Two weeks before it premieres in Australia (August 14, SoHo channel on Foxtel), I won a double-pass to see the first episode of ‘Outlander’ thanks to Random House. Because it was her birthday – and because she read the first book and loved it (Jamie especially, naturally) – I took my mum along as my plus-one.
‘Outlander’ is, of course, the long-awaited (… and by that I mean since it was first published in 1991) adaptation of the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series.
"Outlander" follows the story of Claire Randall (played by Caitriona Balfe), a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown into an unknown world where her life is threatened. When she is forced to marry Jamie (played by Sam Heughan), a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a passionate affair is ignited that tears Claire's heart between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.
The “Outlander” series, adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s international best-selling books, spans the genres of romance, science fiction, history and adventure into one epic tale.
This is probably my favourite book series of all time, and I have been excited/ trepidatious/salivating-fan-girl for this since it was first announced that Ronald D. Moore and Starz channel in the US were taking on the epic first book.
Let me just start by saying that seeing the first episode ‘Sassenach’ at Hoyts with a whole bunch of other fans was hilariously awesome. I know ‘Outlander’ fans are loyal and a wee bit crazy (you’ve gotta be, to wait 4 or 5 years for a new instalment) but I loved seeing all the tartan outfits and was highly amused by all of them wanting their photos taken standing in front of the big screen as the movie poster flashed up there. My mum was bewildered/delighted by this fan-girl behaviour (“at their age?” she whispered to me, when someone smooched a pocket Jamie bookmark that was handed out).
I also loved seeing this first episode in cinemas for the one (I was impressed there weren’t more) outburst that came when Jamie asked Claire something along the lines of, “do you want me to throw you over my shoulder?” and an audience fan-girl called out a quivering, “YES!”
The series, like the first books, will be told from Claire’s perspective with internal monologues in voice-over. The episode begins with a section of the prologue from Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’, a slight variation on this paragraph:
People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet. ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.
Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanishe into the smoke of imported cigars.
Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Interestingly though, the TV series monologue includes Claire admitting: “I do know this: even now, after all the pain, and death, and heartbreak that followed … I still would make the same choice.”
I make a note of this because it means that Claire is narrating this story from somewhere in the future – I don’t want to speculate too much, but maybe it’s leaving the series open for more seasons in order to catch us up with Claire’s future narrating self?
Now, whenever I recommend ‘Outlander’ the book to friends and family I do so with the asterisk that the first 50 or so pages of the 870-page book are a bit of a slog. That’s because it’s a lot of setting up Claire’s life in 1946 and establishing just why she’s so desperate to return home to her time and husband, Frank Randall (played by Tobias Menzies). In a way this first episode is as slow (but crucial in the long-run!) as the first couple of chapters of the book. But rest assured, fans will get Jamie screen-time in this first episode … a particularly crucial scene involving Jamie has been pointedly included – this is a scene from the books that fans have been speculating on the importance of for many, many years (A Highland Ghost).
The first episode of the TV series does follow the book very, very closely (as I said, down to Claire’s first-person narration which is quite tricky and rare for TV, but done exceptionally well here). I think this is a good indication that the 16-part TV show will be a close and very faithful adaptation, which is no surprise since Ronald D. Moore has been saying for a while now how rich the source material is and generous Gabaldon has been with her creative input (she’s also executive producer).
The first episode will also assure fans that the TV show will bring the heat – ohhhhh, yes. There are a couple of blush-worthy scenes in ‘Sassenach’ (again, partly to establish Claire’s connection to Frank) but this series is first and foremost a love story, so it’s reassuring to know that Starz is happy to go there (and fans will be too … oh, yes.)
Now, as for the casting; from the moment of announcement I thought it was a great idea to cast unknowns and prioritise the physicality of each character. Caitriona Balfe is an Irish model/actress and physically she’s a perfect match for Claire … maybe not quite as voluptuous or frizzy-haired, but I think she fits the bill for her English-rose appeal while also looking the part of a 1940’s woman with a lot of gumption. Her voice, however, sounds very British-affected and slightly too girlish – and since she’s narrating that really jarred a bit for me. But it’s my only complaint, probably in the whole first episode.
Tobias Menzies as Frank and Black Jack Randall is also fairly perfect. Undoubtedly Jack Randall is the meatier role, and Frank is a tough one to portray anyway since he’s set up as the off-screen romantic opponent to the lusciously appealing Jamie Fraser – it’s a tall order to play but Menzies does a credible job. I look forward to him getting more stuck into Jack Randall in later episodes (though no doubt if he plays it very well, I’ll be cringing and hating him by series’ end).
Now on to Jamie Fraser, played by Sam Heughan. The weightiest role of all because he’s the character that’s fluttered millions of hearts, and every fan has their own version of him in their head and heart … but let me just say: Dinna fash, Sam Heughan is Jamie. He’s perfect – just as in the books there’s a rough charm to him that instantly captivates and sets him up as a lodestone for Claire, and readers/viewers. Ronald D. Moore has written his character to pitch-perfection, mixing that warrior masculinity with boyish humour and a surprising gentleness. I think Sam Heughan is going to have quite the fandom on his hands from here on in, and not just the guaranteed ‘Outlander’ readers’ contingent.
As for the actual storyline … I think Ronald D. Moore has done really, really well with pacing especially. I know that for the longest time fans were hoping for a movie adaptation, but I think the pendulum has well and truly swung in favour of TV as the higher-brow medium, and the likes of George R. R. Martin and ‘Game of Thrones’ prove that some books are better suited to lengthy seasons than a 2-hour condensed telling.
If there was any aspect of the episode that gave me pause, it was the sound the Craigh na Dun Stone Circle made when transporting Claire to the past … it had a slight TARDIS ring to it, but then I thought it may have been intentional since Gabaldon always admits the idea for Jamie came from Doctor’s companion Jamie McCrimmon (pretty much name and nationality only). If that’s the case, then I think it was a nice hat-tip.
The first episode of the ‘Outlander’ TV series will be a relief for fans, when they find that Ronald D. Moore has started out on a faithful first note, and given us a cast of physical and near soulful perfection – as closely matched to their fictional counterparts as I’ve seen any adaptation get. This first episode, while slow in some parts, also has enough intrigue to sway audiences who have no clue about the fandom they’re about to get suckered into …
Thank you to Random House Books for the double-pass, Hoyts for hosting the preview screening and SoHo channel on Foxtel for bringing Outlander to Australia!