Monday, February 9, 2015

Show vs. Book: "Outlander: A Book Made Better"

I wanted to like this book. It came highly recommended and a couple of social media friends were astonished I'd never read it. When I finally started reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, I was actually very surprised at how difficult it was for me to feel engaged in the narrative. The story, the plot, is very interesting, but the actual narrative delivery fell woefully flat for me as a reader. I felt as though there was no tension in the text and no heightened emotion experienced by the narrator Claire Randall. I mean, the woman fell through a rock with mystical power and lands 200 years in the past and yet I didn't feel a thing from her emotionally...I didn't care.

I pushed myself to read this book, because I wanted to like it. It's well researched, and the actual history of the English dominion over Scotland and the rebellion that was to follow was appealing. I also enjoyed learning about Clan politics. Claire, who'd been a field nurse for Britain in WWII, has a knowledge of healing and herbal remedies, so I liked that aspect of the book as well. But I had a huge problem with Claire. Even though she'd had an interesting childhood traveling around with her archaeologist uncle, had been a nurse, was sexually aware and had fallen through time after witnessing an ancient Druid ceremony - I found her to be an incredibly one note character.


The story is told from a first person perspective, so I thought I would feel Claire's psychological struggle and her emotional torment, but I didn't. There wasn't much internal reflection and expression of emotions. It just felt like one long winding story of interesting events told in a very flat way. Even my crush on Jamie wasn't enough to keep me hooked. I almost put the book down; I almost abandoned this most beloved book by the masses.

But then...I watched the show that was recently made by Starz based on the Outlander book series. The show took all the potential of the text and realized it on screen. Suddenly, I was seeing Claire as this strong minded 20th century woman with a battlefield nurse's mentality trying to piece together a marriage interrupted by the war, and preparing herself for a life of domesticity as a professor's wife. She is at a crossroads in her life before the events at Craigh Na Dun even happen. When she falls through the stone and ends up 200 years in the past - I felt her terror and confusion, but also her strength.

Claire became complex to me, she came alive, and the actress, Caitriona Balfe, captures all of this in a way that the text didn't deliver. Then, as the story progressed, I started to recognize other elements that lacked the underlying tension in the book, but were capitalized on by the show. Claire's entire experience at Castle Leoch in the book seemed like a "la-ti-da" affair. She was gardening, taking trips to the stable, meeting with Laird Colum Mackenzie, and everything seemed fairly simple despite the suspicion that she might be an English spy. But even then there was no perceived imminent threat from her perspective.

However, in the show the entire Castle Leoch experience is laced with tension and you know for a fact that the Mackenzie's don't trust her, and she is kept there as a prisoner under the pretense of being a guest. They don't harm her, but there is an obvious political interest in Claire's sudden appearance and her usefulness in the healing arts, and possibly as a political tool. She's viewed as a confounding and interesting individual, and so I became more interested in her and the show, and by extension, the book.

I re-entered the text with this new image of Claire in my mind. I imposed upon scenes, written with little of her emotional response, the sense of character I'd conjured from the show. Having seen the show was what got me through the book in which I found it initially so hard to feel emotionally invested.

(Spoiler Alert - though I expect that if you are reading this comparison between the two mediums you have probably read and watched the show.)

By the end of the book, particularly when Jamie is rescued from the prison, I finally felt as though the Claire character from the show began to make an appearance in the book. By the time they are in the monastery and she works her own bit of magic to break Jamie's fever - I was hooked. I still wasn't completely won over by the writing, but by this point the relationship between Claire and Jamie was my most favorite thing.

I enjoy some romance in stories, but I wasn't expecting the nearly Fifty Shades of sex between Claire and Jamie. This book is definitely historical romance. The final scene, down in the healing hot spring was my favorite scene in the book. I thought it was the most well written, the most deliberate and beautifully described both with setting and emotions. It was this final scene, and Claire feeling the movement of the moon and the healing water in her own womb that made me immediately buy Book #2 in the series when my kindle version ended.

I'm looking forward to the return of the Starz show to finish out the second half of the first season/first book. I liked all the deviations from the text and I loved the characters even more. Getting a better sense of Claire's relationship with Frank and being able to see what he experiences after her disappearance was also key in making the story feel more well-rounded.

It's not been my favorite reading experience, but it has been an experience. In terms of recommendations: Some people may love this book, but others may sense the unrealized potential of what I call a flat narrative. The show may be a better alternative for those readers, or a companion to the text to help in establishing an emotional connection.






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