great adaptations

Outlander’s Willingness to Depart From the Books Has Made It Better

Photo: Aimee Spinks/Starz

Spoilers ahead for season four of Starz’s Outlander.

Here is a truth about reading, and loving, popular books: Sooner or later, someone will adapt those books, and the adaptation, no matter how good, will never match what’s in your head. Search for “Outlander” and “in the books” on Twitter after any episode of the Starz series adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s novels, and you’ll inevitably find some very frustrated people after every episode, some of whom go so far as to tag the writers, producers, and performers in their tweets. Their qualms range from the way Claire’s first wedding ring from Jamie looks to, most recently, a change that saw Brianna giving birth without her mother and father present, a lovely scene in the books that on screen, instead, shows her capable of fighting on alone, or nearly so.

Many Outlander fans simply want to see what they read on the page, and they want it now. I empathize. Yet my sincere, affectionate advice to these fans is, and I say this with love: Knock it off.

Anyone advocating for strict fidelity to the source material — in Outlander or any adaptation — risks missing out on the pleasure of watching a story they already love be expanded and enlivened by smart alterations. Exhibit A: Outlander’s welcome fictional resurrection of one Murtagh Fitzgibbons (Duncan Lacroix), a supporting character long since dead in the book series from which the TV show springs. (He’s the one that Vulture recapper Maggie Fremont lovingly and correctly calls a Silver Fox; the wig is indeed excellent.) Murtagh stands as living, breathing, walking, talking, rabble-rousing, Jocasta-pleasing proof that Outlander’s best hope for the future is to do what feels right for the television show — a show that adapts, rather than re-creates, the events of Gabaldon’s ongoing (and lengthy) book series.

Murtagh’s survival, established briefly last season, has had ripple effects throughout the show’s narrative. In the books, he dies in the battle at Culloden, a fact revealed in Voyager (book three). But in season three of the series, he’s revealed to be alive and not very well in a Scottish prison with Jamie before he’s spirited off, indentured, to the American colonies. That separation is a particularly clever one: readers know that the action eventually moves to North Carolina, and that Jamie makes a point there of seeking out the men of Ardsmuir Prison, while everyone else, presumably having watched a television show before, should suspect that the endearingly grumpy godfather with the dirty knees might pop up again.

Think of all that’s accomplished with this change: surprise and suspense for the whole audience; the opportunity to retain Lacroix, a terrific actor; an added layer of emotional resonance (while Jamie has a connection with many of the men in Ardsmuir, those connections carry considerably less weight than his relationship with Murtagh, and that’s doubly true of the connection between character and audience); and the potential continuation of a relationship loaded with history.

Allowing Murtagh to escape death wasn’t the first significant change Outlander made to the book character. (And no, I’m not referring to the Broadway touring company of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy: 18th Century Edition.) In the show’s second season, Murtagh accompanies the Frasers to Paris, where the couple attempts to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie from sailing to Scotland. That tracks with Dragonfly in Amber, the second novel in the series. But Ronald D. Moore and company depart from Murtagh’s prescribed story in one significant way: They let him in on the whole Claire-is-a-time-traveler thing. Here, also, the ripple effects are significant: It deepens Murtagh’s relationship with Claire, making him one of the only people in two separate eras who know her actual history; It raises both the tension and the stakes, explaining why they’re working against an effort that, on the surface, both Murtagh and Jamie would support, while also making clear to him the incredible loss that awaits them should they fail; it makes all those scenes of plotting more active, as there are now multiple people to debate their actions; and now, decades of plot later, it means there’s someone else in North Carolina that knows that time-travel exists, and grasps both the danger and promise that come with that knowledge.

The effect of all of that can still be felt in this season. Yet beyond even the emotional heft of Murtagh’s reunions with Jamie and then Claire, there’s a greater positive ripple effect. It stems from imagination — what if Murtagh survived? What would that do to the story? — and leads to the possibility of still more. In keeping Murtagh alive, the show’s writers essentially set a fully developed character loose in their story, one who will demand screen time and who has already earned the affection of an audience. They have a 20-year gap with which to play, giving them the ability to explore the ways in which the character’s experiences have changed him. And perhaps most importantly, he’s just there, knocking around in stories in which he initially didn’t belong. Every instance has made the story either more interesting or more easily wrangled. Murtagh walks into a scene, and one of three things happen: He adds another layer to the goings-on, he kicks open a door into a new story, or he strolls in and solves problems for the writers. One decision — keep Murtagh, and the excellent Lacroix, around — has had countless little upsides.

In “If Not for Hope,” Murtagh and Fergus (César Domboy) go hunting for Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speelers), the story’s current catch-all villain. After finding and knocking him out, they’re spotted by law enforcement, who recognize Murtagh — now a Regulator, a decision resulting from his experiences during and after his indenture — from a broadsheet. Both he and Bonnet are arrested and taken to a prison; Fergus, his wife Marsali (Lauren Lyle), and some other Regulators set out to rescue him in the following episode (“Providence”). And this is where the problem-solving comes in: By having Jamie naturally direct Murtagh to seek out the man who has so damaged his family (something he’s done before), the writers inject Murtagh into another character’s story line, one with ties to a lengthy subplot from the novels which had already been excised. He’s like a chess piece they can move around, but he never feels dispensable or like a mere plot mechanic, because he’s long been a fundamental part of the show’s DNA.

That’s not to say all adaptive choices are necessarily good ones. This writer personally wishes that there’d been time (or money) to dump poor old Willie in the privy when he showed up with Lord John at Fraser’s Ridge; she also questions the decision-making that led to the dude in the bear suit, while acknowledging that it is, somehow, less ridiculous than what happens in the books. But imagination always comes with the risk of failure.

A willingness to step away from the story as it exists on the page has been the one consistently positive thing about a series that has had its ups and downs. That willingness gave us more Frank, a more complex Geillis, an unexpected song-and-dance duo, the line “In those coats?!,” and, most recently, a very sexy glass of scotch to the face. In fact, in this writer’s opinion, Outlander’s biggest missteps have come when the writers (and sometimes directors) have seemingly tried to justify other changes by giving fans what they imagine they want. (See: Jamie diving into the perfectly clear blue water of a terrifying hurricane to save Claire like God reaching down to touch Adam, woof.)

What exists inside a character’s head does not necessarily translate well to the screen. Passages from a book written almost 20 years ago don’t always age well. (An informal survey of listeners of the Outlander podcast I co-host suggests that the changes to Mr. Willoughby’s story line were as welcome, if not more, than the continued existence of Murtagh’s happy face, as the story as it exists in the novel what you might call unfortunate.) The story as it exists on the page has already been adapted — that’s what reading it does, and you, the reader, are in charge. To wish that Outlander wouldn’t change a word is to wish for a television series that’s, and I’m spitballing here, 50 episodes a season, sometimes offensive, borderline incomprehensible, and prohibitively expensive, with some seriously weird and unnecessary subplots and loads more voice-over.

Love the books all you want, stop watching the show if you must, but please enjoy both for what they are. You already have your adaptation, let Outlander have its own — and remember, it can’t be all bad. After all, we’ve still got Murtagh.

Outlander’s Departure From the Books Has Made It Better