Lovely Things to Watch: Outlander

Whenever I pick up an “Outlander” book, it is, to me, like falling back into my own bed after a long trip. This 8-book-long series is familiar: the characters seem like friends, and the settings, as foreign as they may be to those of us stuck in the 21st century, oddly familiar.
I first read the book series when I was embarking upon a really strange, busy and stressful phase of my life, and these books felt like a safe place that I could return to, day after day, page after page, chapter after chapter, one book after the next of the staggering (then)7-book series. I began reading the series sometime in 2011 and finished in the spring of 2012 (the 8th book came out this summer and I’ve been reading it since the day it was released). Of course, I’m a relative newbie to the Outlander world: some of the series’ biggest fans date back to the early 1990s, when the 1st book came out!
It almost felt like too much to ask – to expect that the television adaptation of this beloved series – would make me feel the same, comfortable way that the books do. Confronted with the task of facing actors who were to interpret the beloved characters that previously only came alive in my mind, and screenwriters and directors intervening in how I imagined all of the scenes and settings, I kept my expectations of the series low and prevented myself from getting too excited about it, just in case I decided the series wasn’t even close to watching.
Months ago, as we began to get some peeks from behind the scenes when the series began filming last year, my expectations gradually rose. The scenery looked incredible. The casting looked surprisingly perfect. For months, I followed the behind-the-scenes tweets and Instagrams from this show.
Then, at long last, I watched the premiere.
And I couldn’t believe that it did feel just as comforting and familiar as the books. It’s a strange and of course heightened experience to see this beloved story play out on screen. I’ve loved many books and and paid attention to their adaptations to screen. Although I am rather forgiving film and television adaptations, I have never really found a movie or film version of a book I love that I’ve truly, thoroughly enjoyed. Or, dare I even suggest, one that perhaps even helped improve upon some of what I had imagined from the book.
Yet, Outlander. This… Well, this is actually the closest to perfection a book-to-television adaption of a series can be. I can’t forget about it – I had to watch it again. And again. And then, I simply had to write.
Here are 10 things I love about the premiere of Outlander on Starz:
  1. Claire as narrator of the television show. Although Jamie is by far the most memorable character in the book series – and perhaps one of the most memorable characters in literature in general – this is truly Claire’s story. I was drawn into the first book because I found her so easy to relate to. I love her voice. I love how she is steady, and smart, and also a bit sassy and funny, and motherly and sexy. She’s kind of everything I wish I were, you know? Anyways, this is her story, not Jamie’s – not really – and I love that this tv series got that. From the first moment, we know that we are in this journey with her.
    Claire feels like an old friend… so glad she was narrating!*
  2. How to pronounce “Sassenach.” This might seem like a tiny detail to those of you who are new to the Outlander world, but I have been reading the books for years and just found out that I was totally “pronouncing” the word wrong in my head (“Sass-en-aaaassh”) – whoops. So that’s reason enough to watch this episode. I learned that the ending should be harder, like “Sass-en-akkkh.” Thank you, Starz, for enlightening me!
  3. Claire’s look (and that frizzy brown hair). I have to take a moment and say how beautiful I think Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe) is. I love her long 1940s coats and that beautiful, soft white dress and shawl that she wears when she tumbles into the 18th century. Perfection. It makes me want to totally rock a 1940s look this year when the weather turns chilly. And, as a frizzy/curly brown-haired lass myself, I appreciated that they didn’t “Hollywoodify” her hair (yet.) It was elegant, yet just ever-so-slightly frizzy and wild, and that is a detail that is such a part of her personality and I am glad it’s still in the show.
    I mean, how fab is this 1940s look?*
  4. Claire, in general. I know I’m talking a lot about Claire, but she’s important. Let’s talk about how they managed to capture a character that I really have grown to love and I thought would be pretty difficult to translate to screen. She is serious, has seen enough death and destruction for one lifetime already, she’s tough-as-nails and very convincing as a battlefield nurse. But yet, especially towards the end of the premiere episode when she banters with Dougal and Jamie and the other men, you see glimmers of the lighter side of her personality: she’s sassy, and has a bit of a sense of humor. Among all of this, she’s also beautiful and feminine. Which I think is worth mentioning, because I think it’s important for Claire to be both romantic and yet tough, bold, and generally fearless. I can see how she was a difficult character to cast.
  5. The music, cinematography, and opening credits, the moodiness of the color and the overall look. I just have to say it is a beautiful soundtrack, and I thought the lovely scenery and landscapes really capture the staggering beauty of the Scottish countryside. I can’t wait to enjoy more of this on the show.
    A little of the gorgeousness*
  6. Frank. Oddly enough. I mean, Frank is not a standout character in the books. He’s the stereotypical history professor: slightly detached, quiet, and also someone who has clearly grown distant from his wife – understandably. They were both living separate, and probably quite difficult, lives in the years they were apart during the war. On the other hand, I found I actually liked him? One of the saddest parts in the book series for me (and warning, the following section in italics is a MAJOR spoiler if you haven’t read the first three books) ***is when Claire has to leave Jamie and return to Frank, and they end up spending all of those years together, married once again. But now, I don’t hate it as much? I mean, I hate that she had to leave Jamie, obviously, and hated that she thought that he was dead all of those years while he was actually rotting in hiding and then prison. But I found I kind of didn’t mind Frank, actually, and suddenly this story is all the much more complicated to me. We also know (especially later in the book series) that Bree still really considers him her “daddy” and I can now see how he would have been a good father to her.*** Importantly, I love that Claire clearly did love Frank in the books and I think that really comes across on screen. Theirs was always going to be difficult to portray, since it pales in comparison to the epic love between Claire and Jamie. In anticipation of this, the premiere has gotten some flack for being “dull” during the first half, but for those of us who have read and loved the series, I think the first half hour of the episode was incredibly important for this reason. It set up the relationship between Frank and Claire very convincingly.
    Is it awful that I sort of have a thing for Frank now?*
  7. Jamie’s kilt. Okay, it’s all too easy to insert kilt jokes here. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell a story about how a few years ago I was in the Halifax airport, traveling into the middle-of-nowhere (beautiful) Nova Scotia. Along my way from the airport to small town NS, I saw several kilted men. And they were always looking like total rock stars. Seriously. They were large guys, had tough-guy, baggy kilts in khaki or some sort of plaid, usually chains hanging out of their pockets, rugged boots, a heavy metal tshirt or two layered on top. In short, they rocked the kilted look. And ever since seeing how ridiculously cool a kilt can actually be, I always imagined Jaimie wearing his kilt in that same awesome way. And guess what? He totally did. Low on his hips, that long, somewhat baggy kilt, he was totally owning the rugged, 18th-century Scottish “rockstar” look in Outlander.
    I mean, that is a badass kilt…*
  8. The Gaelic language. Call me a boring, Frank-like history professor, but I am a stickler for history and the culture of a region (this was one of the things that pulled me into the series to begin with), and Diana Gabaldon has put a lot of care and research into this aspect in her books. One of the elements that makes these stories so special is the attention paid to the traditional language and the history of the region(s) where it takes place. Having some of the characters speaking in Gaelic on the show really sets the right tone. And, the fact that it’s not subtitled really heightens the feeling that we have – seeing the events unfold from Claire’s perspective – that feeling of being so far away from the ordinary, and really uneasy about what is happening all around.
  9. The standing stones. When you read about the sequence of events that happen at Craigh na Dun, it’s very convincing in black and white print on page. However, I wondered how they would accomplish all of the mystical and mysterious stuff that had to take place at this location on screen. I was surprised on screen how scary and eerie the stuff happening there actually was in the show. I mean, to begin with, it is a beautiful setting. In the show, when Claire and Frank go there to watch the early morning ritual, a scene that could so easily have been a little bit bizarre and perhaps even somewhat cheesy ended up being this really beautiful sequence. It felt so convincing that it could be a beautiful, ancient religious ritual. And Claire, seemingly attracted to the stones, was also convincing.
    Some pretty ancient Druid ceremony things going on.*

    Then – we knew it was coming – the part when she had to travel through the stones. I was really interested in seeing how they would accomplish this. It actually ended up being a bit scarier and eerier than I imagined. The event included a sound that was kind of like the sound of metal scraping or nails on a chalkboard, which was okay, if not a bit horror film-y. When reading about her experience traveling through the stones, I always imagined the sound of voices and then perhaps even the sound of crystals clinking. Then, they didn’t attempt to show much of the “trip” on screen: instead, a flashback with Claire narrating and bizarre sequence that supposedly happened time earlier in her life, when she had fallen asleep and was awoken, in a car accident. I don’t know if I loved this travel sequence, but I do get why they did it, as it was some tangible way to explain something that none of us have ever experienced. In the next scene, we see an awake Claire, lying on the green grass, the weather clearly different than when she was last there: it was bright and sunny and green, possibly even a different time of year. A disoriented Claire begins trotting down the hill, clearly nervous (and unfortunately forgets her shawl, which would have been useful to cover her modern white dress later on). As we know, she doesn’t exactly find her 20th century road at the bottom of the hill.

  10. The instant Claire-Jamie chemistry. It was there, right? I mean, we’re not imagining it. It’s definitely there. I like when Claire is rescued by the group, which is surprisingly jovial, and (unsurprisingly) in desperate need of a bath. When the audience first sees Jamie – he is one of the unbathed men who just so happens to also be grunting near the fireplace. Just as in the books, he was in pain and in desperate need of medical attention. (So much for the romantic hero riding in on a white horse! Claire is the rescuer here.) Claire isn’t hesitant about telling off a (surprised) group of 18th century men: she saves Jamie from having his arm unnecessarily broken and mends him. (This also gives us the opportunity to admire some truly admirable JAMMF forearm.) The time Claire spends with Jamie go fast.
    They’re not *quite* sure yet, but this is what we’re here for, isn’t it?*

    Probably because we were waiting a good 40 minutes for these parts, but also, because a lot happens in a short period of time. Claire and Jamie conveniently have to share a horse in the rain, and he tenderly covers her with a blanket. (Side note: his speaking is more clipped than I expected? I guess I never imagined Jamie with such a heavy accent? But I like it!) They are separated for a bit after Claire warns the group of the ambush spot and they drop her in favor of slaughtering some redcoats, and one of my favourite parts of this entire episode is when she is found by Jamie again and she admonishes him for using his arm. No, she does not tell him off for just killing a bunch of people, but for using his arm, which she had so carefully tended to. This is where we begin to see sparks fly, in my opinion: and where we see the promise of the great sense of humor and dynamic that Jamie and Claire will inevitably (and hopefully) share, in between the multitude of battles they must face.

    I need more Outlander adventure. Now.*
I have to say that this is the first television episode I have ever watched, like, 5 times in a row. I am in desperate need of the second episode now. It has that cinematic quality expected from a premium cable channel: but they put all of the pomp and circumstance to good use. This is a carefully made adaptation that manages to hit all the right notes (so far). I am beyond excited to see what happens next.

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