This weekend, the Starz channel aired the season one premier of the TV adaptation of the beloved novel Outlander. In the Venn diagram of book genres, Outlander nestles neatly in the overlap between romance novel, historical fiction, and fantasy. The majority of the book is set in Scotland in 1743, but there is definitely magic involved in the tale. I’ve been meaning to read Outlander for quite a while, and was shocked to actually find it in my reading pile of doom recently, meaning that I picked it up without realizing it at some point in my travels. Starz was just about to begin a TV series based on the book, so what better time to read it?
Having freshly read the book for the first time right before watching the first episode of the show has allowed me to make more accurate comparisons between the two. Here is the good, the bad, and the ugly about Starz’s TV adaptation.
The Good: It seems that screenwriters who are adapting from existing works are finally catching on to the fact that staying close to the source material is a very good idea. Fortunately, the guys working on this project have gotten the memo. I was pleasantly surprised that most of this episode drew directly out of the first chapters of Gabaldon’s book. Many of the quotes and conversations were actually verbatim.
The show is touted as a British-American television drama, and the British style of production comes through loudly and clearly. I always appreciate the mixture of faces and body styles that make up the cast of British television (as opposed to the cast of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., for example, who could practically be siblings). In this, Outlander did not disappoint. The main characters are unique and attractive without looking like they’ve just left the plastic surgeon, and the side characters from the opening scenes that take place in 1945 Inverness, Scotland look exactly the way the viewer would expect from a bed & breakfast proprietor, a village priest, and a priest’s housekeeper.
The title scenes were primarily of the mountains of Scotland. They were vast and beautiful and wild, and made me want to be there in the worst way. Sadly, these shots did not last very long.
The Bad: The impression I got of Claire and Frank Randall from Gabaldon’s original work was of a couple that had been separated for several years by conflicting duties during World War II, but who were rediscovering their love for each other. This couple on my TV screen had clearly been separated early in their relationship and were rediscovering each other as people. There was a brief aside in which the Claire, the narrator, tells the audience that whenever she cannot connect with her husband emotionally, she just has sex with him. This seemed to be very different from Gabaldon’s Claire, whose passion for her husband seemed to come from the fact that she was able to connect with him emotionally, even if she didn’t share all of his interests. Tobias Menzies (Frank Randall) has always been an actor whose roles I’ve disliked, so I was actually pleased to see him playing the part of Frank Randall, whose character in the book was one to whom I never particularly took.
The colors in the show were drab and boring. This was deliberate in the initial scenes in 1945, but from interviews with crew members, it was clear that the creators had intended for later scenes in Scotland to be more brightly colored to signify the awakening of Claire’s imagination. Somehow it didn’t seem as though they managed to pulled this off.
Overall, while I appreciate the interesting features of the cast, I was disappointed with some the casting, particularly of Dougal MacKenzie. Gabaldon particularly described him several times as an extremely handsome man with a commanding presence, but Graham McTavish just looks old. I guess I will have to wait and see if his acting chops can pull off this role.
The Ugly: To be completely honest, this episode bored me in a way that should not have happened, particularly immediately after having read the source material. I was pleased that the script stuck so closely to the book, but the visuals simply do not support the sweeping story. This is enhanced by the fact that the premier episode was an hour and ten minutes long—more than fifteen minutes longer than a normal episode.
There are many Outlander fans in geekdom that are far more knowledgeable and in love with the book than I. I really hope that this TV series is able to satisfy this audience. So far I have not seen anything awe inspiring in the show, but this is just the beginning after all. I have to give this first episode just two out of five death stars, but I may revisit this series once it has had time to get its bearings and see if it lives up to Gabaldon’s well loved masterpiece.