We’re doing things a little differently in the latest installment of Page to Picture. This time, instead of discussing a movie adaptation of a popular novel, we’ll be breaking down the first half of the first season of the new Starz original series Outlander, and seeing how it stacks up against it’s literary counterpart.
Let’s start with the book …
Outlander is a 1991 novel by American author Diana Gabaldon. The novel follows it’s main character Claire Randall as she is unceremoniously torn from her own time 1945, and sent back to 1743 while vacationing in Scotland with her husband Frank. While in the 18th century, Claire encounters several members of Clan McKenzie, and crosses paths with her husband’s devious ancestor, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, Captain of his majesty’s 8th Dragoons.
My personal opinion of the book is one of cautious enjoyment. It is not a book I likely would have picked up if not for the television series and our ongoing chat show discussing it, but I can’t say I didn’t engage with the story. I like the characters, and the setting, and the artifice of the story, but at the end of the day, it’s not entirely my cup of tea. It is a very long book, and Gabaldon’s style, though very good, can get bogged down in detail or side-plots that had my short attention span tuning out occasionally. But then, I prefer my adventures action packed and full of mystery and magic.
One thing the book is noted for, and rightfully so, is the way it seems to blend, or in some ways transcend, genre. Over its 700 or so pages (depending on which version of the book you own), Outlander crosses from historical fiction to romance to adventure to science fiction/fantasy as seamlessly as the turn of a page, forcing one to wonder if genre is all that useful in categorizing books after all. Either way, the cross-section of story-types keeps the book from getting boring, at least for too long. If you’re not one for science fiction or fantasy, that’s only part of it. If the romance grates on your more adventurous needs, an action packed fight or hunt or chase is just around the corner. Whatever your tastes, Outlander endeavors to satisfy them, the fact that it has endured decades as a favorite among readers of all types should go a ways to prove that it is at least largely successful in the attempt.
Which brings us to the show …
… and the fact that it is a remarkably well adapted depiction of the events of the novel … at least, so far. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something so faithfully adapted to, if not the letter, then the spirit of its source material.
Outlander the series begins, with its first few episodes, in an almost to the letter translation of the book to the screen. From the sexual relationship between Claire and Frank, to Claire’s introspection at how their relationship may have been changed by their year’s apart due to their service in the Second World War, everything is there. Perhaps the only notable difference is that the Claire in voiceover seems to be relating this story of her disappearance and subsequent time-travel from much farther in the future than the narrator of the novel. She speaks on things with a kind of retrospect that novel Claire just doesn’t have, and while it sets things up in the opening scene in a manner that is both melancholy and mysterious, it really doesn’t serve to add much to the story beyond that point (it actually confused me a bit in the first episode).
The rest of the half season has only marked differences between source material and television series, and those differences have obviously been carefully chosen. For one, there are the slight character changes. Dougal, in the book, is not nearly as likable right off as he is in the show (there is also no mention of his wife or daughters, but that’s probably due to what is to come later). We don’t see him playing with Hamish in the square as we do in the show. Instead, he’s always a slightly threatening figure to Claire. Perhaps the difference is due to the fact that TV Dougal, unlike the one from the book, has an actual face and mannerisms outside of what is written on the page. Perhaps it’s an intentional decision, put there to make the audience like him, at least a little.
Then, there is Black Jack. In the book, he’s a horrible person, a disgusting man, and one with distasteful habits, desires, and appetites, but he is no where near as terrifying as the villain we are presented with each week on our TV screens. Black Jack’s characterization is where a great deal of the story changes come from, but those changes, however slight, cast our villain in a way that cuts to the very core of what it is to be evil.
Ultimately, while the show makes inevitable changes to its source material to fit the new format and the allotted time, those changes are made with care and consideration you’re unlikely to find very often.
Outlander returns April 4th on Starz, but you can buy the DVD of the first 8 episodes NOW!