by Lauren Piester | Fri., Apr. 15, 2016 8:00 AM
If you're a fan of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels, you may have been a little shocked just moments into this weekend's premiere.
If you haven't read the books, all we'll say is that the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, does not begin with Frank in the 1940s. It also does not begin with Jamie and Claire in Paris. It would have involved some age makeup and the introduction of two characters book fans have been absolutely dying to meet, and it would have probably been more confusing to watch than it was to read for the first time.
Executive producer Ronald D. Moore and the rest of the great minds behind the Starz hit obviously knew what fans were expecting, but there were more than a few reasons that the show could not follow the same path that is taken in the books—partly because Gabaldon told them so.
"The book was a son of a bitch to write," Gabaldon tells E! News, referring mostly to the complicated structure she decided to use. "I don't like to do things that I've done before, so I experiment with the structure. What I did with Dragonfly in Amber, to take care of what you might call the segue to the backstory, to sort of explain what was going on without losing people, was to use this framing story, and then we dropped back into Claire's point of view and told the story linearly from there."
Even Gabaldon's description of her own novel sounds confusing, and the book really is a shock. It's easy to spend a hundred or so pages wondering if you've somehow missed a whole other novel because of how far it skips ahead.
"I said [to Moore], I have no idea how to film that," Gabaldon says of the extreme jump, which she rewrote seven times. "If I were you, I would just cut off the framing story and you go straight from the middle of the book. I don't know what you're going to do when you hit season three, assuming you get one, but you can wait on that. So that's why it starts at a different point. The framing story is still in there, but it's not going to be where you expect to see it."
Moore agreed with the structure changes, mostly for the audience's sake.
"For people that don't know the book, you're leaving the audience on the note of we're going to France," he tells E! News. "Then, everyone fully expects France at the beginning. It's a big enough change just to go to the 20th century at all."
Season two's premiere seemed to start at the end of the story and go backwards. The book starts so far past the end that what we saw on screen—Claire's sudden reentry into the 20th century—is barely remembered.
It's a lot," Moore says of where the book starts. "I felt like it was just too much. There's a little overload of trying to put a lot of pieces together. I said, let's start back at the beginning of the 20th century part. Let's see how she arrived. Let's still tell the audience that she leaves Jamie. Let's still tell them that [the battle of] Culloden is a failure. Let's see how she's wrenched away. That's a pretty big piece of information just on its own, but let's see how the story begins."
Aside from the fact that jumping ahead so far would be shocking, it was also just not practical. The 30 minutes Moore wanted to give to the 1900s in the first episode was not nearly enough time to convey all the information that the audience would have needed in order to have any idea what was going on.
While fans have had their occasional gripes about changes from the book to the show, Gabaldon is pretty pleased so far.
"They've done such a good job remaining faithful to the book but rearranging it slightly," she tells us. "You cannot film one of those books straight through. Not the right structure, for one thing, as well as being way too long. But you know, it's changes dictated by the form."
Basically, for an hour-long episode of TV, you cannot just take an hour of book and put it on screen.
"Each episode has to have its own little dramatic arc," she says. "It has to start with its own conflict and have its own resolution, whether that's continuing a clause or a cliffhanger. It has to come to a conclusion of some sort and come with an underlying theme."
Unfortunately, Gabaldon did not write her books with that structure in mind, so changes have to be made—hopefully without sacrificing any important content.
"In order to do that, what they have to do is called breaking script, which means they take the whole book apart into scenes and sub-scenes and dialogue, and then they reassemble the parts," she explains.
In the process of reassembling the parts, important scenes can be kept, but often have to be bridged by a new scene, and iconic lines of dialogue might be said in a different context, just to keep the story moving along properly.
However, it's not like changes are made and new scenes are added without Gabaldon's approval. She won't necessarily write the scenes, but she will offer historical expertise to make sure the additions are in line with the rest of the story. For example, the wool-walking scene in the first season almost involved Claire walking down a cobbled street in a small village and browsing shop windows before joining some women for tea and a game of cards.
"The scriptwriter had set it up that way for that purpose so she could go off and have some feminine companionship and a little bit of perspective on these smelly men," Gabaldon says. "I said, I see what you're trying to do here, and it would work if this was 1935 London, but it's not going to work in 18th century Highlands. No villages, no cobbled streets, no stores, no houses with windows, to start with. People still thought it was a sin to play cards. They wouldn't have had any cards, they wouldn't have had any tea, and women would not have had the leisure to be socializing in the afternoon."
Gabaldon gave the writer a list of things the highlander women would have been doing, and they ended up filming the scene in a Highland museum, using actual equipment and taking advantage of professional reenactors who already knew the songs the women were singing.
That scene ended up being so effective that it feels like it came straight out of the book, but even if it didn't, Gabaldon isn't at all worried about the show being an exact representation of the book.
"I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you're going to enjoy both of them immensely, but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, wait, wait, you left that out!"
For the record, the series will be jumping ahead to those scenes that did not occur in the premiere, but not until much later in the season. Hopefully, the wait will make the payoff that much more satisfying.
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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