Our First Take on Outlander: The Series

outlander_starzStarz’s adaptation of Outlander, with Caitriona Balfe as Claire and Sam Heughan as Jamie, premiered last week with a free online episode available here. Outlander is a legend in the romance world and here at AAR, where it’s placed in the top five romances in every annual poll except 2004 (it “crashed” to seventh). I’m a fan of the books but not a die-hard, so I’m not troubled by minor plot deviations or additions as long as they’re in the spirit of Gabaldon’s book. I’m looking for something that captures the detailed, warts-and-all Highland setting, Claire’s confidence and competence, Jamie’s honesty and enthusiasm, and their marvelous, inevitable attraction. On the basis of the first episode, I’m optimistic that this series is going to deliver.

What I didn’t like:

The pacing. It takes over half an hour to get Claire to the past. Yes, this is faithful to the book, but I always skip that part in the book, too. (Come on. Nobody reads this book to see 1940s Claire and Frank.) Tobias Menzies playing Frank does do a good job, and you accurately get the feeling of Claire and Frank as compatible but in a rocky patch which Gabaldon gives us in the book. I’m not saying those scenes were unnecessary, especially for people who aren’t already fans of the book, but once you’ve read or watched them once, you’re never going to do it again.

Balfe’s appearance. Balfe is gorgeous, with a model’s long, lean figure that looks fragile and borderline fey. It clashed with the practical durability I associate with Claire. I always saw Claire as more of a young Emma Thompson type – beautiful, certainly, but also sturdy and down-to-earth, with looks that sneak up on you in the wake of your admiration for her good sense. Balfe acts well (more on that later) but her looks always catch your eye first. At least she wasn’t given heavy-handed and inauthentic makeup (of course, she doesn’t need it!) and her hair, like Claire’s in the book, is allowed to look a bit frizzy and unmanageable in the Scottish damp.

Claire’s voice-overs. This was probably intended to save time, capture the first-person voice of the novel, and avoid awkward exposition dialogue. However, the voice-overs were often unnecessary and intrusive, pulling me out of the scenes. The worst were unfortunately cheeseball. The last line of the episode is “So far, I’d been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped, and nearly raped. And somehow, I knew that my journey had only just begun.” Not even Balfe can do much with a line like that.

What I liked:

The music. Atmospheric and Celtic without being New Age radio. I think this is due to avoiding synthesized “woo-woo” vocals (which would have felt anachronistic) and supporting the vocals and higher-pitched instruments with vigorous, martial drumbeats. The music for the druidic ritual performed by the villagers is eerie but strong, the chase scenes are energetic, and the drumbeats emitted by the stone that transports Claire sound powerful and mysterious. The opening credits song, a version of Over the Sea to Skye, is a particularly good example of everything that works in the music; you can listen to it on Youtube here.

The clothes. I loved the color palettes, and the costumes from both settings look authentic. I wish I could say I loved them, but one thing just jumped out at me: nothing looked warm enough. This story is set across Halloween outside of Inverness. The average high is about fifty Fahrenheit at that time of year. Would you go out forty-degree weather wearing a light white dress and a shawl? Especially if, like Balfe, you have essentially no body fat? When Claire went splashing through a river later on, I kept thinking she was going to come down with pneumonia.

What I loved:

The production values. I already mentioned that they didn’t skimp on the music or costumes. The cinematography captures the stark grandeur of the Highlands and the timbre of the light peculiar to that location. The druid ritual dance scene is beautifully lit and very evocative. The supporting cast is good so far, and the props and sets are top-notch.

The acting. Balfe can’t control her looks, but what she can control, she did well. I loved her “nurse-mode” Claire: brisk, bossy, and no-nonsense. She went from tentative and uncertain in a strange new setting to demanding that a cottage full of armed and dangerous male strangers get out of the way and let her set a shoulder properly. Heughan has less to do in the first episode because of his limited screen time, but he manages to convey moments of all of Jamie’s key elements: physically tough, adventurous, confident, young, and with a sense of humor. The accents for both characters are great, although I’m not sure about Balfe’s delivery of Claire’s signature “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” As mentioned, Tobias Menzies performed strongly as Frank, and his “Black Jack” Randall looks promisingly villainous. I’m also intrigued by Graham McTavish as Dougal.

Jamie and Claire. I will watch old 1970s productions with painted backdrops if the cast is strong, and all the lavish filming in the world can’t keep me tuned in to leads with no chemistry. So let’s get to what really matters: are Heughan and Balfe doing justice to one of the greatest romance couples of all time? From their limited time together in Episode 1, I’d say definitely. Their first meeting is quick and public, with Jamie’s injuries and the group on the run, but the actors make the most of small moments: eye contact while Claire sets Jamie’s shoulder, or touching when Jamie wraps them in his plaid. In one short, funny moment, Claire explains that she’s a nurse, and, as Jamie’s eyes drop to her breasts, she snaps “Not a wet nurse!” I can’t wait to see what they’ll do as the story progresses.

My overall verdict:

Give this show a try! The quality is high, and, once the first episode gets going, it’s engaging and interesting. Moreover, the strengths (especially Claire and Jamie) are going to get more and more screen time, which makes me optimistic. There are breasts and sex scenes, so this is not family viewing, but I think it will make for some great evenings in.

What do you think?

Have you watched the new Outlander yet? Do you agree with me about what is and isn’t working? If you aren’t watching, is it because you don’t plan to, or are you waiting to binge on the whole thing?




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31 Responses to Our First Take on Outlander: The Series

  1. lauren says:

    Oh Yay! I get to be first! My impressions: I loved it and I am NOT going to get caught up at all in the details of minor imperfections.
    Outlander has come to life in the flesh…and OH what flesh that is!
    I will watch and enjoy and watch again and again!

  2. KristieJ says:

    This is driving me nuts. It doesn’t start running here in Canada until the end of August. It’s like all your friends are having a great time partying and you’re still stuck at work for the next few hours.

    I’m not a die hard Outlander fan either, I’ve only read the first book, but I love period movies/series and oddly enough besides the just the series itself, I’m looking forward to hearing the soundtrack.

  3. Pamela (aka pwm in mi) says:

    I thought the first episode was very much like my experience of reading the first 200 pages of the book. Very slow until Claire falls through the portal and then it picks up like nobody’s business. I really liked the casting of Jaime and Claire. And Scotland is just breath taking…book me a ticket. Very excited to watch the rest of the program. Thinking of getting my hair styled in to uncontrollable curls:)

  4. Eliza says:

    There really wasn’t anything I didn’t like because the spirit of the book was so well done.

    I disagree about the pacing in the beginning. I think it was absolutely necessary to establish Claire as being able to handle the Scottish past by highlighting her wartime experiences, traveling the world with Uncle Lamb with his academic background and so on. I thought it was expertly done actually in how it compressed many of the details from the book, leaving the essence for the setup. (I also suspect many wanted more of Jamie, and NOW!)

    I also disagree with most of the Claire points as well. The voice-overs were never a problem for me either since I thought they established the “voice” of Claire who really is the voice of the book much of the time from her first person POV. I didn’t know Cat was a model so her pretty, animated face worked for me too. The one thing that I did notice at first was Cat’s height since she’s tall like Jamie, but I got over that quickly because of how well she brought forth Claire’s character.

    I also thought Claire’s clothes appropriate since the 1743 Scots see her as being in her shift. And although they shot those scenes in winter, the story takes place at Samhain. (As an aside, I notice that non-Scots seem to make more of the Scottish weather than the Scots themselves do. My experience of Scottish weather was that it was fairly moderate–rarely freezing and hitting the high 70s or so being considered a heat wave. It’s not usually the temps in Scotland at issue anyway; it’s more the wind from the ever-near sea.)

    I didn’t really expect to see much of Jamie and his interaction with Claire in the first episode but what what was included was spot on IMO. The production made the few key scenes they had work wonderfully.

    Two more thoughts, the first about Frank. The production made him a little stiffer and a perhaps a little less likable(?) or at least engaging than the book so I wonder if that has to do with possible future seasons, to make it easier for Menzies’ double role, or just to make it easier for the audience to accept Claire’s choosing Jamie. None of the above?

    The second is about Scotland. I thought the scenes they shot were breathtaking, giving one a good view of what the hielands truly look and feel like. I didn’t see them as “stark” at all–a picky point, I know–but I saw them as stunning and magnificent. Maybe the real thing is more awesome in person and the limits of a screen scale them down somewhat? In any event, I obviously love the beauty of Scotland and think the production did a terrific job.

  5. sula says:

    Outlander was my gateway book into romance. I remember reading it at age 16 and being completely and utterly transported into that world. I laughed, I cried, was gutted when they parted and exhilarated when they were reunited. To me, Jamie and Claire will always be THE standard by which I judge romance. I am very excited to see this series, but since I don’t have cable, I will have to contain my enthusiasm until it is available on netflix. But I prefer glomming an entire series at a go anyways, so I’ll survive. Delighted to read these reviews and reactions because it looks like they are staying true to the spirit of the books.

  6. RobinB says:

    I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but wasn’t Roger introduced early on in the first “Outlander” book as a young boy? He was calling himself Roger Wakefield because the Reverend Wakefield had adopted him. (Aside–I just loved seeing James Fleet as Reverend Wakefield; he played one of my favorite characters in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”!)

    Beside that, I really enjoyed the first episode of “Outlander”; the acting, the writing, the cinematography were all first-rate, and I thought that the overall production was very true to the book. And I agree that the voice-overs by the character of Claire helped establish the first-person narrative. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

    • Ann says:

      Hi RobinB

      I heard that young Roger Wakefield has filmed, but he may be in later episodes. Just don’t know why he would not have been in the 1st episode.

  7. Caryl says:

    I watched with my husband, who has never read the books and doesn’t enjoy science fiction (what he called the time travel elements). I echo the comments made above, likes and disliked, but overall lovely satisfaction. My husband really enjoyed it and is interested in seeing more. His major complaint was that he didn’t understand the time travel aspect and he was confused and annoyed by the lack of explanation (he said they should have least given it a shot by describing a tesseract or something.).

    • CarolineAAR says:

      Yes, I thought choosing to show no visuals for it at all (except by analogy) was a little anticlimactic. I don’t really know what it would have looked like instead, though.

    • Eliza says:

      The producer Ronald Moore addressed this by saying a lot of films have done special effects for this kind of thing and they didn’t want to waste time with yet one more film with CGI effects that have likely been done. He also noted that the car crash scene is how Claire described her transition in the book so they went with that. Seemed a good choice to me.

      As for explaining the stones and time travel, DG herself hasn’t done that in eight books yet–only that some folk can go through the stones and some can’t.

      • CarolineAAR says:

        She addresses it in The Outlandish Companion. A brief version can be found in this interview: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140808-outlander-scotland-orkney-islands-stonehenge-neolithic/

        • Eliza says:

          Thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen it before and did enjoy it. I agree with everything DG said about Orkney which truly is amazing, especially Skara Brae (a prehistoric village in amazing shape) and Maeshowe (a unique chambered cairn although there are other cairns in Scotland). There are also other standing stones all throughout Scotland.

          DG doesn’t explain in the stones in her books, though, and as she said in this article: “But all the [research] texts speculate that nobody knows what the actual function of these stone circles was. And so I began thinking, Well, I bet I can think of one.” And, “I will have to do a write-up called the Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel. [Laughs]”

          FWIW, the Orkneys were heavily settled by Norse Vikings and ruled by Norway in the past, and it definitely has its fair share of ginger-haired Vikings even today, including my friend’s tall, ginger-haired husband.

          • CarolineAAR says:

            I was able to visit the Neolithic Orkney sites a whole back and I completely agree – they are extraordinary.

  8. JulieB says:

    I’m one of the die-hard fans (since Voyager was released). With all the advance video clips and trailers, I had seen a good portion prior to the release, but I was delighted with the whole thing. I am one of the fans that doesn’t mind the changes; I feel it makes the tv series more interesting. As long as they stick to the actual storyline and don’t go off track entirely (yes, I’m speaking to you, True Blood), I will be happy. No, the actors weren’t the pictures in my head, but frankly, my mind’s images wouldn’t have matched anyone else’s either. I don’t care if Claire’s eye color or body type is what the book indicated, nor do I care if a certain sex act was inserted (ahem) where there was none in the book.

    I think Caitriona is doing an incredible job. We haven’t see enough of Sam for me to have a firm opinion yet, but I have very high hopes from what I’ve seen so far. I found myself intrigued by Frank (and although I always thought he got a raw deal in the books, he never held much interest to me before). The standout performance that I wasn’t expecting was Graham as Dougal. He’s absolutely perfect and I can’t take my eyes off him when he’s onscreen.

    I have very high hopes for this, and am excited every time I see another good review. To bring my favorite series to a larger audience is to share my joy with the world. It’s like Christmas!!!

    • CarolineAAR says:

      Yes, I also love the fact that new audiences are going to discover something really top-notch that I’ve enjoyed for years. Diana Gabaldon has said that she doesn’t make a lot of money from the adaptation – mostly authors hope to get increased book sales. So I hope many new readers will come her way! I was giggly to see the miniseries cover version in an airport bookstore.

  9. Ann says:

    I loved everything about the 1st episode – can’t wait for Saturday. It was one of the best book to screen adaptions I’ve ever seen. They had to establish Frank and Claire at the beginning, since Claire is always trying to get back to Frank. I could see the chemistry between Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe right away. I have a feeling the series is going to be amazing.

  10. Trish B says:

    Well, I’m a complete Outlander virgin – never read any of the books and know only the most basic info about the book(s). Having said that, I really enjoyed the first episode. And while I tend to agree with those who could have done without a lot of the Claire/Frank beginnings, it was necessary to set up what follows.

    My issue is with Tobias Menzies as Frank. Now I don’t know if Frank is a really good guy and Claire’s true love or something, but for some reason I can only buy Tobias Menzies as a bad guy – certainly not a romantic lead! I like him as Black Jack, but I would not want Claire reunited with Frank!

    Since I have no preconceived ideas about Jamie, I frind Sam Heughan’s Jamie just dreamy. He’s tough, sexy and has a sense of humor and he alone would likely keep me watching!

  11. AAR Haley says:

    I hadn’t watched the first episode yet because I don’t have Starz (and I didn’t want to start a series I couldn’t finish), but due to a crazy billing issue, my TV provider tossed in Starz super cheap. I’m so excited to go home and watch Outlander tonight! I also downloaded the book because I am apparently one of the few who hasn’t read it yet.

    • AAR Melanie says:

      Actually, Haley, I haven’t read it either! I had gotten a copy ages ago, and just never got around to it. After watching the first episode of the series, though, it is definitely moving up to the top of the to read stack!

  12. pamelia says:

    Well, as someone who read the first book and then DNF’d book 2 and never (obviously) got into the books, I was pretty meh about the show as well. I watched it with my husband and we both thought it was too slow to start.
    Music, casting and scenery were great and the show did pick up once she was sent back in time, but I don’t know that it gave enough of a sense of dramatic tension about what would happen next. In other words, it didn’t have enough “hook” to get us jonesing for episode 2.
    In any case, I might wind up watching it on DVD, but I’m not going to order a new premium channel for it.

  13. Vol Fan says:

    I saw the free episode on Dish TV and ordered Starz just for this series. I was late to the series, but have read them all. Given that it had been a long time since I read Outlander, I decided to reread it before the series started. This reading made me apprieciate it even more. I had never really had a vision of how the characters looked, but upon second reading, I could see these actors in the parts and it made it even more rich to me.

    As many have said, the book’s slow beginning initially turned me off, but I stuck with it and after the time change, I really loved it. I feared the show might turn many non-readers away too for that reason. I think the voice-over helped that to some degree, hopefully anyway.

    I love the cast, the whole production is wonderful. I made my husband watch (not a reader) because I wanted him to enjoy it with me. He actually did! At the end of the show, he said that it had the makings of a good series. My only complaint was that it stopped too quickly. Given the slow start, I think they should have gone a bit further into Jamie’s world in order to hook more people. I’m really anxious to see what they do with the second episode, because lovers of the book are going to tune in whatever, but it will be interesting to see if non-readers will keep watching. I think they will, but the second show should really tell the viewership I would think.

    • Eliza says:

      The think the next episode is highly likely to include where Claire works on Jamie’s shoulder and wound in Leoch where they have just arrived; and since the well-circulated picture of Jamie with a naked chest finally convinced many that Sam was indeed well-cast as Jamie, I think people who don’t like the series will just have plainly different tastes. IOW, I have a lot of confidence in the next episode. Plus, Jamie gets to utter that lovely line (with his naked bandaged chest), “Ye need not be scairt of me, nor anyone else here, so long as I’m with ye.”

      I wonder if they’ll include Claire’s meltdown in Jamie’s comforting arms in that same scene.

  14. Eliza says:

    In case anyone is interested in DG’s reaction…

    I picked up the TV Guide Outlander magazine today and DG was quoted as saying, “It was the first script of Outlander that didn’t make me either turn white or burst into flames…. It caught the spirit and voice of the books.”

    I thought that was high praise indeed from an author, in particular this author who has no trouble saying exactly she thinks.

  15. Bona says:

    I’m glad that all of you that enjoyed the books have this chance to see them on the screen. And it’s certainly good news that somebody recognizes a good quality romance. There are many fantastic romance stories out there that could make wonderful movies or TV series. So it’s good news for the genre.
    Personally, I wouldn’t see the series, even if it gets to be broadcasted in my country, as I’m not a Gabaldon’s fan. I only read the first book of the series and I didn’t like it.

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  17. Joyce Lund says:

    I just finished the book OUTLANDER a hour or so ago. My son got it for me as a birthday present on Friday. I have watched the first three episodes of series. The first two without reading the book. It was driving me crazy, so they got the book so I could better understand what was going on.
    Now, I have to say, I can’t decide if I want to watch the series or not. I find it easier to deal with extreme violence in my mind’s eye rather then actually. I have this feeling that the series is going to play more to the violence then to the connection between Claire and Jamie.

  18. Jamie Beck says:

    I am loving the chemistry between Jamie and Claire. I agree with a lot of your points on that first episode, but none of it matters to me as much as how well Sam H. is playing the role of Jamie. He absolutely sizzles and I love the way we can feel his intrigue for this odd, bold woman who literally dropped into his world.

    The books are so wonderful, but they can be slow at times, so I expected the show to have to be slow, too, because those details are necessary to understand the story. I’m okay with it, although had I not read the books, I might not be hooked by the show yet.

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