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Reflections On Outlander Series One, In Context

A photograph of Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser/Randall in Starz' Outlander; here she is running along a road bordered by wildflowers

Photograph/screen shot from Outlander, copyright © 2014 Neil Davidson/Sony Pictures TV.

Following up the book with the TV show or film, with less than a day in between, tends to have drawbacks; the screen might not live up to the book, and with everything clear in your mind, it’s very easy to notice changes.

For me, Outlander didn’t follow that trend. I’d read the book when I did because I’d discovered the show on Amazon, and found the adaptation to be incredibly well done. It’s most often faithful to the book, but the times it’s not are handled with aplomb. By episode four, I knew I’d have to write about it, and this was an idea I enjoyed more than the idea of writing about the 1991 publication.

The show is not as long-winded as the book. It couldn’t be, of course. There is less time in which to tell the tale, and the audience – naturally including far more people than the original readers – wouldn’t be as patient, especially nowadays. (It makes a difference that the series arrived over 20 years after the first book was published.) The show is slicker for it. On her website (n.d.), Gabaldon says the series started by accident in the late 1980s when she decided to write a novel for “practice”, and that one of her goals was to learn what it took to write one. She continues:

In essence, these novels are Big, Fat, Historical Fiction, á la James Clavell and James Michener. However, owing to the fact that I wrote the first book for practice, didn’t intend to show it to anyone, and therefore saw no reason to limit myself, they include…

She lists a plethora of plot elements and genres. The statements match the content: lengthy, and sort of introspective and indulgent at times, considering Gabaldon was writing for herself. The show does away with a lot of the length and indulgence1.

Something lacking from the book that can be pinned on the fact that it is about Claire and Jamie’s relationship, is Frank. Claire doesn’t think of him all that much, but having him drop from the narrative completely means the time travel factor is somewhat lost. The show includes a few scenes of Frank looking for Claire. While totally made up for the show and quite possibly not on the timeline Gabaldon envisaged, these few scenes rectify the time travel problem. Frank’s inclusion enables the production crew to take the story further, showing how just the shortest nod to Frank – in his own right, rather than as a memory for Claire to discuss – changes the narrative for the better. It’s likely true we’re not meant to feel much for Frank, but having him off the page seemed a bit too easy.

The show doesn’t tend to specify dates, leaning more on seasons of the year. The book mentions specific days. (Whilst the section in the prison is horrific, I found literary happiness when I read that ‘tomorrow’ was 22nd December, and I was at that moment sat beside my Christmas tree on 21st.) The show simply moves the action at the beginning to a different season. This, whether planned with it in mind or not, neatly gets around the problem in the book wherein the days of Christmas come and go, at a monastery no less, without a mention. Christmas in the show is moved forward, and though not actively celebrated (likely a diversion too far) the rooms at Castle Leoch are decorated. The winter season is introduced with its own camera shot, snow falling in the Highlands.

I was impressed by the handling of the sex scenes, balanced between fidelity to the source and what would work on television; no less explicit but fewer in number; a couple of fade to blacks. Of that scene where Jamie punishes Claire and then may or may not have coerced her into sex depending on your interpretation, it seemed the crew had taken reader comments and criticisms on board, both those related to the action itself and those who were discussing the historical context. The historical context had been very brief in the book. After the initial argument between the couple, which was well done, I was actually surprised the next part of the story was included; the acting by Sam Heughan brought a lot more of the historical context into it, and the scene was scripted and filmed so that it goes straight to the fact of the matter and is careful in its visuals.

It’s great to hear from Jamie’s perspective; though only used in the ninth episode, The Reckoning, it was good to get out of Claire’s head and be able to see Jamie for himself. A reason for the change may well have been so that the crew could develop better a storyline Claire only heard about, but whatever the reason, it produced better content and a more rounded, historical, narrative. It also allowed for more historical and character context in the scene of resolution, post punishment.

Changes/elements I don’t think worked so well in general included the ending, which shortens a section considerably and changes the location of the monastery so that the sailing to France is the cliff hanger of series one rather than the conclusion of the section in Wentworth Prison. However, context matters here: it works as a ‘teaser’ for series two, it’s simply that the book ends in a way that’s both a minor cliff hanger and a fully-fledged ending.

As series one continues, the crew take more liberties. The Watch was unnecessary, an extra few characters for not much gain. But whilst lengthy, I liked Claire’s dinner with the British officers and her following dealings with Randall. It gave a fuller picture of him and succeeded in being suspenseful in its own right.

Where fidelity to the source is concerned and, I’d argue, good planning when changes are made, Outlander has to be one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. The acting is excellent, and the boldness in choosing what to keep, and, at times, what to expand upon when it comes to the explicit, is striking.

Footnotes

1 It’s interesting to note Gabaldon’s role in all this. The author is heavily involved in the production; credited as Consultant, she reviews all the scripts and watches the first cuts, checking for historical accuracy and anything that’s been changed from the book that could conflict with the storyline later on (Napoli, 2018). One such change for accuracy involved the scene wherein Claire joins a group of village women to dye wool; a fictional addition in terms of the book, the production crew had written a scene in which Claire walked down a cobbled street and joined a woman for tea and Bridge – Gabaldon scrapped the idea as it wasn’t representative of the era, describing instead a workaround which became the wool scene (Gabaldon, 2016).

About the differences in medium, the author said (ibid.):

I also know the constraints they were dealing with, which is that they have a limited number of 55-minute blocks, and within that block, you have to have a little dramatic arc.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon’s website, accessed 10th January 2019

Gabaldon, Diana (2015) Interview: Diana Gabaldon on Sam Heughan – ‘I was sitting there typing, “this man is grotesque, what are you thinking?”‘, The List, accessed 11th January 2019

Gabaldon, Diana (2016) ‘Outlander’: How author Diana Gabaldon really feels about Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, Entertainment Weekly, accessed 11th January 2019

Gabaldon, Diana (2018) So… four years!, Diana Gabaldon’s Facebook page, accessed 16th January 2019

Napoli, Jessica (2018) ‘Outlander’: Author Diana Gabaldon reveals which line Sam Heughan didn’t want to say and more, TV Insider, accessed 11th January 2019

 
 

Carmen

January 16, 2019, 10:09 pm

That’s a great analysis! You have captured the essence of the series as well as similarities and differences between book and adaptation.

Tracy Terry

January 17, 2019, 5:33 pm

Hmm! Not a book nor series I’m familiar with, you have me intrigued.

Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

January 22, 2019, 3:54 pm

Excellent analysis. I started to read the books when I saw a trailer for the series. Love historical fiction. I have read all eight books, but still think the first one is the best. It is a fantastic saga, covering so many years and different times. I really love the series as well. They have really done it with respect for the initial stories.

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