Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing favourite books adapted for the screen. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Call the Midwife, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Famous Five, Pollyanna, Little Women, Heidi, Black Beauty, the list goes on… As a life long book lover, I have to confess a screen adaptation rarely exceeds my reading experience. This doesn’t worry me. I take cinema on its own terms. As long as a movie or TV series draws me into its world, I can overlook alterations to plot, dialogue and characters. I am rarely disappointed.
Starz TV’s Outlander series is proving a different experience.
Based on the epic, historical, time travel novel of Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randal, a World War Two army nurse with a passion for botany, her husband Frank an academic with an interest in genealogy, and Jamie Fraser an injured eighteenth century Scotsman, who Claire treats medically after being drawn backwards through time. Outlander is the first in a series of eight novels. I have read them all. The first three books, multiple times. I looked forward to seeing them televised.
Created by Ronald D Moore and produced by Left Bank Pictures, the series showed great promise. It was being filmed in Scotland, tick, with great attention to period detail and costume, double tick, and they would be working in conjunction with the author Diana Gabaldon, tick, tick, tick.
How could they possibly go wrong?
I have an answer to that question, based on my vast experience writing for film and television (exactly zero hours) and I’m going to enlighten you, if you are patient. But first, let’s start with the positives.
Scenery: Stunning. Almost as beautiful as Wales. I can give you no higher praise.
Rain: Frequent. I give them ten out of ten for honesty. You don’t get that kind of green without precipitation.
Filth: Another bonus point. Life is portrayed as muddy and grubby.
Language: It’s a pleasure to hear the Scots accents. I’m glad they didn’t anglicise the dialogue (though it may have aided comprehension). Fortunately, there are subtitles, for the faint hearted and those for whom Scots English isn’t a first language (though, I am refusing to use them). Why? There is a fair bit of Gaelic spoken in the first three episodes of the series. But my subtitles do not provide a translation, only the words – speaking other language. Another language! If you are going to translate the Scots, why not the Gaelic? Or is a minority language not worth the effort (sorry, a slight negative amongst the positives).
Supporting characters: Perfect. Colum, Dougal, Geillis, Laoghaire, Mrs Fitz, Black Jack Randal. All well cast and acted with conviction.
Jamie Fraser: What can I say? Jamie Fraser is a god – tender, brave, witty, strong, handsome and intelligent. No one could have portrayed his character to perfection. No one. But I have to say Sam Heughan is giving us a fair run for our money. In fact, he’s probably as good as it gets.
Claire Randal: Ah! Now here is where we get to the pointy end of the stick. Claire is nothing like I imagined. In the book she is matter of fact, humorous, professional, compassionate, and guarded when necessary. Her voice is one of the triumphs of the first novel. By contrast, Catriona Balfe gives us a Claire who is sultry, a little vague and, at times, petulant. So far I have seen little of Claire’s humour or strength.
I don’t think it’s entirely Balfe’s fault.
So, we come to the enlightenment. Sit up straight Ronald D. Moore and Left Bank Productions. Or better still why not hire me? Come one. I wouldn’t have noticed the costumes, the scenery, the horses, the accents, the glass goblets, the constant change of Claire’s outfits, the rain, the architecture, the children’s buck teeth, or the plants in the gardens, if I had been engrossed in the story. I wasn’t. Not once. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this.
1) The voice overs
These were fine to begin with. By episode three, they are getting tiresome. Every time I hear Claire’s narrating voice I am jerked out of the story. When she goes through the stones, for example, a moment in which film had a distinct advantage over prose, Claire didn’t have to explain how she felt. You could have shown us, with sound and images, by making us feel giddy and sick and, heaven forbid, by letting Balfe act.
A blank screen and a narrating voice were lazy television.
2) The flash backs
I don’t mind a flash back. Well handled it can add depth to the narrative. The film Saving Mr Banks used this technique effectively (aside from the small matter of an Australian country town looking like something out of Little House on the Prairie). Each flash back to Travers’ childhood, showed the viewer things they needed to know. Parts of her family history she would never have shared with Walt Disney. There are times in Outlander when flashbacks are also used to good effect. The scene from World War Two, where Claire kisses Frank goodbye from the train, is a prime example. It adds depth to Claire’s character and show us the strength of their relationship. Not so, the flash back scene in which Jamie tells Claire of his first meeting with Black Jack Randal. True, the event is in his past. Undoubtably it scarred him. But this was meant to be a poignant moment between Jamie and Claire. He was telling her something he would not have shared with others. But we don’t get to see the tension played out between them. Balfe’s role is reduced to a benign response at the end of a bodice ripping scene. A shame.
Give the girl a chance to act, I say!
As you can see the positives outweigh the negatives. As a consequence I will continue watching the series (I’ve paid for it) and, if the blogosphere is any indication, Claire’s character strengthens in the fourth episode. I hope so. Because I enjoyed the books. I’d hate Outlander to be the only screen adaptation in which I am truly disappointed.
Oh, and PS. I’m pretty sure Claire is saying Gwyllyn’s name wrong. 🙂