Right, shuffle closer, I’m going to share something personal. Part of my brain is permanently frozen at age 17, and as a result I develop ridiculous, teenage passions for things. When I first discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer I binge-watched the whole first series in a day, I queued at midnight for Harry Potter (without the cover of a small child) and I actually have a Lord of the Rings tattoo. I’m essentially one bad decision and a bottle of tequila away from being this lady.
And so to Outlander.
I’ve had the book for a few months, but it was the TV adaptation that first got me. I now love Outlander deeply, have already started gifting copies of the book to friends and family members and am developing a mild obsession with Scotland; but the grown-up part of my brain is aware that it has some flaws. So both parts of my brain have got together to write this review. And while you’re reading this I’ll be trying to drink whiskey and Googling tartan shawls…
Five reasons I bloody love Outlander
You know a programme takes its production seriously when it has a herbalist on the crew. Ronald D Moore (the Outlander showrunner) knows exactly how to spend a clearly enormous budget to create a luscious, immersive experience. The sets are detailed, the Highlands are celebrated with long, loving scenery shots and the Emmy-nominated music is haunting (and it’s composed by a man named Bear). But for me it’s all about the costumes. Every outfit is gorgeous, especially the kilts. Dougal may be a sociopath; fathering children with abandon and fighting with everybody and everything including, at one point, a dining room, but he looks incredibly dapper doing it. If you want to know why the costumes look so amazing free up a significant chunk of time to read Terry Dresbach’s blog.
I was gripped after the first two chapters of Outlander. The writing is detailed but pacey, and Gabaldon’s characters are well-rounded. She’s also a tireless researcher and I do always like the feeling of learning something accidentally while enjoying a good story. For me the filmed version improves on the novel. Episode 7 ‘The Wedding’ is almost perfect – the writing is flawless, with a clever narrative framing device which allows the events to unfold in a much more interesting sequence. There are also some lovely subtle touches in the series; it was the second viewing when I realised the relevance of Geillis complaining that she was going to “a fucking barbeque!”
The casting is so nearly perfect. Jamie and Claire are crucial obviously, and for me are spot on to the book; but what really makes Outlander work is the excellent supporting cast. It’s an embarrassment of riches when you can draft in the likes of Tim McInnerny, James Fleet, Douglas Henshall (Nick Cutter!) and Simon Callow for short, slightly mad, guest appearances. A strong supporting cast makes a fictional world work and everyone in Outlander draws you in. My personal favourites are Laura Donnelly as Jenny and Graham McTavish as Dougal, but the honours must go to brave (and utterly terrifying) Tobias Menzies. I’m only sad we’ll never know how the conversation went as his agent tried to explain exactly what was required in this role…
I LOVE Claire – proper big capital letters love. The novel has a great premise, but it was Claire’s strength and humour that kept me reading. She’s a tough, clever, skilled, sweary, funny woman who, in a hyper-masculine world, earns the respect of almost everyone she meets. For me, the really great thing about Claire is that she is an unashamedly, unapologetically sexual being. It is, (although it shouldn’t be in 2015) refreshing and exciting to see a female protagonist who gets what she wants and enjoys herself. Outlander also proves that it is possible to have elegant and dignified sex scenes that are still very erotic.
I like romance. Real life is full of work and bills and toddlers weeing on the carpet (that’s not just my house, right?), so I want to be swept off my feet and I want to feel tingles. And Outlander delivers by the bucket-load. It’s an epic, magical romance which builds slowly and then absolutely sizzles. I also love the casting of Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe; I came to the programme without the expectations of the book so they are Jamie and Claire for me. I love Outlander because it sweeps me off my feet and gives me a world I want to spend time in.
Five reasons I probably shouldn’t
1. Plot holes
Seriously, holes so big you could drive a horse and cart through them. The biggest and most glaringly obvious; when Jamie rescues Claire from Fort William why doesn’t he just kill Randall? This is the man who has horrifically scarred him, raped (as far as he knows) his sister, attempted to rape his wife and put a price on his head – and the only reason given is that Jamie can’t kill an unarmed man? And why doesn’t Dougal just kill Claire and Jamie when they’re on the road? Obviously it’s because Outlander would be a pamphlet rather than an eight book epic, but that shouldn’t be the only reason.
2. Angry Claire
I love Claire, but she is very, very angry. I can understand that if you go for a nice walk and suddenly find yourself 200 years in the past looking down the business end of a musket you’re going to be a bit short-tempered, but it’s hard as a reader to engage with someone who’s annoyed for 700 pages. And I can’t help but think that if she wasn’t so aggressive and unsympathetic to Laoghaire and Father Bain they may not have been quite so keen to set her on fire.
3. The book is too long
There’s a scene in the book where Claire fights wolves with her bare hands. Sometimes the editorial decisions are right there in front of you.
4. The dodgy lines
Outlander contains two of the worst lines I have ever read. Claire gets one and Jamie gets one so at least they’re evenly distributed, but they are teeth-itchingly bad. What’s really upsetting is that they both make it in to the programme.
5. Episode 16
There’s really no way to talk about Outlander without mentioning how much sexual violence there is. Even in a post-Game of Thrones world, episode 16 ‘To Ransom a Man’s Soul’ is brutal and, for me at least, impossible to watch fully. There’s a couple of things here; the first is that there seems to be a weirdly relaxed attitude to rape in areas of the book – the story of Jamie being almost assaulted at age 16 is played for laughs by everybody including Jamie himself. Secondly the programme seems to deal much better with this until the very end when it opts for a staggeringly graphic approach. I know the programme makers have justified this decision, but I’m still not convinced it really adds anything to the narrative. We know Jamie is broken, I’m not sure what we gain by seeing it happen. If you want to read more there’s a really thoughtful article on Entertainment Weekly.
So I know it’s wobbly in places, but I love it. I actually love Ronald D Moore’s version a bit more than I love Gabaldon’s, but it’s basically all brilliant.