Ever since clips and trailers and stills of the new STARZ “Outlander” TV show have been released, people have been eagerly asking me, “So—is it just like you imagined?” “What’s it like to see these people who’ve lived in your head for so long come to life?” “Did you ever imagine it would be like this?”
Frankly, it’s a bit like the scene in Outlander where Claire asks Jamie—immediately after they’ve made love together for the first time (and his first time ever)—“So was it like you thought it would be?” And—after making her promise not to laugh at him, he confesses, “Almost. I didna realize ye did it face to face. I thought ye must do it the back way—like horses, ye ken?”
As in, yes, it’s a lot like I imagined it (“it” being the show itself), and at the same time, quite different. How so?
1. I have friends who are screenwriters, friends who have worked in the film world, and friends who have had films made of their work. Based on everything I’d heard and read, I was expecting to have nothing whatever to do with the production myself. I was familiar with Ron D. Moore’s work, so had high hopes that it would be good, but figured all I could do was cross my fingers.
Instead, I was startled—though very gratified—at the degree of involvement offered me. Ron and his production partner, Maril Davis, came to my house and spent two days with me, talking through ideas, characters, storylines, etc. We were much on the same wavelength, and as the production got underway, they were more than courteous about including me, asking my opinion on things (though they are, of course, under no legal compulsion to take account of it), showing me scripts and footage, inviting me to the set in Scotland and generally making me feel welcome.
2. I always want to roll my eyes when people say, “Isn’t it exciting seeing your characters come to life?”—because as far as I’m concerned, they’ve always been alive. Still, I know what these people mean, and yeah—it is exciting. Is it like I expected? No, it’s much better…
Everyone has a mental image of what Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall look like. I actually know what they look like. Now, plainly, no actor alive will look exactly like anyone’s mental image of a character, and I certainly didn’t expect the actors chosen for these parts to look “like” my knowledge of Jamie and Claire. And they don’t.
But. Ron and Maril sent me Sam Heughan’s audition tapes, when they cast him as Jamie. Frankly, I had doubts, having seen some IMDB photos of the man…but five seconds in, and it wasn’t Sam, it was Jamie, right there. Amazing!
See, actors do magic, no less than writers do. And beyond certain minimal physical requirements, it doesn’t really matter what they look like—only that they can be the character they play. And every single actor in this show can do that.
3. Now, I do understand what “adaptation” means, and a bit about how one translates text to a visual medium (I used to write comic book scripts for Walt Disney, and have in fact done a graphic novel (The Exile) version of Outlander). But what I didn’t realize was just how engaging a good adaptation could be.
Ron’s adaptation is very faithful to the original story; anyone who’s read Outlander will recognize it instantly. But there are the small changes, the insertions, the moving of scenes for dramatic cohesion—and all together, these “different” touches give the show a constant sense of novelty and discovery. I watch footage, knowing what’s going on—but wanting to know what happens next.
And you can’t ask more of a good story than that.