After some Outlander fans read this, I may need to flee the century.
Because while I love Starz’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish time-travel romance verra, verra much, and am looking forward to Sunday’s fourth-season finale, I do sometimes wish the show surprised me more often.
The problem with being both a reader and a watcher is that plot twists don’t always seem as twisty on television as they once did on the page. Knowing they were coming still didn’t make certain moments of HBO’s Game of Thrones easy to stomach, but I was braced for them in a way I haven’t been since the show moved beyond George R.R. Martin’s still-in-progress books.
Outlander goes further than most book adaptations in its fidelity to Gabaldon’s novels, which, unlike Martin’s, are still way ahead of the TV version.
And already I’m in trouble, because there are people who will tell you that it’s not nearly faithful enough, that the story of Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), who’s been married to men in two noncontiguous centuries, and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the love of her complicated life, has too often detoured from the detailed itinerary laid down in Gabaldon’s books.
Only the other day, executive producer Maril Davis was having to explain why the show had deviated from Gabaldon’s version of a prison-break scene in the Jan. 20 episode.
“Listen, we get notes from a lot of people,” Davis told the Hollywood Reporter. “Some people felt like it was a little convoluted, and also we hadn’t really played the relationships with some of the characters from the book in that scene. It wasn’t really possible to get there because we had dropped some story lines. Sometimes with books this size, things fall by the wayside.”
Of course they do. Sometimes they should. And some of the departures in recent seasons have probably been particularly helpful to viewers who haven’t read the books, something I did only in anticipation of the series. (The books continue to draw fans. The first, Outlander, published in 1991, was one of the most popular ebook downloads of 2018 at the Free Library of Philadelphia.)
And yet even something as relatively minor (to me) as Heughan’s decision to rein in Jamie’s reaction to seeing a 20th-century picture of his daughter for the first time last season apparently disappointed those who insisted the scene should have been played as Gabaldon first wrote it, causing a kerfuffle on which Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson reported at the time.
I often watch Outlander on the Starz app, where each week’s episode is followed by a discussion among producers who seem all too aware of how closely they’re being watched.
After the episode earlier this season in which Claire and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton), who’s traveled from the 20th century, meets Jamie for the first time, executive producer Toni Graphia, who cowrote the episode with executive producer Matthew B. Roberts, talked with him and Davis about the importance of getting that meeting and its aftermath right.
“We get flak sometimes for not sticking close to the book enough,” she said. "That was one moment, where … I had envisioned, ‘Ah, it would be cool if they were walking down the street and the sun was behind them and they were silhouetted and Claire looks up.’ It was beautiful the way we wrote it, but Maril, for instance, said, ‘You know, I love that from the script, but I remember from the book, they were sitting on a bench.’
“And it doesn’t seem like a big detail or anything, but to book readers that moment was important, and Maril said, ‘I just see them sitting on a bench [when Claire found them], and can we do that?’ And so we talked to production and said, ‘Get a bench.’ Because it’s really a special moment.”
Which it was. Although honestly, I would never have remembered the bench, much less complained of its absence.
I’m not immune to the problem of wanting my favorite characters to behave exactly as they did on the page. Screw too much with the words, and worlds, of Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott and you’ll probably hear me howl. It’s been nearly 25 years since Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy went for his famous, noncanonical swim in Pride and Prejudice and I’m still mildly annoyed. (Yes, he looked great. That’s so not the point.)
I like Gabaldon’s work for the depth of her historical research and for her memorable characters, but I’m not sure her perils-of-Pauline plotting needs to be sacrosanct. She herself joked last summer with reporters at a news conference for PBS’s The Great American Read that her husband refers to her work as belonging to “ ‘the one damn thing after another’ school of fiction.”
There’s no reason to expect Claire and Jamie to work out all their problems, much less those of Scottish and American history, anytime soon, not with the series already renewed for two more seasons and a ninth installment in Gabaldon’s Outlander series in the works. I wouldn’t mind, though, seeing the TV writers taking a few more unexpected whacks of their own at the Frasers and their beleaguered kin.
And yet even as I’m saying that, I’m realizing that a good deal of the fun of watching Outlander has been in seeing how the characters I’d seen in my head while reading the books looked on-screen; of noticing the attention to detail, from the clothing of the show’s multiple periods to the Native American village from this season that producers had built in Scotland (where the show’s still filmed and which now doubles for North America).
That’s a kind of theme-park fun, though, and the performances on Outlander are strong ones, stronger certainly than they’d need to be if all they were doing was acting as costumed guides to a world that Gabaldon created on the page and the TV show built to her specifications.
Heughan, Balfe, and their fellow cast members weren’t hired just to look like their characters — they were cast as actors, and acting is interpreting a character, not merely mouthing lines.
Adaptation, too, is meant to be an act of interpretation. What can a team of writers bring to a story that the original writer might not have thought of? And how will we ever know if they’re hamstrung by fans' expectations?