“I’ve always known I’ve lived a like different from other men. When I was a lad I saw no path before me, I simply took a step and then another. Ever forward, ever onward, rushing toward someplace I knew not where. And one day I turned around and looked back and saw that each step I’d taken was a choice, to go left, to go right, to go forward or even to not go at all. Every day every man has a choice between right and wrong, between love and hate, and sometimes between life and death and the sum of those choices becomes your life. The day I realized that is the day that I became a man.” -Jamie Fraser (S1E9 “The Reckoning”)
I’m a fan of adaptation. While there have certainly been movies or TV shows adapted from books or plays that have made me deeply regret the time in my life wasted watching them (I’m looking at you, pretty much everything based off anything in the Cassandra Clare universe), I am not the person who walks out of a movie or away from the show saying, “The book was better.”
That’s not to say that the book isn’t often “better,” depending on what you mean by “better.” Books are almost universally more, as a 100,000 word manuscript ought to contain more than a few hour film/show on screen. Books are often able to go deeper and include more scenes and description and explanation as a result, because that is how the medium works. But it seems to me, from both anecdotal evidence and many, many conversation with friends and family about book-to-screen adaptations, that when people say, “The book was better,” what they really mean is, “I really, really loved the book and I was disappointed that the film/TV show was not exactly the same.”
My thoughts are these, and they are backed by Science (just kidding! Maybe?): the whole point of adaptation is that the story is going to be different. It will be presented in a different way, will likely emphasize different things (I mean, film and TV are visual media, let’s be real) and will be shorter. This means exposition is missing, parts of the story and often whole characters need to be left out, etc. The point of the adaption is to tell its own story, to adapt it, to take one thing and make it another. For some book to film/TV shows, this means the story looks very similar, because the book likely lent itself well to be adapted to screen. For most, it means you get something totally different.
This is why, when I evaluate an adaptation, what I’m interested in is whether the adaptation itself worked as a story, not how it compared to the book it was based on. And sometimes, like with Outlander, even when the book and show differ in big and important ways I can deeply love them both. So warning, friends, my love song to one particular adaptation point in the Outlander TV series contains spoilers for Season 1 and general book series spoilers!
In so many ways, the first Outlander book (Outlander), was a love song to Scotland. It was the only book so far in Diana Gabladon’s series that took place entirely in Scotland, and it was as much about Scotland as a country and a concept as it was about any characters or plot therein (at least, in my opinion). While I fell in love with Claire and Jamie individually and as a couple, what stuck with me after I finished Outlander was how badly I wanted to go to Scotland and how much I loved Scotland and the Scottish people.
One of the chief strengths of the show, for me, was that it took the love song Gabladon wrote and translated that to screen, where the producers were faithful to the story enough that it was filmed on location in Scotland and each episode contained moments where the cameras focused exclusively on the gorgeous terrain. In many ways, the show was the perfect compliment to the book, bringing to life Gabladon’s words and adding the incredible visual dimension to the concepts the text embodied.
In terms of the overall story, the show was also able to stay truer to its source material than many films since it had more screen time to use for the adaptation. But it was still an adaptation, and the Showrunners took advantage of that, reshaping the story into something very familiar and yet wholly its own.
There were parts of the television series of Outlander that I felt were somewhat lacking, certainly. My friends who watched the show but had not read the books had frequent questions, almost all of which I could answer by saying, “Well in the book…” which is something I hate to do in these situations. A primary example of this was the huge moment in Season 1, Episode 11 where Claire returns to the stones at Craigh Na Dun and ultimately decides to remain in the 1740s with Jamie rather than return to the 1940s and her husband Frank. The show actually included more Frank than the books did, by flashing back to Claire’s life with him throughout the first half of the season and even in the mid-season finale giving him an entirely original storyline that took up almost half the screen time of the episode.
This made Claire’s decision to remain in the past with Jamie really baffling to show-only watchers, who did not have the long book narrative which shows Claire thinking less and less about Frank and also includes her thought process as she sits at Craigh Na Dun and makes her decision to remain with Jamie. Indeed the show even opted out of using voiceover for that scene, which was an interesting choice as Claire’s voiceover is otherwise a fairly common tool used to overcome the difficulties of translating a book that takes place mostly in a character’s head onto the screen.
For the most part, though, the show adaptation worked very well. The Showrunners created some original characters (like young Will) and spent a lot more time with some side characters (like Frank and Angus and Rupert) which added some extra dimensions to the story. The crowning achievement of the adaptation though, in my opinion, was the addition of the Jamie storyline in the second half of the season.
While in later books, characters other than Claire get a POV (including Jamie), Outlander itself is entirely a first-person POV from Claire’s perspective. In the TV adaptation, Claire’s other half, James Alexander Malcom McKenzie Fraser, gets to sit in the driver’s seat. The first half of the season has him sidelined somewhat as the story builds. Claire is clearly the main character and the focal point of the narrative, and as she grows closer to Jamie he gets more screentime and the audience learns more about him. But the second half of Season 1, which opened after a long mid-season break, begins with a Jamie POV episode.
We get Jamie’s voiceover, following Jamie throughout the episode, and only see Claire when Jamie does. As someone who adores the novel Outlander and wouldn’t have the first book any other way, I was deeply impressed by the show’s decision to feature Jamie and introduce him as the second main character and a POV. It was wonderful not only for me as a viewer, but it added a lot to the show’s narrative overall to allow us to follow Jamie’s story in the back half of the season without having to hear about what he was up to via Claire.
For me, it added even more tension to Episode 12, when Jamie brings Claire to Craigh Na Dun and says his farewells, because we’ve been in his head and we know what she means to him and how much that moment is a true sacrifice for him. It adds to the feeling of relief when she returns to him as the episode closed. And it certainly added to the last two episodes of the season, where we see the intense Wentworth Prison scenes between Jamie and Captain Randall both in real time through Jamie and later as he relives the experience by finally telling Claire about what happened.
Overall, I am just a huge fan of the show, both because it remains faithful to the books in the big, important ways, and because it really slayed the adaptation thing, at least in my opinion. I absolutely loved the story they told and really especially loved what they did with bringing Jamie and his character to the forefront.
How about you, readers? How do you feel about the Outlander adaptation?