Outlander - Fine Books, Excellent Series

I first read The Outlander series a number of years ago. It hooked me immediately as it had many of my favorite elements - history, romance, Scotland, time travel, and a sweet-yet-strong auburn-haired hero (in a kilt!) named Jamie Fraser.

Wisely, and well, Starz made it into a made-for-cable series, and probably jacked up the subscriptions to its network a thousand-fold in a single season.

I've commented on books-into-films before, so this isn't new territory, but it's always food for thought - especially when it's done right, and it most certainly is here.

The book series, like many of its genre, had a stupendous beginning, followed by a rather anemic series of ever-diminishing also-rans. The idea itself was, of course, a winner, and spawned a whole series of time travel romances that, while they did well, could never quite compete with the master - or is that mistress? - of the style, Diana Gabaldon.

Her heroine, Claire, is spunky and perfectly scripted as a WWII nurse, married to a man who doesn't really suit her, but with whom she is trying to rekindle a marriage torn apart by the war. She has taken up an interest in herbal medicine (perfect if you're going to be tossed back 200 years in time!), and has assisted at the bedside of soldiers with horrendous war wounds, so she has a purpose and a value in her new time period. Her husband is a passionate amateur historian who has taken her on a tour of the Scottish Highlands to see the sites of his ancestor's travels through that rebellious countryside (his ever-so-great grandfather, the notorious "Black Jack" Randall is a villain in the series), so she knows about not only the area, but conveniently, its history at the time.

Her hero, the perfect young James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, has the boyishness of a Catholic lad fresh off the manor, combined with the sophistication of a monkish and European education, with the added fillip of a man tested in battle. What more could a girl want? Oh, and he's - untested in marriage. So there's that attraction, as well.

The books follow the adventures, amorous and otherwise, of Claire and Jamie, as they enter into a marriage of convenience (by marrying a Scot, she becomes a Scot, and therefore, cannot be arrested by the British), which eventually becomes a relationship of passion and finally, love. As such, these are good novels (with the noted exception that the first is by far the superior book): well written, well-researched, clever, witty, and very romantic. As is the case with many series writers, Gabaldon drags it all on far too long, and when she's introduced the child of Claire and Jamie as the new romantic lead, the series takes a decided turn for the worse. Still - I read on!

Now along came the series, and of course I had to see how the filmmakers' visualization matched up to my own. Set in the mid-1700s in Scotland, it would be difficult to make anything too hard to enjoy, though having sat through a few episode of The CW's Reign, a series supposedly about the French Court of Mary, Queen of Scots (in which the women wear a 13 year old's idea of "cool clothes for, like, a Scottish, like, princess or somebody..."), I have to say it is possible to make historic fiction "like totally suck."

However, these filmmakers are clearly not aiming at the pre-teen set, and have made excellent choices in sets, costumes, language (for the most part), and actors. To be sure, everyone's teeth are a bit too good, their skin a little too perfect, their clothes a tad too clean and tidy. But aside from the obvious need to keep it attractive to the modern eye, the look and feel of the series is excellent.

The actors are well-chosen, no easy task when casting one of the ultimate romantic heroes of modern fiction. I can only imagine what it was like choosing Heathcliff for the first film version of Wuthering Heights. By way of comparison, that film, brilliant as it was, had far less in common with original story, and characters, than does this series.

Of course, the series has the advantage of being able to drag one (lengthy) book out into 16 episodes - 8 that just completed, and 8 more to come in the Spring, a cruel trick if there ever was one.

But the casting and acting for all the main characters is spot on, thankfully including our leads, Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan), who carry most of the weight. But the other roles are equally well cast and beautifully performed, including small gems such as a sly gaberlunzie man (a licensed beggar in Scotland), who, having had his legs boiled in oil and his tongue ripped out by the Musselmen (Muslims) after he was captured in a raid, now begs, dances, mimes and charms his way through life. These small roles add the detail that make all the difference between a good-enough production, and a brilliant one.

So far, this one has all the makings of a brilliant series.

Buffalo's recent snowfall no less compelling, I can hardly wait for winter to be over and April to arrive for the next set of eight episodes - and I hope they live up to the promise of the first.


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