My answer to the Outlander adaptation question…Episode 2×13

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My first reaction after seeing episode 13 Dragonfly in Amber was to think of some of the book lovers’ reactions to the adaptation.  I could literally hear the disappointment.  Where was the scene where they cut their initials into each other’s flesh?  Where was that final night together? But, then almost simultaneously, I thought, “but… it’s such a great story”.  There is always an element of review in my reflections, but usually I find something in an episode that stood out or lingers in my mind and I reflect and expound.  This week it was the idea of telling a good story and adaptation.

I had a Twitter friend recently send me a private message that disputed the term adaptation in regards to Outlander.

 …Your piece this week makes me want to discuss something. The difference between an adaptation of a book and something based on a book and something inspired by a book. All points on a line. There is probably a legal distinction in the entertainment industry, but with regards to Outlander, at what point should they stop calling it an adaptation and start calling it based on. I read the description that Matt Roberts gave of an adaptation as a child and the book as the parent. I don’t know if that is a fair analogy. Wouldn’t that be more of a reimagining of a book rather than an adaptation? I would love to see you write a piece pondering this…

I guess this feels like the right time to ponder this topic and so, I started looking for answers.  As an avid fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series, I have struggled with this whole adaptation thing.  I will say over time my understanding and feelings toward the changes from book to screen have changed.  I have become more accepting and find myself looking forward to seeing those changes.  However, I am not without sympathy for those who still struggle and certainly believe as fans we have every right to discuss what we liked and didn’t like and what we thought worked and didn’t work.  Critique is good. Discussion is good. After doing a bit of lite research and thinking about the past two seasons of Outlander, my answer to my Twitter friends question is…yes. Outlander is an adaptation and a good one.

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THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

In my lite research, I read articles on writing scripts, story-telling, and adaptation of books to screen. The one thing they all seemed to have in common was the belief that nailing down what makes a story good is very difficult and even harder to put into concrete terms.  Every author I read, who attempted to list steps or describe a formula for creating a good story,  made sure to include a caveat that said following their formula certainly didn’t guarantee that your script would move from plot to great story. There is a certain intangibility that we all seem to recognize, but find hard to define.

One of those folks that tried to describe what makes a story good was Chuck Wendig, novelist, screenwriter, and game designer;

…A story is interesting. A story lets us see ourselves in it — and it is in that way both a unique snowflake and a universal precept. Or, more to the point, the story is the unique delivery system by which we get to talk about universal concepts and problems. We can talk about a THING WE ALL UNDERSTAND by framing it around a narrative unique to the author — every character and setting and conflict is a potential lens through which we can look upon this universal problem. Story takes this lens and it helps us to see old problems in new ways. Stories make us feel and think. Stories have power. Stories move us, shape us, and do the same to the world. It does this in the way that a song can do it. It has rhythm, like a song — slow to fast, up and down and then up again. Pause, leap, wait, then run. Stories are not a manicured garden. They’re an unruly forest –

A tangle of thorns in which we find ourselves happily ensnared.

… story is a hard thing to understand. Writers put words to paper, but storytellers take those words — or images, in the case of film and TV and comics — and spin that dross into candy floss. Writers make horses. Storytellers fucking make unicorns, man.

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/06/07/what-exactly-makes-a-damn-good-story/comment-page-2/

In my readings, I found a lot of academic articles for scriptwriters that further the idea that certain elements can be found in good story-telling, but by far the most interesting and applicable article I read was an AV Club article written as a conversation between two film critics.  Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias’ article What Makes a Good Film-to-Book Adaptation? is well worth the read for anyone still struggling to get a hold on the adaptation process and what makes for a good story for both book lovers and those who have never read the source material.  They used their take on the movie The Hunger Games to discuss the issues with movies adapted from books. http://www.avclub.com/article/what-makes-a-good-book-to-film-adaptation-71545  They both reference each others’ reviews of the movie and one written by the NPR critic Linda Holmes. This article was so full of great points that I had a hard time picking out which ones to share!  The main idea however is that adaptations have certain responsibilities to fans of the source material, but that following a book too closely has its own pitfalls.

Holmes: Odd to think that some fans — certainly not all or even most, but some — might, for all their constant desire to see a faithful adaptation, leave the film feeling like they’ve seen the book almost exactly, as if they didn’t need to see it at all. To be honest, this is the sense I had, as someone who really enjoyed the books. I felt like the film was very good, but not strictly necessary, precisely because it seemed to be made from a bit of a defensive stance, where the biggest worry was making sure fans didn’t get mad. Other than the appearance of the residents of the Capitol, it’s not particularly visually inventive, and while it’s comforting to see that an adaptation has respected the imagery of the book, in most cases, it’s faithful to the point of not adding anything you haven’t seen in your head when you read the book. The adaptation, in that sense, is skilled but not quite as special as it might have been.  http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2012/03/22/149145605/what-fans-will-love-and-what-they-might-not-in-the-hunger-games

Robinson: …One of your main points in that review was that the film hewed too closely to the book. You called it “stenography in light,” and said when a book-to-film adaptation sets out to be faithful to the source material, “the best result is a skillful abridgment.” Most painfully to me, you said this: “A book is a book and a movie is a movie, and whenever the latter merely sets about illustrating the former, it’s a failure of adaptation, to say nothing of imagination.”

Few things get me as tetchy as a film adaptation of an excellent book that doesn’t trust the material, and alters it to be more conventional and banal (like the ending of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for instance), or alternately, more lurid and prurient (like the violence in Watchmen). All too often, it seems like even the biggest bestsellers are deemed not commercial enough in content

Tobias: …if book-to-film adaptations can fail by being too faithful or by being not faithful enough, what’s left?…doing right by a great book and being faithful to it are, to my mind, two separate issues. Skillful as it is, The Hunger Games suffers from all the pitfalls of faithfulness that I noted in my review and Linda Holmes addressed above: It hits all the expected plot points from a novel that offers a straightforward cinematic blueprint, but it feels thinned-out as a result…What I want is not faithfulness, but an active engagement with the material, which doesn’t have to preclude faithfulness…The question filmmakers should ask is not, “How can I bring this story to the screen without losing anything?,” but “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” If you’re reading a book, I think it’s natural to home in on themes, characters, and scenes that are most meaningful to you, but a good adaptation has to make choices about what’s truly important. And it also has to exist independently from the novel…

Robinson: …Going from a derivative work to its source, people tend to expect fidelity less than when they start with the original, then move to the adaptation…When I read the book first, I go to the movie expecting to see a strict translation of what I saw onto the screen, even if that’s not truly what I want, or what best serves the story. Whereas when I see the movie first, I go to the book looking not for the same story, but for a greater insight into the characters…

…Both book and film should be addressed as independent entities. …This means not going into an adaptation with a mental checklist of things that must be in the movie to make it good, and evaluating a film based on what’s on the screen, not what got left off. In that sense, a “good adaptation” may have to involve a good-faith effort from the viewers, who participate in the process by giving that story a chance on its own terms… But it takes two to tango. If viewers have a responsibility not to see a book as an unalterable outline for the film, then filmmakers have a responsibility to respect the book, to acknowledge that there’s a reason they’re telling this story, rather than another story altogether… Filmmakers should ask “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” The key words are “in this book.” Meaning, part of a good adaptation is knowing what to cut or revise, even if it makes the fans cry, but part of it is maintaining a meaningful relationship to the source material.

As you can see this is a great conversation that examines this issue from several perspectives.  I measured Outlander against the “standards” based on what I had learned about good adaptation.

 

WHY I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD ADAPTATIONOutlander-Season-2-First-Look-outlander-2014-tv-series-39185899-1280-640

  • There is an overall theme not just a checklist of plot points from the books: a man and woman from vastly different backgrounds keeping their own integrity while caring about what is really important in life, providing for and protecting what is important; God, Family, Country and above all else love.
  • They knew why they were adapting THIS story : Ron, Maril, Matt, and Starz all knew why they wanted to tell this story.  They picked Outlander, they could have picked a show to produce with male-centric themes and familiar plots.  Instead, they chose to tell a different kind of story.  A story that was genre-bending and complex with a female protagonist.

“Diana has created an incredibly compelling heroine, thrust into a very complex world, not to mention, time.  The books weave a fascinating tapestry of history, spirituality, love and honor, not to mention plenty of time travel, sex and warfare.  With Diana’s stories guiding us and Ron’s mastery, we hope to bring Claire and Jamie to life for the millions of fans the world over.” Chris Albrecht, CEO Starz

  • It was a great mix of nods to the book readers and yet it was novel enough to give us all surprises. In this episode particularly, I was struck with how like Diana’s books the season was; everything and everyone they wrote had a role to play and everything got connected.  I loved the little bits of Jamie we saw in Brianna, “I don’t understand, but I believe you…Only the truth between us”, Gellis’ question “Why are you here?” and Roger’s “fucking barbecue”, and everything that happened when Claire visited Lallybroch including a lovely nod to the book lovers with the “thousand kisses’ poem, just to name a few.
  • They told an honest story about life’s truths.  My God, when I think about what they weren’t afraid to show us!  I didn’t always agree (the rape of Fergus), but I will defend their choices because no one can make me believe that the same group of people who took their time showing the aftermath of Jamie’s trauma and Claire’s loss of her child did not think carefully about every part of this story and how to show it to us. We witnessed amazing award worthy performances and ground-breaking TV.
  • The characters were interesting people who evolved. They took their time and let us watch these characters struggle and grow. The TV version of Jamie is more relatable, less funny IMHO, but less perfect. He was still being portrayed as a young man with “nice feelings” , emotional intelligence, a man who thinks on his feet.  However, he was also allowed to fumble a bit (Lallybroch comes to mind) just like any young man in his situation would.  He ISN’T perfect, but true to Jamie form he always gets it right in the end.  He is a wonderful example of what it means to be a man and that includes owning up when you’ve made a mistake and not being afraid to try a new way of thinking.  Those things I truly loved about book Jamie are still there, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sensitivity, vulnerability, and the ability to love unselfishly.  How often have you seen a man portrayed like that on TV?  And Claire? Has a woman portrayed on TV ever been allowed to be as one critic said “a true superhero” ?  Claire has always made me proud to be a woman and TV Claire has just reinforced that I was right to feel this way.  The show has managed to show the world that a woman can be all things; strong , smart, compassionate, sexually confident, gentle, loving, and fiercely protective of those she loves.  “Remind me not to get on your bad side Sassenach”.  She hasn’t been portrayed as perfect either. Tell the truth, how many of you wanted to reach through the screen and shake her for not keeping her mouth shut! They even let Black Jack seem human at times which challenged our thinking.
  • It was a roller-coaster ride of conflicts and feelings.  At times, I worried that there wasn’t enough time between the shit-storms this couple constantly faced.  But, they kept us wondering how Jamie and Claire would find a way back to each other after all the myriad of crises and tragedies a marriage can face.
  • They suspended our disbelief and helped us believe this world and this story were real despite its fantastical nature.  This show was a wonder; a visual feast set to music, Paris and Scotland. The love, creativity, and talent that this show was created with continues to stagger.

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IMHO they did the things good adaptations do. They kept it their own vision while honoring the source material for book lovers.  They told a whole story not just the love story, but they did tell the love story too.  As Chuck Wendig said, “Story is all the stuff. All the fibrous material and intangible air surrounding the fiddly bits. The story is the whole beast. It’s the whole animal. And you have to use the whole animal”. They showed us the whole human story contained in  Outlander. They didn’t show us a horse, they showed us a “fucking unicorn”.

 

 

 

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Icebergs, Prince, and Outlander…My reflection on episode 2.3

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So, who the heck on the Outlander set is messing with the time continuum?  I’m convinced someone is experimenting with time travel because that was the shortest hour of television I’ve ever watched! It flew by and I found myself surprised when all too soon it was over! I believe I actually screamed NO! when the screen faded to the credits.  I have to wait a whole other week to find out what happens next? Say it isn’t so! Grief stricken, I did what any normal feeling person would do…I rewound the episode and watched again!  Whose a Time Lord Now!?! BOOM!

I  don’t do recaps.  I feel like you all watch the show if you want to know what happens next.  I don’t necessarily do reviews either.  I believe there is an element of a review when I sit down to write about an episode of Outlander, but I think what I’m really doing is …reflecting? I know what I do isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and after this week, I’m okay with that.

I’m big at making connections.  I tend to make meaning between loosely related ideas or disparate events.  A friend told me that I see a thread and pull on it until the whole thing unravels.  I like that image.  It rings true to me.  Somehow, in the process of unraveling, I make meaning and then reassemble the whole thing using a story to tell a story. That is what happened this week when I sat down to write about Outlander 2.3, “Deceptions and Useful Occupations”.   I saw a thread and pulled; Icebergs, Prince, Outlander.  Not sure you could get more disparate.  But, here I go.

ICEBERGS

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There is a phenomenon called the teacher job satisfaction curve. Teaching is a profession for idealists. Teachers want to believe that we touch the future by teaching children. We are life-long learners who constantly hone our craft in an effort to engage our students in learning in the hopes of creating a spark that will make them want to learn more!  We start out every school year excited to get into that classroom and make a difference in children’s lives.  We envision students who will arrive in our classroom ready to  learn! Students who have loads of untapped potential, who are just waiting for us to inspire them!

Yep,…reality…not so much …sometime right before Christmas break you start counting the days before retirement.  The enormity of the task you have taken on becomes crushingly obvious.  There are so many variables you are unable to control.  Not all students are ready to learn or even want to learn. If I heard, “but, we’re Seniors!” one more time, I seriously thought my head would explode!  However, the disillusionment we all feel in December begins to fade and you start to feel hopeful once again.  After all, there is always next year and so, I begin to reflect on the current year and how I will make changes and hone my skills to inspire students next year, … for sure!

During this period of reflection (at my desk at the end of 4th period), I had a particularly puzzling student approach me with a friend to ask my advice.  Without giving away too much, I doubt she will ever see this, but still, there were things happening in her life that would have made it difficult for anyone to concentrate on “The Importance of Being Ernest” or “The Canterbury Tales“.  I hope my advice did help because often I feel helpless to affect change in their lives, but her asking me reaffirmed that even when we don’t think we are making a difference…sometimes, we are.

Thinking of what this girl projected on the surface made me think of icebergs.  And, I was reminded once again to look at my students a little deeper. That behavior that drives me insane may have very deep roots and the anger or apathy they display may have nothing to do with my request that they pay attention or stop talking and everything to do with how they are trying to deal with what is happening inside themselves.

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PRINCE

This week also brought news of the death of the artist Prince.  An outpouring of grief and love for this man was found all over the news, social media, and the streets, even here in Ohio.

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Many of us became reflective.  We asked ourselves what this man’s life had meant to us, including Terry Dresbach, costume designer for Outlander.

…not only is he an incredible artist, he is a man of principal and ethics, he is fiercely independent, he is going to do things his own way. He is not going to bend to the commercial interests of corporations. He is going to control his own art. He may be as famous for his willingness to go to the mat for his work. Famously giving up his own NAME rather than control of his music, scrawling SLAVE on his face for public appearances. He refused to give up in the face of the corporatization of the music industry, fighting to the end for the rights of the artists…

So what did he mean to me?

Who am I? I am an artist, first and foremost. I am a product of my time and place. I am part of a generation,…

…As the child of union organizers and political activists, I struggle every day as an artist in a corporate world I struggle as a human in a human world. Ron constantly asks me if I could not make everything into one of my “social justice” issues. No, actually, I can’t. I will always struggle against the tide that says we all need to be managed and formed to a polished symmetry that never colors outside the lines. Whose voices and very existence, should be managed and tailored to fit into an expectation. Group think…

Well that ain’t gonna happen. I am going to continue to be me. I’m going to throw elbows at anything or anyone that tries to control me as an artist. I am not going to hire anyone to manage me or my voice. I am going to fight hard against anything like that, big or small. And I am going to play Prince as loud as I can while doing it.    http://www.terrydresbach.com/when-doves-cry/

I was very moved by her self-examination.  This world can put so many pressures on us to conform.  Sometimes, conformity is the right thing to do, but sometimes it isn’t.  It isn’t the right thing to do when you find yourself acting in ways that are untrue to your own ethics and beliefs.  It isn’t the right thing to do when you feel compelled to dim your light, so that others won’t be seen as lacking brilliance.  Attempts to hide your true self never end well.  I’m convinced that many of the world’s angry and depressed people are those who have for whatever reason not allowed themselves to be themselves.  People always come out sideways when they feel suppressed and managed.  Like Terry, I believe the only way to live authentically is to make conscious choices that are true to who you are and not what others expect you to be.

OUTLANDER

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So, ….that was a long way to get here.  The fact that I CAN apply lessons about life to this story makes me happy.  I am proud that there is a TV show on the air that isn’t afraid to show characters who grapple with moral and ethical choices, characters who struggle to do the right thing and still be true to themselves.

I will defend the writers and producers’ choice to let us see Claire and Jamie struggle to find their way back to themselves and each other to anyone who feels that this weakens their character.  The characters, the story, and therefore, the show are the better for it.  I have said it before and will say it again, it is a mistaken belief that because Jamie is strong and brave he would suddenly be able to pull himself up by the bootstraps and snap out of what he experienced.  In the book, what Claire did in the abbey was a desperate attempt at what we would now call aversion therapy.  She exposed him to what he feared and allowed him to fight back like he couldn’t before.  That would have been very difficult to reproduce in a visual format.  In fact, it took me several readings to truly understand what she did. Like most victims of such violence, TV Jamie has to figure out how to live without such a dramatic intervention and as a result, the Jamie we see on the show is… an iceberg.

 

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Dressed in sumptuous silk, smiling, going about his work, plotting  to stop the Jacobite rebellion is the top 1/4 of Jamie.  It is the part the world sees. The part we don’t see is powerfully large.  That Jamie we knew was destroyed “he broke me, I knew it, we both did”.   It is no wonder that he isn’t the Jamie we all know him to be. He is a shadow of the man he was.

Claire struggles to help him.  She tiptoes on egg shells.  Anyone who has lived with a spouse with PTSD could confirm that their loved one is altered and that they struggle to have any intimacy/closeness.  Jamie’s identity has been shaken to the core. He cannot get “him” out of his mind. Add to this struggle playing a role, being deceptive; something that goes against everything Jamie believes himself to be and you have a formula for an explosive situation.  Jamie is coming out sideways, “When do I get to feel good, when do I get to have meaning in my day?”  It isn’t that he doesn’t want Claire to be happy.  He does, but he isn’t himself.

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I love how they chose to juxtaposition Claire’s struggles with her own identify and secrets with Jamie’s.  She isn’t herself either. It is so complicated.  They are both living a lie and trying to find themselves again.  No one is going to be happy until they can.

I loved the filmed metaphor of Jamie walking down the hall and Claire following him. Every time she gets a glimpse of Jamie (and we do too, glimpses of the old Jamie) he walks behind a wall. Yet, she still follows and keeps trying.  I predict the pay-off for our patience and Claire’s will be some of the most moving television ever filmed.  It is going to get worse before it gets better, but when it gets better we will have a couple whose journey will form a bond unbreakable …even by time.

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Jamie and Claire Fraser…Courtiers

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Soon, (a relative term) Outlander fans will be making a weekly appointment with Starz to watch their favorite couple Jamie and Claire Frazer navigate the salons, ballrooms, and dining rooms of the French Court of Louis the XV. The picture Starz painted of the Frasers’ new life in the first Season 2 trailer was visually far and away from muted and earthy Scotland.  Being a curious soul, I found myself wanting to know more about life in Versailles.

The story goes that Louis’ great grandfather, Louis the XIV, worked for thirty years to make the palace opulent as recompense for a childhood of relative poverty (it’s said he slept on tattered sheets and his mother had to pawn the crown jewels).   Versailles was literally built around an old hunting cabin and eventually was half-a-million square feet, had 700 rooms , 67 staircases. and 6000 paintings.  No surface was left unadorned. Gilded paneling, crown molding, brocaded or flocked wall coverings, allegorical paintings of Greek gods, floors patterned with parquet or colored tiles were found in every room.  Everything from furniture to finishes was embellished. It was a visual feast.

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Louis the XV was said to be a bit less into the pomp and ceremony his great grandfather seemed to enjoy, but still, on a daily basis anywhere from 3,000 to 10, 000 people were in attendance at the palace.  In an effort to gain control over the nobility, the King often required them to live with him.  Attending the King took them far from the daily operations of their estates and put them under his watchful eye.

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A courtier is defined as a person who is often in attendance at the court of a king or other royal personage or a person who seeks favor by flattery, charm, etc.   This certainly described life for the courtiers of Louis the XV. Currying the king’s favor was serious and tricky, courtiers needed to tread carefully because the King could make them or break them. Nobles needed his permission to do basically anything, so remaining in his good graces was vital. 

…a very varied society with a rigid hierarchy. Some were there by birthright, others by social obligation, others out of self-interest or curiosity, and others still to earn their living. The high-ranking nobility were often present, currying the favours of the master of Versailles.

…Among the courtiers, those who held a role were said to be “established” at Court. These roles, either inherited or purchased, often very dearly, corresponded to a function or office.

… Living quarters in the palace were also highly sought after. They avoided much travelling back and forth and provided a place of retreat for those moments when one was not at Court.

http://en.chateauversailles.fr/?option=com_cdvfiche&idf=D49E0D38-2622-D151-2217-6E71CAB84BE0

 

To stay in a state of royal grace required being up on the latest rumors and news. Information was power and the court was where everything was happening, kind of like the Outlander fandom x1000. #KingSam and #QueenCait  These folks lived by a very strict code of etiquette and adherence to the Monarch’s whims. Whether it be it how to sit properly, knowing the latest dance steps or wearing the latest fashions,  being a courtier was serious business and a serious competition. With so many in attendance gaining the King’s attention was no easy task.

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“beauty or wit, rivaled with dazzling finery to attract the Monarch’s attention.”

Hence, the need, as  Outlander’s costume designer, Terry Dresbach says, for everyone to look like “a butterfly”.  Enter Jamie and Claire, a tall red-headed Scots decked out with plaid and his English rose dressed in a blood red gown. You just know that Terry and her crew will have created a dress worthy of the King’s attention!

There is a lot more to know about this world and I’ll be writing these little tidbits to help satisfy my curiosity and maybe enriching my watching experience.  Hope you’ll join me as I explore!