When I was a senior in high school, I found myself swept up into the thrill of Starz’s grand unveiling of the show your mom had been waiting a decade for: Outlander. It wasn’t on purpose, really; I just found myself in the same room when my mom had it on, and I’m a sucker for Scottish accents and attractive redheads with jawlines carved from stone. So I became casually interested.
After a few conversations with my English teacher, another Outlander fanatic, and an initially sarcastic suggestion that I do a feminist criticism of Diana Gabaldon’s masterpiece as my final project for the year, I became a little more than casually interested. I demolished the novel, crammed the margins full of notes on feminist literary theory, and banged out an impassioned and hastily organized essay that ended up only 250 words over the limit. And, of course, I kept up with the TV show every Saturday night.
As I worked through the book and my critique, however, the show began to bug me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a while; at first I thought maybe it was just because I was finally able to compare the show to the book, and it did take a significant turn from the book, but it was more than that– and even more than the disappointing lack of chemistry between TV Claire and TV Jamie. I didn’t truly realize what my problem with the show was until I had finally crafted my magnum opus of a thesis: “[Outlander] works as a piece of feminist literature by refusing to be reduced to a piece of feminist literature.”
Outlander the book is a masterpiece of feminist literature. I won’t dwell on why because I already wrote nearly 2,500 words about that; the important thing is that it it is, and it is because it doesn’t try to be. But with the show so highly anticipated and feminism’s growing presence in pop culture, Outlander the TV show never really had the option to be subtle.
Part of this obligation to make a statement is inherent to the medium. It’s the same reason a movie adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald work will never fully capture the tone: So much of the story is in the subtlety of the wording, so when you’re forced to show instead of tell, sometimes you have to sacrifice the nuance for a bolder take. This is often most prevalent in the characters: When deprived of the internal monologue that books have the luxury of providing, TV and movie characters must compensate with bigger actions, even if it’s out of character, to make the point.
However, the turn from subtlety goes deeper than this. On top of the necessary evils of the medium is is the expectation that a feminist show will handle the touchy subjects present in Outlander (rape, gender roles, domestic abuse, etc.) in a way that is both realistic and progressive. Gabaldon accomplished this successfully in the novel by refusing to make it a social commentary, but with the stage that was set for the show it suddenly wasn’t enough. The novels had been built up so much that to lay low and let the story speak for itself would be a let down. Instead, it needed to be a strong, unapologetic position in favor of feminism to appease the social justice warriors and shock viewers into an honest dialogue about every subject it addresses. Unfortunately, in doing so, Outlander lost its oomph.
Look, I realize that an ideal book-to-film adaptation is possible, and I realize that we will almost always fall short of that ideal. It’s the reality of living in a fallen world, and a really terrible reason to not try to make the perfect TV version of a beloved novel. The problem with Starz’s Outlander is not the occasionally disappointing cast or the re-prioritizing of the plot despite the rare luxury of time afforded to the network. I, along with any other reasonable viewer, would expect shortcomings of this nature because that’s just how these things work. Instead, the problem lies in the ultimate sacrifice of what worked for the novels: subtlety. The show has swapped Gabaldon’s pragmatic storytelling for bold and unmistakable feminist stances, and while this doesn’t delegitimize the message or ruin Outlander forever, it has caused a rift between the show and its literary inspiration. All that remains is to wait and see if this new foundation is strong enough to support Diana Gabaldon’s work, or if the sensationalization will prove too unsubstantial to sustain the literary masterpiece.