This post does contain some spoilers for the first two episodes of Starz’s Outlander, as well as some references to the events that take place in the book.
So first things first, I have to make a confession: I hated Outlander.
Perhaps a weird place to start for a post all about the brand new and long-anticipated Starz series, currently airing on Showcase in Canada (Sundays at 10 pm), but bear with me a while and I think you’ll understand what I mean.
I first picked up Outlander a few years ago, around the time I moved back home from a four-month stay in Edinburgh. I was feeling more than a little nostalgic for my time in Scotland, and that plus the promise of time travel, history, and a headstrong and complex female protagonist ensured that I hardly hesitated before I dived straight into its pages. And I loved it. At least at first.
Claire Randall, played by Irish actor Catriona Balfe in the series, is a young English combat nurse travelling in the Highlands after the end of the World War Two, trying to reconnect with her husband Frank after the past six years they’ve spent apart from each other in the war effort (check out S’s post on our new favourite time traveller here). When I read the book, I thought Frank was a somewhat dull husband, but I found myself quite enjoying his portrayal by Tobias Menzies, turning Frank into an engaging, sympathetic, and likeable character (not least for his generous attentions to his wife in the ruins of an old castle they visit). Of course this only makes it all the sadder when, after a night spying on a Samhain ceremony at a circle of standing stones above Inverness, Claire—an amateur botanist with an interest in medicinal plants thanks to her nursing background—returns to the stones on her own to inspect a plant she saw, and mysteriously manages to fall back in time 200 years to the 1740s.
I don’t want to dive into a full recap, either of the book or the first two episodes Showcase shared with us, but needless to say Outlander has one hell of an intriguing premise. And despite a few minor annoyances of style in the book (it’s written in the first person, not a favourite of mine despite it’s recent surge of popularity in YA novels like The Hunger Games, and the author, Diana Gabaldon, has a tendency to over-abuse “accent writing” for her Highland characters which I find incredibly distracting) the story moves along quite well for about two-thirds of the novel’s length. Gabaldon strikes a terrific balance between her descriptions of 18th century Scottish life—with its intricacies of Clan politics and the rising tensions with the English rulers, quickly hurtling toward the 1745 rebellion of Bonny Prince Charlie and the disastrous Battle of Culloden—as well as the science fiction aspects as Claire struggles to understand how she could have travelled to the past and how she can get herself back to 1945. The story also introduces a number of interesting and unique characters, not least, Jamie, the young and handsome Scot Claire meets shortly after arriving in the past, who’s played by the startling picture-perfect Sam Heughan, whom you could almost believe Starz had growing in a lab for the sole purpose of taking on this role.
The problem for me came about halfway into the novel’s length when, almost suddenly to my (granted, somewhat dim) recollection, the story made a turn into what I might indelicately call torture porn. As well, and more worrying, the inclination to use rape—or at least the threat of rape—as a plot device that had really been present in the story from the time Claire landed in the 18th century, was ramped up to an incredibly uncomfortable (and I would argue unnecessary) degree. And perhaps most disturbing of all, a good number of these threats of rape and violence came not just from the story’s main antagonist, Captain Jack Randall, Claire’s husband Frank’s many times grandfather—also played by Toby Menzies—but from characters the reader was obviously supposed to be rooting for, like the up-to-that-point kind and humorous Jamie. I had a very hard time believing that Claire, a self-possessed, intelligent woman, would forgive such treatment from someone supposedly on her side as easily as she seems to in the book. Whatever the norms and acceptance towards assault and beatings were in 18th century Scotland, they cannot have been acceptable to a mid-20th century Claire, and most emphatically were not to this 21st century reader.
Altogether I struggled on and off through the book’s back half, equally determined to get through a story that I had been enjoying up until that point, but also increasingly frustrated by the plot choices the author was making. By the time I reached Outlander‘s end, I was pretty much ready to throw the book down in disgust. I read a cursory description of the rest of the series’ books on Wikipedia, decided I wasn’t missing anything I couldn’t live without, and really didn’t give any further thought to it for the next four years.
So I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn that when I heard that Outlander was being adapted into a series, I felt—of all things—suddenly excited. Part of that excitement no doubt stemmed from Ronald D. Moore’s participation (I won’t be shocking anyone to share that S, J, and I in our pre-Viewing Party days spent more than a few hours of our lives obsessing over Battlestar Galactica). But the greater bulk of my excitement came from remembering that Outlander actually did contain a great story. The beauty of adaptation into another medium is that aspects of that story can be—and often have to be—changed. Of course this can often go disastrously, as anyone who’s ever watched a bad movie of a beloved book knows. But in the case of a good idea poorly executed in its original form, my sincere hope is that it can only be improved in its adaptation.
I’m not completely naive. I fully expect there to still be violence and even rape in the series. Given that I’ve seen two episodes, in fact I know there will be. But for now I’m going to trust that that violence will be served out with a much more deft hand, and will above all else be used to further the story’s actions, and not be thrown in with gratuitous handfuls to merely shock or titillate the audience.
There’s a moment in episode two that makes me optimistic. Claire is speaking to Colum MacKenzie, the Laird of the castle she has been brought to after landing in the past. Claire weaves a hastily cobbled-together lie that she is an English widow travelling to France when she was set upon on the road by the villainous Jack Randall and nearly raped. With a line that a modern audience can see as a clear parallel to the kind of victim blaming we still get with disturbing regularity today, MacKenzie questions what good reason an English officer would have for attacking a woman like her. With a curt and steely look, Claire rebukes him:
“Is there ever a good reason for rape?”
The Laird apologizes, regrets his words, and moves on.
It may not be the most significant thing that happens in the episode, but for now, I’m going to be holding on to that line as an example of the tv show’s attitude towards rape—that it’s not acceptable whatever the century, and is not here to be hand-waved away—and as somewhat of a promise that this adaptation is here to do better.
Perhaps I am naive after all, but as a not-exactly-reformed Outlander hater, my excitement for this story as it unfolds on our screens is here to stay, and growing strong.
Catch the Canadian premiere of Outlander tonight, 10 pm, on Showcase!