998. In book three, there is a brief episode describing Draper’s involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which took place in the early 1920s.


13. Joan Holloway

On the show: Joan is an office manager that has an affair with Roger Sterling, and later becomes a partner at the firm.

In the books: Sterling does indeed have an affair with a woman named Joan, but it’s later revealed that she is a 52-year-old divorcee and chronic smoker who works at the DMV. Sunduhran describes her as a “harsh, cuss-happy woman,” and Draper often hears Sterling on his office phone begging her for money. In book six, she has disappeared, and Draper asks Sterling about her at a lunch meeting. “She’s gone to be a rodeo clown,” says Sterling, but something in his tone makes Draper skeptical. There are rumors that much of book seven will focus on Draper’s search for Joan.


14. Michael Ginsberg

On the show: Ginsberg is a creative type who becomes convinced that a new IBM computer is attempting to turn him and everyone else into a homosexual in order to stop the spread of humanity, and he cuts off his nipple and presents it to Peggy as a gift.

In the books: This is exactly how it happens in book one—though again, Peggy is merely seen as a demonstrator outside a Planned Parenthood. In book three, in his diaries, Draper writes that “Ginsberg was absolutely correct about the computer.”


15. Henry Francis

On the show: Francis is a political advisor who marries Betty Draper after she divorces Don.

In the books: Francis is a Minnesota state senator, and though he is never seen, Draper writes him letter after letter insulting everything from his policies (of which he has only a rudimentary understanding), to his family, to his trademark fedora. At the end of book six, Don is deciding whether his next big “project” should be finding Joan Holloway, or assassinating Francis. “Either way,” he writes at the end of book six, “let’s be done with the speculation: It’s going to end with me committing suicide.” Some see this as an authorial nod to the end of both the book and the TV show—but we’ll have to wait until Sunday to know for sure!

*(Editor’s Note: We believe the impending conclusion of Mad Men has had some negative effects on Shane Ryan’s mental state. We agreed to run this piece only under duress. We know there are no Mad Men books, and we hope that things get better for him after Sunday. For something less deranged, read the differences between the Game of Thrones books and TV show.)

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