Wednesday, July 20, 2016

“LASTING IMPRESSIONS” When words and visual media combine: a comment on the process of adapting Outlander by your Aussie blogging lass, Susie Brown

Outlander Homepage Originals

Which is better: the book or the film? My answer to this question used to be an automatic “the book”. But these days, I’m not sure that’s true. Sure, there are some diabolical adaptations of books out there - ones that leave you shaking your head and wondering how no-one saw the train wreck that they were creating. But when an adaptation is done right, the two media complement each other. Very rarely, you come across something so spectacularly adapted that the line between book and screen all but disappears. And when that happens, the resulting creation can’t help but make a lasting impression.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t able to read. I have lost count of how many worlds I have explored via the printed page. I have been surrounded by books all my life, but one series in particular has imprinted itself on my soul. The introduction to this remarkable world came one afternoon in the late 1990s, in a quirky book and coffee shop at the bottom end of town. Whilst waiting for my cappuccino, I found a story that would change my life. That story was Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. 

Looking back, I think that a few things combined to ensure that I picked that particular book off the shelf. Timing, for one. I had just returned from a whirlwind trip to Scotland with my father. Interest in the history, for another. I had been researching my family tree and knew that there was at least a reasonable chance that some of my ancestors had fought in the battle of Culloden. And so, my interest piqued, I began to read. 

To say that I devoured the first book would be an understatement. The story consumed me. I lost all sense of time and place. I loved Claire’s feistiness and Jamie’s protectiveness. My heart swelled as their romance blossomed. And then, something happened that had never happened to me before, despite the many books and millions of words I had read. The characters made me cry. Actual I-can’t-see-the-page-because-I-am-crying-so-hard tears. Tears for characters that on the one hand I knew perfectly well were fictitious, but on the other hand, were so real I felt their joy and pain as if they were members of my own family. When I finished the first book, I moved onto the second without a pause. Then the third. (I had been lucky enough not to discover Outlander until after the first 3 books had been released - I may not have survived the wait between Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager otherwise!) In the almost 20 years since that time, I have eagerly read everything that has been written about the Outlander world. I think I literally squealed when I heard that a series was being produced. Ok, there was a little bit of trepidation in there too - what if they got it wrong? But then I read that Diana Gabaldon was happy, so I relaxed. If “Herself” was pleased, then all would be well!

Finally, season 1 began. I had expected it to be good. I had hoped it would be great. But I wasn’t expecting it to be the all-consuming ride that it was. There literally aren’t enough adjectives to describe the brilliance of what Ron Moore and his team created. My love of the books was rekindled. My admiration for the actors was unparalleled. I found myself thinking about the scenes every day. It was addictive!

I was thrilled to be asked by Outlander Homepage to recap the episodes in season 2.  As a newbie blogger, I was determined to do a good job, so I dusted off my copy of Dragonfly in Amber and started to reread, so that I’d be able to make lots of comparisons between book and series. Except that episode one began in 1948, complete with TV Frank, who was far more sympathetic a character than book Frank had ever been. From the get go, things were going to be different. This wasn’t going to be a direct dramatisation of the book.

Of course, neither was season 1. And back then, Diana Gabaldon herself had given her fans plenty of advice about comparing the original to the series. She told us to “Put. The. Book. Down.” (To read her entire post, written just before the finale of the first season, go here: It was sound advice, but of course, I resisted for far longer than I should have, still looking for scenes from the book that I expected to see televised throughout the second season. Some of them appeared. Many more did not. Characters too, changed: appearing or not appearing, dying or not dying - even when the episode was written by Diana Gabaldon herself. By then, I was starting to realise that putting the book down was probably a good thing. (Slow learner, I know!) 

In the days since the season 2 finale has aired, and as everyone has started to settle into the latest “Droughtlander”, much has been written about episode 13. While there is almost universal agreement (at least from what I’ve read) that it was a powerful 90 minutes, there are plenty of opinions out there about missing scenes, the introduction of Bree and Roger and the physical appearance of the older Claire. As has always been the way with Outlander fans, these opinions are passionate ones. In my role as recapper for this season, I’ve written over 60 000 words (62 431, to be exact!) recapping each episode’s scenes and offering brief comments on certain plot points and characters. As the season went on, I focused less on the chapters from the book and more on what was unfolding in front of me. Along the way, I’ve learned something about the process of adapting a book into a series and have a whole new respect for the people who undertake this task. So, in my final blog post for this season, I wanted to comment a little more on this.

According to its Wikipedia entry, Outlander is a “multi-genre” novel. It is listed variously as romance, historical and science fiction/fantasy. Right there, any adapter is going to face a problem - how do you successfully adapt something that is all these things? Romance fans are going to be looking for one thing; historical fans another. And are these fans also going to buy a fantasy element? Book fans already know that Outlander can’t be boxed into one genre - like its heroine, it simply can’t be moulded into being something it isn’t. The second book, Dragonfly in Amber, around which season 2 is based, has the added complication of dealing with politics, deception, historical battles/figures and a change of scenery from Scotland to France. The central characters, who spent a large portion of the first book falling in love and getting to know one another amidst a backdrop of danger, are thrown into unknown territory following a horrendous assault. They have just discovered they are going to become parents and must try to change history. How can hundreds of pages of text be conveyed in 13 and a bit hours of television?

The short answer is that they can’t. Not without making changes, at any rate. And one of the first changes was to alter the timeline, not only by bookending the season in the 20th century, but also by reducing the amount of time between Jamie’s rescue at the end of season 1 and the couple’s arrival in France at the start of season 2. In the book, months had passed. In the series, it was much sooner. This had big implications for what became the most commonly discussed topic throughout the season - the love scenes between Jamie and Claire.

Many fans have expressed disappointment over the lack of sex between the couple in season 2 compared to season 1. My personal opinion is that we need to keep the reduced timeline in mind. In the series, Jamie is still a man suffering from the horrors of his abuse. Every time he attempts to be intimate with Claire, he sees Randall’s face. His trauma shows us the extent of his broken spirit. The one thing that had been a strength - his connection to Claire - is shattered. In the book, there were months of recovery and rehabilitation, where he started to come back to himself. Here, it is all still raw. How realistic would it have been, to have lots of sex amidst all the personal turmoil? Would it ring true? Producers, writers and the actors themselves have all said that they never wanted love scenes between the pair to seem gratuitous. How likely is it that someone recovering from a violent sexual assault would be able to have joyous lovemaking sessions? Many relationships fail after rape. It is precisely the strength of the bond between Jamie and Claire that allows them to find each other again. In the books, Claire gives Jamie the chance to fight back against Randall in a scene evoking the supernatural; on screen, she gives him the news that Randall is alive. Both versions are the catalyst for the rehabilitation, but the version we see is the one that makes sense within the storyline that has been developed for the screen and it culminates in the beautiful “Come and find us” scene, which is all the more joyous because of the struggle it has taken to get there. 

Then just as they are recovering, the duel with Randall happens and Claire miscarries. Following her physical recovery, the next sexual encounter for Claire is not with Jamie, but with King Louis and is nothing more than a business transaction to ensure Jamie’s freedom. But while her body has healed, her emotions haven’t. When the couple meet again, they have lost a child and are dealing with feelings of anger and betrayal and guilt. How would it be realistic to cram a sex scene in there? Instead, we wait and watch as the two find themselves yet again, when they return, all too briefly to Lallybroch. 

In the books, we have many chapters to allow the characters to breathe, to heal. But in a television series with the time constraints of 13 episodes, there isn’t that luxury, as the action must move swiftly towards Culloden. We don’t see sex scenes, it’s true, but we do see many small moments of affection, as Jamie and Claire’s relationship goes from strength to strength, becoming the united team that they always have been, their bond stronger for what they have gone through. It makes their final parting more emotional, more devastating. I would suggest that what we have seen this season is the strengthening of a relationship past its initial romance and attraction, through trauma and grief, forgiveness and trust, leading to understanding and finally separation - and all that is worth the sacrifice of a few bedroom scenes. And really, we have the best of both worlds. If we do as Diana Gabaldon advised, and put the book down, we can watch the relationship from this different perspective - and then return to the books to read the scenes that we missed seeing enacted on the screen. 

In interviews before the season began, Ron Moore spoke a little of the process involved in breaking down a book for adaptation. He explained that the story was broken into chunks for each episode. Story arcs were then created, so that each episode had light and shade. Such a process pretty much ensures that events couldn’t unfold exactly as they do in the book. Hundreds of pages needed to be condensed into minutes, so changes needed to be made. Weather, sets, even the availability of actors can also have an impact. The end goal, however, would be to make sure that the things that needed to happen did happen, while preserving as much as possible, the beautiful words from the page.

With one exception, in my opinion, I believe this was achieved. The motivations of characters were maintained and relationships between characters consistent. Where changes happened, they were for a purpose. For example, the appearance of Colum MacKenzie in episode 8 was written solely for television. At the time, I didn’t see the need for his appearance. However, when he reappeared in episode 12, it became clear. We needed to see the deterioration in his health, from the last time he was seen in season 1, to the end of season 2. Episode 8 provided the midpoint, where viewers could see that he looked weaker and older, but his appearance in episode 12 was a shock. It was clear that he was close to death. Of course, Colum’s travelling companion in episode 8 was Laoghaire and this was the change that I disagreed with. In my opinion, the Laoghaire storyline that was invented does change character development in the future - although it remains to be seen whether it works in season 3. I will admit that I was pleased to see that Diana Gabaldon wasn’t supportive of this change either - an example perhaps where everyone should have kept the book firmly in their hands? Time will tell. 

If however, we consider an adaptation where everything had indeed been done exactly as written in the book, where all the scenes we had wanted were there - what would have needed to have been sacrificed? I would argue that it would have been a lot. We wouldn’t for example, have had the characters of Rupert and Angus, or Ross and Kincaid, all very minor players in the book. These characters help us understand the life of the highlanders better. We get a glimpse into their loyalty, their friendships, their humour, the bond between the clansmen - all things that make the story richer. We wouldn’t have seen the strong parental bond that Jamie and Claire formed with Fergus. Most of all, we wouldn’t have had TV Murtagh. The character of Murtagh was greatly expanded for television - and quickly became a firm favourite, to the point where many fans hope that another change will see his story continue into future seasons. Can we imagine Outlander now without Duncan Lacroix’s Murtagh? I can’t. By elevating some minor characters and giving them their own story arcs, I would argue that the story is only made richer. Although slightly different to Diana Gabaldon’s original, it is every bit as satisfying.

The other leading characters in the television series are the landscapes and the soundtrack. From the opulence of Paris to the wildness of Scotland, the landscapes allow us to appreciate the visual on a whole new level. We come to love Scotland too and the passion felt by the Jacobites is perhaps more easily understood. Similarly, the beautiful music composed by Bear McCreary heightens our emotions too. From the grandeur of French society, to the beautiful music for baby Faith, to the stirring highland anthems, to the romantic theme music of Jamie and Claire -  all this is an addition to the story that is separate to the books, but vital to our love of the story as a whole.

The twentieth century sections of the story bookend the main plot, just as they do in the novel, but whereas the book’s twentieth century is all in 1968, for television the scenes are twenty years apart. It is a big change, but once again, one that serves to heighten both drama and emotion. The 1948 scenes, largely adapted from bits of other books, force us to consider the effect of time travel on the characters left behind. But the main payoff happens when the 1968 scenes appear, as we understand the total devastation that the return causes for Claire. Having seen her heartwrenching goodbye to Jamie at the stones, we understand that the opening moments of episode 1 are literally, for her, only moments later, making her subsequent interactions with Frank totally understandable. The rest of the 1968 scenes then show us a Claire who has been living for twenty years without her soulmate and we marvel at how she has done so, forcing herself into a society that she doesn’t identify with, in order to raise the child who reminds her daily of the man she lost.

 Caitriona Balfe pulls this portrayal off beautifully, although some fan discussions have focused not on this, but on the costume choices made by the production team for the older Claire and whether or not they were authentic for the book character. Similarly, discussions about Roger and, more often, Brianna, have focused less on these two actors’ abilities to establish the foundations of two iconic characters and more on their lack of physical resemblance to the book descriptions. Again, I feel the need to follow Diana Gabaldon’s advice, advising putting the book expectations away and focusing on the emotions of the characters. Then we see a woman who has kept going despite losses that would destroy others; a daughter who has never truly connected with her mother, faced with the loss of a man who turns out not to be her biological father and asked to believe that the man who is has been dead for 200 years; and finally a man who must balance the grief he feels at the loss of his father with his attraction towards a young woman and the connection he has to a story that truly transcends time. When we do this, the rewards are huge - particularly when we will have the luxury of at least two more seasons to see the development of all of these characters and storylines. Of course, we also have the luxury of 8 - and soon enough, 9 - books, where we can read to our heart’s content and imagine the characters looking any way we wish. (I, however, can only see the actors when I read now!)

So, ultimately, which is better: the book or the film? For me, in the case of Outlander, the answer is a resounding “neither”. This is because, in my opinion, the two have become interwoven. It is this serendipitous melding of the literary and the visual that has created something new. And the overall impression? Definitely lasting! 

These final comments on season 2 have been written by Susie Brown, a teacher-librarian and writer who lives in Australia. She has loved every second of recapping the episodes and thanks Outlander Homepage for the privilege. She’s already looking forward to season 3. Of course, she can’t help herself and is rereading Voyager, which she promises to put down when the time comes! 

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