The chief criticism levied against Outlander, both in print and on the screen, is that there is a substantial amount of groundwork and backstory, both prior to the inciting incident and during the rising action. This makes for a slower pace than your typical action-adventure piece. Forget the sex and violence (yeah, right… good luck with that); patience and perseverance may be the greatest barrier to entry into Outlandish fandom.
Kudos to the production team, not only for crystallizing all of the pertinent detail, but for reformulating and resequencing the source material into an episodic format that still entertains. This is no criticism of the novels’ structure whatsoever. Written work is not encumbered by the constraints of the sixty-minute story arc. Making the transition from page to screen requires two things: encapsulating exposition into narrative conflicts, and optimizing visual cues. Both of these are accomplished magnificently in 1.02 Castle Leoch.
As I explained in an earlier post, it was a watershed conversation between costume designer Terry Dresbach, producer Maril Davis, and Ronald D. Moore about Diana Gabaldon’s books that was the impetus behind the show we know today. Independently and collectively, these three people have credits that include work such as Helix, Caprica, Carnivàle, several Star Trek franchises, and, most notably, Battlestar Galactica. This team knows how to make complex period pieces that look, sound, and feel thoroughly real without the “Hey, look at me, I’m historically accurate” vibe of lessor productions. Whether they’re set in the past, present, or future, each of these shows has a dramatic core that is only enhanced by, not overshadowed by, brilliant design work.
This feat takes time, and it sure isn’t cheap. Quoted figures cite a local crew of 200 and a supporting cast of 2400 people.
The costuming crew for Outlander numbers more than seventy alone, owing to the fact that most of the costumes, and even most of the fabric, is made especially for this show (Terry and Ron’s podcast about getting the redcoats the right shade of red is absolutely wonderful). The production even employs its very own Gàidhlig expert, Àdhamh Ó Broin (whose YouTube clips are a joy). Nearly all of the lighting is practical (torches and such – actual light cast by set pieces, rather than unseen stage lighting), which complicates camerawork and dictates shooting schedules. A substantial volume of this episode is shot at Doune Castle, formerly of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and more recently Winterfell in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. As a historic site, and with Scotland’s “Right to Roam” laws, the set cannot be completely closed. Fans and tourists, although largely respectful of the proceedings, still wander about and swarm at will. Several sources speculate about budget figures of more than 50 million pounds, which in the range of nearly $80 million US dollars.
So, after having shared a little Outlander groundwork and backstory, let’s get into the meat of the episode. What varied from the book (in no particular order)?
- Colum negotiates, but Dougal takes charge of the punishment that Jamie takes on behalf of Laoghaire MacKenzie, and Rupert administers the blows instead of Angus Mhor. In the novel, the turmoil between the War Chieftan and Himself, Laird Column MacKenzie, has a slower burn. Since our focus is so heavily on Jamie and Claire for the majority of the screen time, it’s best for the television format to set this conflict up early and let it simmer on a back burner. As for reapportioning the role of body servant, especially when the role of Angus Mhor is expanded significantly for the show, otherwise, I wonder if this is purely a matter of physicality. It’s harder to imagine cagey, shifty TV Angus matching up to Jamie’s substantial physique, even if Jamie isn’t allowed to defend himself.
- In the flashback to Jamie’s arrest four years prior, we barely get a glimpse of his sister, Jenny (but what a torrid glimpse). Unbeknownst to the viewing audience, Jenny is possibly the most complex female protagonist in the supporting cast. In the novel, Jenny manages to fight back against Black Jack Randall with more ferocity than in the show, insulting and assaulting the Captain’s manhood, figuratively and literally. I suppose that Moore, and to an extent, show director John Dahl, have their reasons for not including her perspective on the events at Lallybrook. I’ll oblige this choice temporarily, so long as her character is fleshed out more substantially during the season’s second half. With the exception of Geillis Duncan, few other female characters in the first novel are drawn with much depth, which leads me to…
- …Complimenting the choice to advance and enhance the introduction we have to Geillis, the suspicious, salacious wife of the flatulent procurator fiscal and purveyor of all things herbal for the people of Cranesmuir. This, again, is a set-up of sorts that, if I’m intuiting the directorial motivations properly, we need to have in our minds at any time we see Geillis, even momentarily, going forward. We also need her as a foil during the Hall, because…
- …It’s great to have this scene play out primarily in Gàidhlig. In the book, it would have been awkward to have the spoken word and translation play out. Here, the language is not only transfixing and transporting, it’s also a figurative shorthand that indicates Claire’s literal inability to understand her surroundings. It demonstrates how dependent she is upon gaining the trust of those around her. Without Geills there to translate, she would have been utterly lost. Claire’s deductive abilities, though admirable, are only going to get her so far, especially when she…
- …Eats and drinks like a starved prisoner, which, except for the deprivation part, she might as well be long before the episode concludes in her dungeon/surgery. They sure raise the stakes on how trapped she is at Leoch. Sue Richardson, avid reader from Georgia, agrees. “She stays in a regular room in the book, comes and goes freely to the castle herb garden and her apothecary. She’s nowhere near as confrontational in the book. It would take about three episodes to convey her gradual realization that she’s indeed trapped there and needs to extricate herself. The TV show’s done a great job of synthesizing that into one neat episode.”
- Oh, my dear Claire. Did you not pay attention to your MI6 hubby in your very own flashback snippet? Don’t let the degenerated skeletal structure and long flowing locks deceive you; Colum is as wily as he is wise. Book Colum knows he’s got her where he wants her before she excuses herself from dinner, but TV Colum, well…
- …It’s a wonder he didn’t have her sentenced to a violent end after having mistaken the paternity of Hamish. In the book, this exchange does not exist. Rather, Claire explains to the reader that Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome renders its sufferers infertile. No such exposition is provided on screen, so we’re not sure why everyone is looking at one another so ominously after her ill-considered remark. It could just as easily have been taken for an honest mistake, or it could have been arbitrarily been deemed a capital offense. For a show so apt to provide monologue exposition, it’s curious that the question of who sired the young heir is inferred so lackadaisically and yet so uncomfortably.
- The confrontation that Claire has with Dougal about being followed is also written for the screen. The whole “kenning” of the mind argument is half of the set of bookends – the “guest so long as you do not leave” line being the other – of the three-way power struggle. If Dougal doesn’t know the full extent of Colum’s negotiations with Claire, he certainly does by the close of the show.
- If there were anything that I would have like to see on screen that wasn’t included, it would have been Claire’s petition to Colum at the Hall. Her formal introduction to the clan might have been a better occasion to paint with tension between Laird, Chieftan, and Outlander. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of the writer’s room. I wonder how long including this portion of the proceedings was considered.
- I do have to compliment the shifts in conversation that take place earlier in the day between Claire and Himself. While the line, “Is there ever a good reason for rape, Master MacKenzie?” feels a little anachronistic, the whole tête-à-tête sets up a power dynamic that it takes longer to establish in the novel. Without her demonstrating herself to be competent, if not wholly trustworthy, she may not win the offer of transport via an itinerant tinker due to visit within five days’ time.
- Speaking of which, this tinker, invented for the show, is a deft departure from the novel. Rather than an open-ended stay, Claire can count down the days until her believed return to Inverness and Craigh na Dun. While she is more than eager to pass the days as quickly as surreptitiously as possible, she also recognizes her growing affability with Mr. McTavish. While the TV-only exchange, “Try not to get flogged or stabbed today,” followed by, “No promises, Sassenach,” is utterly charming, it feels a little more coy and modern than the tenor of the passage in the novel. Still, the conflict, “Should I stay or should I go” is real.
- Overall, Claire’s persistence to escape isn’t quite as dramatic in the book as it is on screen. This urgency is further heightened by the scene we see with Frank and Father MacKenzie searching across the countryside. While Claire presumes that so much must be taking place, seeing it really drives it home.
Other minor adjustments and adaptations include Old Alec having two functioning eyes, and not having leeches be part of Jamie’s post-punishment eye socket and cheekbone rehabilitation. For all that’s invested in hair, makeup, and costume for the show, these are hardly worth fretting about. I’m glad that the prosthetic budget was invested, instead, in Jamie’s crosshatching of scar tissue from the welts and flays administered at Fort William.
The latex to achieve this look takes more than two hours to apply each time, and it couldn’t be more believable on screen. More than two hours of filming were also dedicated to capturing every nuance of the sequence in which Claire is dressed by the incomparable Mrs. Fitz, played with note-for-note perfection by seasoned character actor Annette Badland.
On the whole, there’s more to be said about how this episode was faithful to the novel than how it diverted. So very much is accomplished with the most subtle of facial expressions (see below). As there are more than enough play-by-play recaps already on the Internet that examine those accomplishments, I want to know what else you noticed that wasn’t quite what you expected – good, bad, or otherwise.