In just a few short weeks, the long-awaited televised version of Diana Gabaldon’s genre classic Outlander will finally, finally reach the screen. Although at this writing Starz Network has selfishly held all sneak peeks and preview episodes entirely too close for our liking, early signs are encouraging: As acerbic time-traveler Claire and braw Scots outlaw Jamie, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan certainly look their respective parts, and the first teaser trailers are appropriately action-packed and atmospheric. Starz has my attention, at any rate.
Outlander and its various sequels are scrupulously researched, densely plotted, and lushly written; to read one for the first time is to be lost in another world, probably for several days. It’s inevitable that some aspects of the novel will be lost in translation from page to screen. In some cases, that’s fine—I, for one, would be perfectly content if the showrunners were to tone the violence (especially the sexual violence) way, way down and conveniently forget about Jamie’s unfortunate tendency to address any woman with whom he finds himself in disagreement as “Whore.” But there are some things that simply must remain the same. Here are five.
1. Claire kicks ass.
From the very start, we know that Claire Randall is not to be trifled with. A former World War II combat nurse, she has seen pretty much the worst that life can throw at a person and survived. After she unexpectedly finds herself in 1743, despite being stunned and disoriented, she retains sufficient presence of mind to concoct a vaguely plausible cover story, lie low, and plot her return home. Once it’s clear that she’ll be kicking it 18th-century style for a while, she’s able to draw upon her medical background and knowledge of herbalism to make herself useful—indispensable, even— to the people with whom she abides. And when her survival depends upon her marrying a man she’s known for only a few weeks (and deflowering him, into the bargain), she handles the situation with aplomb.
And did you notice? Claire meets a lot of men in Jacobite-era Scotland. Few of them trust her; many of them actively dislike her. But none of them talk down to her.
2. Claire genuinely loves and respects Frank.
Emotionally, the story just doesn’t carry the same heft if Claire is completely meh on the husband she leaves in 1945. If she doesn’t care for Frank, then Outlander becomes merely a fantasy involving a bored housewife who escapes a tedious marriage by disappearing into the distant past in pursuit of some kilt-wrapped strange. And given the family resemblance at play, Frank needs to be established early on as a foil to Black Jack (about whom more in a minute). If Jack is a monster and Frank was a jerk, well, whatever (genetics, amirite?). If Jack is a monster but Frank was decent and loving (if a bit dull), what was predictable (if unpleasant) becomes horrifying.
3. Claire is older and more experienced than Jamie.
Outlander is at its best when it plays with genre conventions, and making Claire the older, more experienced member of the pair was an inspired choice on Gabaldon’s part. And speaking of experience… It was an interesting decision, for an author so very outspoken about her attention to research and devotion to historic realism, to make her hero—a tall, brave, healthy, blindingly attractive, well-connected 23-year-old strapping former soldier—a virgin. A more realistic scenario would likely have had Jamie a widower with several children.
Still, if Gabaldon had chosen that particular moment to adhere to a strict historical realism, we would never have had Jamie and Claire’s tender, charming, and above all hot wedding night to appreciate. Thank goodness for the power of imagination.
4. Black Jack Randall is really and truly a very bad man.
Black Jack is a villain, through and through. He is not misunderstood; he’s not an anti-hero; he cannot be redeemed by the love of a good woman or a secondary character’s healing vadge. He’s a jankhole. He’s a jerk. He shot a man in Islay once, just to watch him die. (Okay, maybe I made that last part up.) He sucks. I’m okay with that, and even if Tobias Menzies (in a remarkable dual role) ends up being the sexiest and most charismatic bad boy ever to smolder his way across the screen, Black Jack really needs to remain flat-out rotten to the core.
5. Claire and Jamie’s relationship is rooted in friendship, not just lust. (But also lust!)
Before they’re man and wife, Claire and Jamie are friends. They meet when she sets his dislocated arm, and interact regularly thereafter; she even encourages him to pursue Laoghaire, who has clearly set her cap for him. Once they’re married, even before they consummate their vows, they promise one another a very basic courtesy:
“There are things that I canna tell you, at least not yet. And I’ll ask nothing of ye that ye canna give me. But what I would ask of ye—when you do tell me something, let it be the truth. And I’ll promise ye the same. And I think that respect has maybe room for secrets, but not for lies. Do ye agree?”
“Yes, I agree. I’ll give you honesty…”
As a result, when Claire finally comes clean and tells Jamie her full truth – that rather than being a witch (as he suspects), she is from the future, and this is why she has been acting so strangely since the moment they met—his response is surprising:
“I believe you,” he said firmly. “I dinna understand it a bit—not yet—but I believe you. Claire, I believe you! Listen to me! There’s truth between us, you and I, and whatever ye tell me, I shall believe it.” He gave me a gentle shake.
“It doesna matter what it is. You’ve told me. That’s enough for now…You’ll tell me the rest of it later. And I’ll believe you….But it would ha’ been a good deal easier if you’d only been a witch.”
…Which is not to say that there’s no passion involved!
“You’re mine, mo duinne,” he said softly, pressing himself into my depths. “Mine alone, now and forever. Mine, whether ye will it or no.” I pulled against his grip, and sucked in my breath in my breath with a faint “ah” as he pressed even deeper.
"Aye, I mean to use ye hard, my Sassenach,” he whispered. “I want to own you, to possess you, body and soul…I mean to make you mine.”
If Starz maintains these five key features of the novel, Outlander: The Series can’t help but be must-see TV for everyone who has read and loved the novel.
Well, until they bring in Roger and Brianna, anyway. But that’s a discussion for another day.
What do you think the series absolutely can’t do without?
Kate Nagy blogs at KateHoldsCourt.