Beloved books rarely make an artful transition to the silver screen. Complex characters, interior musings and weighty subjects demand more skill than most cinematic auteurs can deliver.
Gone With the Wind delivered the goods with its sweeping cinematography and score, redoubtable storytelling and charismatic leads (mopey Leslie Howard as Ashley aside) adroitly channeling their fictional counterparts. Even author Margaret Mitchell graciously bestowed her approbation.
My all-time favorite page-to-frame retelling? To Kill a Mockingbird. Its bleak ambiance, lyrical, melancholy score, spot-on performances, and intuitive depiction of disturbing subject matter bequeathed a small, enduring treasure to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel’s legions of lovers. Harper Lee was also pleased with the cinematic endeavor, commenting to a bemused Gregory Peck that his small tummy pooch reminded her of own beloved father—the inspiration for her indelible protagonist Atticus Finch.
Outlander just wrapped its debut season on the Starz network, delivering its final episode this weekend after tweaking its fervid followers with a bifurcated season stretching over ten long months. The searingly intense final chapter fully met its weighty obligation—concluding a tumultuous storyline unfolding over 16 breathtaking episodes.
Based on a best-selling first novel published more than 20 years ago—whose rousing success birthed a steady series encompassing an additional seven hefty tomes (with interminable interims between each iteration that agonized its devoted readers)—Outlander on film had a lot to live up to.
It met the challenge. And delivered spectacularly through its cinematic journey.
Granted, producer Ronald D. Moore had the relative luxury of more hours in which to bring the 600-plus-page jam-packed tale to the small screen than his big-screen brethren. More is not always more in the real world, however. Many long-winded TV adaptions of popular literature have landed with a thud.
For every solid translation like The Thorn Birds, The Winds of War, or the recent Game of Thrones, there are numerous duds such as War and Remembrance (Wouk’s sequel) The Martian Chonicles, The Andromeda Strain, even that childhood perennial, A Wrinkle in Time, which was intended as a series then squished into a long film. Madeline L’Engle opined on the dud: “I expected it to be bad, and it is.”
Outlander author Diana Gabaldon will not be making any such denunciatory remarks. Warmly welcomed into the creative fold at the outset as more than a titular consultant, she has been voluble in expressing both awe and appreciation for her supporting role as source code and guidance counselor to the decision-makers.
That she is truly pleased with the artistic outcome speaks volumes about the reverence and fidelity paid to her impossible-to-categorize fable. Gabaldon herself has quipped that she’s spent decades exhorting bookstores not to slot her unique books into any one facile, misleading category such as sci-fi or historical romance.
Her time-travelling heroine, WWII combat nurse Claire Randall, and stalwart 18th century Highlander Jamie Fraser are improbably flung together in the turbulent times leading up to the feckless Bonny Prince Charles’ ill-conceived attempt to wrest the once-Stuart throne back from the wig-kicking, dull-witted Hanoverian King George II. Although the two endeavor mightily to alter the tragic outcome of Culloden Moor on the Scottish clan system, their crafty machinations are not revealed until the second book, Dragonfly in Amber. Later, after a painful 20-year separation, they magically reunite and trundle off for more heart-stopping exotic adventures, ultimately landing in the roiling American colonies just in time to participate in the Revolutionary War!
These are superbly written books that cannot be put down. Wondrously plotted with insightfully nuanced characters, richly delineated and historically accurate, the novels’ history-alive narrative found me happily delving into dusty history books and digital arenas to further explore the tantalizing realms of my own ancestral roots.
Like the two iconic films mentioned at the outset, I experienced Outlander on film pretty much in tandem with the books. I greedily devoured GWTW while traveling by train through Europe in my college years then experienced the intermission-necessary glorious screen epic upon returning home. I remember being overwhelmed with Selznick’s jaw-dropping effort.
To Kill a Mockingbird was de rigueur reading in high school literature class. Seeing the black-and-white 1962 film on TV not long after left me knowing I’d experienced two rare and precious things at an early age.
I committed to the Outlander mini-series after reading a laudatory review prefacing its debut. From the outset, I knew the show was something special. I decided to buy the first book of the series—Outlander, a pejorative for the out-of-place English lass adrift in the wooly Highlands—and only then discovered the sheer breadth of the author’s literary success.
The book was something special as well. So were the next seven I compulsively read, each seemingly longer than its predecessor, each propulsively plotted and beautifully written. Particularly well-crafted sentences demanded rereading.
I haven’t been as smitten with a book series since my early love affair with Nancy Drew. (When I discovered much, much later that the intrepid Nancy, her own stalwart college boyfriend Ken and plucky girlfriends hadn’t been created by any such person as Carolyn Keene, I felt keenly cheated. For the record, I’m middle-aged and still feel cheated.)
Since I read the Outlander books in tandem with the series, I didn’t bring long-burnished memories of cherished characters along with my TV snacks. Or, glowering suspicion about miscasting, typecasting, or god forbid, How-Dare-They-Even-Attempt-To-Cast Claire and Jamie at all!! Sort of like the hoopla surrounding Scarlett and Rhett. Oh, wait. Rhett was expressly written with Clark Gable in mind. One problem solved. (Interestingly enough, just like GWTW, Outlander didn’t find the distaff part of the key equation until shortly before filming.)
With characters and plotline still fresh in my mind, I watched the film unspool. Like the earlier book-to-film efforts I’d experienced, I simply brought a newer, tad more dispassionate eye to the film rendition.
Which deserves all accolades. Somehow wielding that ineffable movie magic, the film producers, writers and directors have wrought a stunning recreation of an equally stunning pretend world. Characters large and small indelibly inhabit their roles in the unfolding multi-dimensioned, multi-century story. From Murtagh’s pockmarked scowl and eyebrow eloquence to Colum MacKenzie’s commanding presence and disconcerting gait, Angus and Rupert’s irrepressible comic duo to Claire and Jamie’s shivery, smoldering passion and wordless glances, each actor playing a critical role will be proud to note this participation on his CV.
The swan-necked Caitriona Balfe and virile Sam Heughan infuse each molecule of their meaty roles with intelligence and grace. With the added privilege of literary familiarity, I’m struck anew with how bloody good actors can be at capturing a writer’s vision.
The film’s verisimilitude is incredible.
Scotland’s misty forests and ancient edifices frame and enhance the action’s breathless action while negating over-reliance on computer graphics. Even seasoned pros have expressed amazement over the natural scenery.
Costumer designer Terry Dresbach and her nimble-fingered minions fashioned reams of period-perfect outfits out of vintage bits and bobs to create a down-to-the-shoes, well-worn, oft-grimy authenticity. The metallic-embroidered wedding dress fully embodies the cornerstone marriage and should be enshrined in a costume museum.
Save for Angus’ missing front teeth and gaoler Marley's rotten incisor, the abundance of healthy dentition is one of the few discordant notes struck in the enterprise. Since I appreciate well-ordered pearly whites (as does dental-conscious Claire in the books), I’m quite willing to let that slide.
And as a female viewer, although it is startlingly refreshing to see a surfeit of male skin, I am pretty sure Protestant men weren’t circumcised in early Europe! But, hey, I’m not going to knock full frontal nudity for either sex.
Most importantly, they got the intrinsic plotline just right. Claire and Jamie’s timeless love story unwinds compellingly in a circuitous, century-hopping narrative arc. Complex plot points have been judiciously parsed and distilled to accommodate the exigencies of filmed storytelling. I admired the writers’ reframing of the wedding episode—cleverly told in flashback to incorporate all key players—and their substitution of The Watch’s venality for tenant McNab’s perfidy in maneuvering Jamie back into Black Jack’s clutches. The final episode’s harrowing tale of physical and psychological torture was modified judiciously but hewed faithfully to Gabaldon’s own dark denouement.
When writers can distill intricate works of literature into a faithful, cogent vision, and directors and cinematographers can execute that vision seamlessly on screen, the result is inspiring.
I’m no a cineaste and dinna kin overly much about moviemaking (to channel my inner Scot), but Outlander has made a braw transition from page to screen. Slàinte!