Why Book to Screen Adaptations Can be Great, or What I Learned from Watching Outlander

outlanderLast night, the first season finale of Outlander broadcast here in the United States. It was a harrowing, emotional, and deeply felt hour of television that was beautifully and honestly acted, though very difficult to watch due to its intense subject matter. I’ve enjoyed the entire season of this show; the sixteen episodes that have been produced have been smart and provocative—pushing against stereotypes of heroism, feminism, and sexuality. Set against the stunning landscape of Scotland (my where-we-move-when-we-win-the-lottery destination), Outlander has been must-see TV in my house.

Based upon the novel by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander is the first in a series of books about a World War II nurse, Claire Randall, who unexpectedly travels through time from 1945 to 1743, finding herself caught up in a Jacobite uprising, Highland clan politics, and all sorts of danger. She falls deeply in love with a warrior/farmer/all-around perfect fictional man, Jamie Fraser, despite having a husband back in the 1940s. Claire exhibits the kind of resourcefulness, spirit, and resolve that has had fans gushing over Gabaldon’s novels for decades, with TV critics now calling Claire a true “superhero.”

Claire’s romance with Jamie is another driving force for the fan devotion, as is Gabaldon’s richly researched stories, which span continents and centuries and feature a deep knowledge of everything from anatomy to medicinal herbs to 1700s military techniques. Outlander and its subsequent books—there are eight in the main series, with several spin-off novellas and novels, and a ninth book currently being written—are hard to classify. Are they historical fiction? Romance? Adventure? Science fiction? It’s doesn’t matter, as far as I am concerned, because they’re good and fun to read—which is really all that matters.

Outlander was first published in 1991, 23 years before the TV show broadcast, so its success was based upon the written word, not its translation to the screen. When it was announced that a TV show would be made, from what I have gathered, fans reacted with excitement (finally!) and fear (will it be good?).

I get the fear. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with TV/film adaptations of books. They don’t bring to life the vision I have in my head of the story, and therefore I’m often disappointed. Outlander, however, has thrown that belief aside, and by watching it, I’ve learned why book to screen adaptations can be great.

Instead of saying book adaptations are always disappointing, it’s more accurate to say that books to screen adaptations fall into four categories:

  1. Books I may have read (but not always) with awful adaptations to the screen – Think True Blood and Twilight. Both are book series with committed fans and several novels on which a TV show or film could be based. The four Twilight movies brought in over $3 billion at the box office—which doesn’t mean the movies were any good, of course. I found myself laughing throughout Twilight—and not because it was funny. True Blood started off strong—season one was very engaging—but quickly the show veered off into story lines and character choices that were so inconsistent with the books (and so wildly off-base) that I found myself wondering why I kept watching.
  2. Books I have not read with wonderful screen adaptations – I put Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in this category. I am not a Jane Austen fan (I know, I know, it’s crazy, but she’s not “my cup of tea”), but I find the movies of her books to be lovely. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Lord of the Rings, No Country for Old Men, and A Beautiful Mind are all based upon books I’ve not read. These movies have been nominated (and, in some cases, won) Oscars and have had great box office success. Books can be rich source material for film and TV, but how true to the books are the adaptations? Not having read the books, I can’t answer that (though I did love the movies).
  3. Books I love too much to ever see brought to screen – When I heard The Time Traveler’s Wife and Love in the Time of Cholera were being made into movies, I vowed never, ever to see them. And I haven’t. For books in this category, I’m a purist, unable to accept any deviations from the text. I learned my lesson with The English Patient, a book I adored that had a movie adaptation that altered enough from the book that I ended up letdown in both.
  4. Books I have read with excellent adaptations to the screen – Here is where we talk about Outlander. The Hunger Games also falls into this category, as do The Maltese Falcon, the James Bond books, early Stephen King, the Harry Potter series, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I enjoyed the books and found that their translation to screen enhanced the story. I could read the book and enjoy the film, seeing each as separate art forms, with distinct interpretations.

That realization—that a book and its screen adaptation—can be separate from one another, yet complimentary, has been a point of some contention in the Outlander “fandom” (i.e., the people who read the books and watch the TV show and who may or may not like both). On social media and in fan forums, Outlander lovers dissect every single point of the TV show, noting minute differences and complaining about changes with which they disagree (for example, the actor portraying Jamie isn’t left-handed like he is in the book, a beloved sex scene was cut from the final episode*, Claire’s wedding ring was different than described in the book, and on and on).

I understand the frustration (see category 3 above). When you adore a work of art, you want it be perfect, and that perfection is defined as the way you see it. But that won’t happen unless you’re producing the TV show, and even then, you might not be able to do it, money, weather, or logistics getting in your way. Even Diana Gabaldon, creator of the Outlander universe and the person who took the biggest risk by agreeing to the development of the TV show, has told fans to “Put. The. Book. Down” and enjoy the show for what it is: a high quality, professional, and thoughtful interpretation of the novel—not a word-for-word re-creation.

Perhaps my openness to accept the Outlander TV show is a result of discovering the books after I watched the first episode. I came to Outlander and its subsequent novels last summer, after hearing lots of buzz about the show. Considering how well-received these books have been, I am surprised I had never heard of them, especially since I am a sucker for a Scottish accent and consider Scotland to be one of the most romantic places I’ve ever visited. I also love historical fiction and strong female protagonists, yet, somehow, Outlander slipped by me. “Oh, you’d love the book,” said one of my friends, the most voracious reader I know, when I mentioned that I was planning to watch the TV show. “I’ll send it to you.”

The moment I began reading Outlander, I was hooked. I devoured the book in days; it’s addictive—the best way for a book to be after all. I was lucky; I came to the Outlander series 24 years after it was published. I didn’t have to wait years for book two, three, four… eight. I could read them all at once. And, I did. I sped through all eight books and some of the offshoots of the series (novellas and novels about secondary characters). I read those books everywhere: in coffee shops, on line at the grocery, waiting to pick up my kids from school, under the covers at night while my husband slept beside me, in airports, and on planes. On a business trip to India last fall, I read the Outlander series at 3 AM when jet lag induced insomnia kept me wide awake in hotel rooms in Mumbai and Delhi. A devotee of a good night’s sleep, I didn’t care that it eluded me on that trip; after all, I had Jamie and Claire to occupy me.

I finished the books before the show returned from its mid-season break (a period known as Droughtlander). Consequently, I came back to the show with my own fully formed visions of the characters and their stories. As a result, when watching the TV show, I had moments when I didn’t agree with decisions made by the production team**, the book always in the back of my mind. But all of my “why did they do it that way?” questions were based upon a desire for more: more screen time for a character I liked, the inclusion of a scene or piece of dialogue that I loved from the book, more time for the relationship of Claire and Jamie to develop, more time for non-book readers watching the show to understand why this story is so compelling. I had some criticisms (everyone is a critic, right?), but all that is terrific about the show—the casting, the acting, the costumes, the music, the cinematography, and the production design—always overshadowed my questions.

Most importantly, while reflecting upon my criticisms, I kept in mind that I don’t work in television; it’s not my expertise. So, I’m trusting the producers and writers, led by Ronald D. Moore (who made the excellent remake of Battlestar Galactica) to honor the story and do it justice. They’ve shown in season one that they can do that. I hope more Outlander book lovers agree to let go of the details and embrace this interpretation. After all, the alternative is no show at all. But again, I get it if they can’t (again, see category 3 above).

Perhaps this—in an odd way—is a metaphor for life, a reminder to be open to the benefits of someone else’s point of view. After all, if we just see life—or art—only one way, we’re missing out on an array of new, and potentially exciting, visions.

I have my fingers crossed that Outlander gets renewed for many more seasons; filming on season two is underway now, with a broadcast date of sometime next year. Until then, I have the books to read, and a new book to screen adaptation category to develop: Books I enjoy that are adapted to screen in a way different from what I imagine—and I love them both anyway.

Haven’t read Outlander? You can find out more about the books here. Websites about the show and its stars fill the Internet; here’s one that serves as a clearinghouse of show news. 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links; learn more here.

* A word on that sex scene that was cut in the final episode: the narrative of the show worked better without it.  Plus, my view of that scene having read the book is steamy enough—I don’t need the show to tell that Jamie and Claire have chemistry!

** I thought the scene at the stones in episode 11 was too rushed and that a voice over from Claire was needed. I also thought that the time Claire and Jamie spent at the abbey in episode 16 should have been longer.

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