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Can Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Succeed on Television?

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Starz recently announced that one of its new series, set to debut in spring 2014, would be an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  The first book follows Claire Randall, an English woman who travels back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland.  She finds herself forced to marry to a young man named Jamie Fraser, but as she gets to know the Highland warrior their bond grows, and Claire must choose between her life—and her husband—in 1945 and the man she’s grown to love in 1743.  Irish actress Caitriona Balfe has been cast as Claire, with Scottish actor Sam Heughan playing Jamie Fraser.

Outlander was originally published in 1991, and there’s no denying the influence it’s had on the romance industry since then.  Novels about sexy Highland warriors are second only to Regency romances in the historical romance aisle.  (And considering the Regency romance traces its ancestry all the way back to Jane Austen, that’s saying something.)  But romance isn’t the only component of the story; it’s also heavily mixed with science fiction and historical.  I suspect this is Starz’s answer to HBO’s success with Game of Thrones.  Like Game of Thrones, the Outlander series is a sweeping epic that takes place in lush settings, and it can be quite violent and brutal at times.  But unlike Thrones, the Outlander series is more grounded in historical realism (time travel aside) and the focus is much more squarely on Jamie and Claire, especially in the first few books.  (Later books focus more on Jamie and Claire’s extended family.)

I am a huge fan of Gabaldon and the Outlander series, and there’s a more than fair chance I’ll begin subscribing to Starz this spring just to watch the series.  But I can see some potential problems with the show that I hope writers and producers anticipate before they go too far into the series.

First and foremost, there’s the timeline of the show.  Beginning in the second novel, the story jumps forward 20 years in some places.  By the third novel, both Jamie and Claire are pushing 50.  Though both Balfe and Heughan are older than the characters they’re playing—Jamie is 23 and Claire is 27; Heughan and Balfe are 33 and almost 34, respectively—I doubt either of the youthful looking actors could pull off 50 even with heavy makeup.  In a book, this isn’t so problematic; we just imagine the characters as older.  But television audiences tend not only to get attached to the characters, but to the actors playing them.  Furthermore, casting new actors to play Jamie and Claire is likely to cause another uproar.  Fans have already criticized Heughan for not having red hair and Balfe for not having brown eyes—as if hair dye and colored contact lenses are unheard-of innovations.  New actors will bring new nuances to Jamie and Claire, and fans may resist that change.  Furthermore—and I hate even saying this—I have to wonder whether a series about a pair of middle-aged marrieds will strike a chord as much as a series about a pair of young, star-crossed lovers.

The second thing I can see as becoming problematic is that Gabaldon’s books are not exactly politically correct.  Gabaldon is always exceedingly attentive to the fact that the norms and mores of the modern era don’t always match.  But regardless, the audience still has modern sensibilities.  There’s one scene in particular that strikes me as potentially problematic for the audience’s sympathy for Jamie.  Claire has escaped and fallen into the clutches of the English.  Jamie and the other Highlanders rescue her, but Jamie and the others feel she must be punished for her transgression—and as her husband, the duty falls to Jamie.  Jamie whips Claire with a belt.  Jamie has his reasons, and his actions make sense for the time period, but as a modern woman this chafes me.  Jamie was eventually able to redeem himself in my eyes, but how that scene is played on the screen could make or break the character for audiences.

But I think what may be more problematic—and more questionable—is Gabaldon’s treatment of homosexuality in the first book.  There are only two homosexual characters in the first book, both of whom, by today’s standards, would be considered rapists.  Toward the end of the novel, we see this in particularly brutal detail.  In later books, Gabaldon includes a homosexual character, Lord John Gray, who is portrayed in a much more positive, and much more nuanced, light.  But if you haven’t read the later books, you have no way of knowing this.  Game of Thrones has been criticized for its portrayals of race, particularly its lack of cast diversity and the portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen as the angelic white woman come to save the noble dark savages.  Much as I love the show, it’s a valid critique.  Likewise, I could see Outlander being called out for its depictions of homosexuality.  Whether this will hurt the show in the long run, or how much, is anyone’s guess.

In spite of my reservations, I still can’t wait to see Outlander on screen.  The lush Scottish Highlands, the epic tale that crosses century…and those kilts!  I think Outlander is the kind of series that could have a lot to offer to different audiences, and I’m anxious to see if it will bring as much success to Starz as Game of Thrones did to HBO.