Adaptation is a funny thing. It requires a delicate balance between the source material and the medium. Stray too far from the basic premise and plot of the novel, and you’re left with something that is only tangentially related. Hew too closely, and the whole point of adaptation is lost: it’s just a novel with pictures. In this respect, contemporary television seemingly has the advantage over film: it allows both the time and the space to do justice to the adaptation in terms of plot; issues of interiority and character development are sometimes harder to manage without the reliance on voiceovers or insertions of scenes suggested but not written within the source.
Outlander actually uses both these devices, but in a series that is all about adapting to a new environment and time unlike one’s own, it actually works fairly well. It’s a series that’s challenging to classify as a particular genre, much as its main character is difficult to classify in relation to the society she finds herself in. Aside from its premise—a woman time travels from 1946 to 1743 through “standing stones” (think Stonehenge)—there are few fantastical or sci-fi elements in the series.
Based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, and produced and written by Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica/Helix), Outlander is instead fairly grounded in the realities of Scottish highland life in the waning days of the Scottish clan system. Indeed, one could even say “earthy”: the difficulties of childbirth, the use of urine to dye fabric, the sights and smells (and dangers) of an era in which individuals lived off their wits, lands, and traditions, and apparently, had lots of sex.
The basic story, which part one of season one set up, is: Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Frank Randall (Tobias Menzes), are honeymooning in the Scottish highlands, after a long separation caused by World War II, in which Frank worked in intelligence and Claire as a combat nurse. When visiting the standing stones, Claire touches one and finds herself transported to 1743 and in the middle of the long-simmering conflict between the Scottish and the English. Worse, the English Captain of the Dragoons, Jack Randall (Tobias Menzes) bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Frank (he is in fact Frank’s ancestor) and is clearly a sadist and a sociopath.
Rescued from a near-rape by Jack through the intervention of a band of Highlanders, one of whom, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), has both a price on his head and scars on his back from his own run-in with Randall, Claire is taken to the Clan MacKenzie lands, and tries to simultaneously fit in, avoid Jack Randall, and find a way to escape back to her own time. At the end of part one, the clan arranges a marriage between Claire and Jamie, which would make her a part of the clan and under their protection. When she attempts to return to the standing stones, she is captured by the English, and nearly tortured and raped by Randall before Jamie appears to help her escape.
While part one of season one focused on Claire’s integration into the 18th-century Scottish culture she couldn’t escape, part two allows Claire a choice. Despite the arranged marriage to Jamie, Claire finds herself torn between her feelings for Jamie and her betrayal of her 20th century husband. After conflicts between the laird (lord) of Clan MacKenzie and his brother lead to Claire being put on trial for witchcraft (“The Devil’s Mark” [1.11]), she tells Jamie the truth about where she’s really from, and he takes her to the stones so she can return to her own time. Despite the obvious dangers, she stays in the 18th century, travels with Jamie to his ancestral home (“Lallybroch” [1.12], only for Jamie to be captured by the English (“The Watch” [1.13]), and subjected to brutal torture and rape by Randall in exchange for Claire’s freedom (“Wentworth Prison” [1.14]).
What sets Outlander apart is not the authentic period detail or the beautiful cinematography, but what shouldn’t: with the exception of a single episode (“The Reckoning” [1.09]), the main narrative voice of the series is Claire’s. Despite falling into a time in which her ethnicity (English) and her gender make her a target, despite having to marry for protection, she is adaptable, capable, and independent. Even better, those same qualities lead her into both good and bad situations; this is no superhuman or infallible woman, but a faceted female character, the likes of which is long overdue.
In this second half of the first season, Outlander also finds myriad ways to reverse and subvert typical gender roles, despite the time period. When Jamie is captured, it’s Claire and Jamie’s sister Jenny (Laura Donnelly) who search for him, despite the fact Jenny had recently given birth and occasionally has to stop to express milk for the infant she’s carrying. It’s Claire who dresses in drag and takes the stage to sing a bawdy song she hopes will bring Jamie out of hiding, while Jamie’s friend Murtagh (Duncan LaCroix) works the crowd for information (“The Search” [1.14]). Finally, when Claire and Murtagh finally locate Jamie in the infamous Wentworth Prison, it’s Claire who leads the small band of Highlanders in a rescue attempt (“To Ransom a Man’s Soul” [1.16]).
It’s not just Claire’s portrayal and plot that subverts expectations; it’s Jamie’s, as well. When Claire reveals the truth of her origins, there’s no drawn out disbelief or desire for proof; Jamie tells her he trusts her, and that’s the end of it. It’s Jamie who barters his body for Claire’s life.
Perhaps most importantly, in the excruciating scenes between Jack and Jamie (“To Ransom a Man’s Soul”), it is the psychological torture more than the physical rape that is the focus; that is, the worst violation is the way in which Jack manages to poison Jamie’s sense of himself and Jamie’s love for Claire, rather than the act itself as an assault on his manhood. While I would hesitate to label the series as feminist (author Diana Gabaldon herself does not apply that label to either Claire or the novel), there’s something refreshing in the increasing number of series focused on female protagonists, issues, and even gazes.
The Blu-Ray format does justice to the gorgeous set pieces, filmed entirely in Scotland, and the special features, such as a set tour with author Diana Gabaldon, an extended episode (“The Reckoning”), and deleted scenes introduced by Ron Moore, deepen the viewing experience. The featurette, “Weaving Authentic”, details the process of creating the period kilts in Selkirk, Scotland; kilt-making and textiles built that town’s fortunes, and it’s a fascinating look at the modernization of an ancient process. The table read and gag reel features are mildly amusing, and the short featurette, “A Triangle in Time”, offers the actors’ perspective on the characters and series, but doesn’t provide much in the way of unknown or added information.
In the end, however, Outlander proves itself as adaptable as its heroine and hero.