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'Outlander' a Highland fling

August 18, 2014


Diana Gabaldon’s eight-book "Outlander" novel series has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, yet the author didn’t publish her first story — the first "Outlander" novel — until she was nearly 40 and already established in an academic career as a scientist.

Now 62, Gabaldon said she is delighted her story finally has yielded its first screen adaptation. Developed and written for Starz by Ronald D. Moore of "Battlestar Galactica" fame, "Outlander" is in the midst of a 16-episode first season.

A genre-defying mix of adventure, sci-fi and fantasy all processed with romance novel tropes, "Outlander" is about a young World War II nurse named Claire (Caitriona Balfe) whose life takes a terrifying turn when, during a romantic Scottish getaway with her husband, Frank, (Tobias Menzies) she’s suddenly and inexplicably transported to the year 1743.

Stranded, possibly for good, she must learn how to navigate life in an era defined by a series of bloody battles between Scottish rebels seeking independence and Engish forces occupying their homeland.

A LATE BLOOMER

"I have known since I was 8 I wanted to be a novelist," Galbadon said in a phone interview. "(But) my dad was like, ‘You are sure to marry a bum, so get a good education and a job so you can take care of yourself,’ so I went into the sciences," said Galbadon.

She earned degrees in zoology, marine biology and behavioral ecology and worked through the 1980s as a professor at the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University.

"When I turned 35 I thought, ‘Mozart was dead at [35], so maybe it’s time I tried" to become a creative artist.

A true scientist, she set up an experiment: She’d write a novel just to see if she could do it.

The "Outlander" series is beloved by fans for its exquisitely researched and raw representation of life in 18th century Scotland. But why pick this tale?

Had Galbadon been consumed as a child by Scottish history?

Hardly: The story was entirely incidental.

"Historical fiction seemed easiest, since I was a researcher and I knew my way around a library," said the author, who decided on the time and place to set her yarn after watching an old "Doctor Who" episode that had the time traveler visit 18th century Scotland.

"There’s nothing better than the image of a man in a kilt," said Galbadon, who didn’t visit Scotland until well after completing the novel.

"Outlander was written entirely from library research," she said.

Three years later, the book had become a hot best-selling title and Galbadon, who told her agent she had plenty of more to say about Claire, signed a multi-book publishing deal.

ADAPTING ‘OUTLANDER’

Getting the story on screen was a different matter. Several producers optioned the story over the past two decades but failed to develop a workable feature film, said Galbadon.

She was impressed by Moore’s suggestion for adapting the books into a TV series and by his intuitive understanding of the story and its characters.

For the first time, a screenplay was produced that "didn’t make me turn white or burst into flames," said Galbadon.

"Battlestar Galactica" fans on the blogosphere have wracked their brains trying to figure what statement Moore wants to make by taking on "Outlander," whose magic realism is a far cry from "Galactica’s" stark, martial mood, blood and guts flavor.

Moore said he simply loved the story.

"And I really like the central character of Claire. I responsded to her intelligence, ability and strenth," said Moore. "It’s just such a great voice," Moore said of Claire, who narrates the story both in the book and, via voiceover, on the show.

A DOOMED CULTURE

If there are similarities between Moore’s two projects, it is the sense of doom that forms the backdrop to the respective stories. "Galactica" is set after a war that has destroyed most of humanity and is about a ragtag group of survivors whose feature is uncertain.

For its part, "Outlander" is set just three years before the Scottish rebellion is definitively crushed by England at a decisive battle in 1746, when the victorious English break up the clans, forbid the wearing of clan tartans, and ban the native language, Gaelic. They even banned bagpipe music.

"I was really struck by the idea of a doomed culture," said Moore. "These people are coming up to a cliff they can’t see."

Scottish actor Sam Heughan plays one of the film’s two male protagonists, Scottish rebel Jamie Fraser, who develops a complex relationship with Claire.

"Claire knows from the minute she arrives, all these people are going to die. From the very start we’re looking at a doomed people, a doomed culture," he said.

"There is something deeply romantic about the idea of Scotland" because of its history, added Heughan.

An experienced warrior whose back is criss-crossed by scars from an English whip, Jamie finds his match in the headstrong Claire.

They both have trouble fitting in, said Heughan

"Jamie has lost his family and so he has given up his responsibilities," he said. "He’s an heir of a great estate, but he turned his back on Scotland and went away to fight in (England’s) war with France."

A wanted criminal hunted by the English, he returns to his uncles’ castle in less than ideal circumstances. It seems natural he’d be drawn to Claire.

CLAIRE’S CHOICE

Balfe, who hails from Monaghan, Ireland, said Claire finds herself in a world where women have few rights. Circumstances require she befriend Jamie. She’s attracted to him, yet resists it with all her might.

"She is very much in love with her husband, Frank," but she’s forced to seek protection from Jamie.

That’s especially true given the third man who enters Claire’s life: Jonathan "Black Jack" Wolverton Randall, a ruthless English army captain who has been put in charge of eradicating the Scotish rebellion.

One of Frank’s ancestors, Black Jack looks identical to Claire’s husband. (Menzies plays both characters.)

"There is a physical connection between Black Jack and Frank and she feels there’s a piece of Frank in him," said Balfe. "She thinks somehow she can connect with Black Jack."

The soldier may be an officer, but he’s certainly not a gentleman. He beats Claire and attempts to rape her.

Menzies, who said he "cherished the chance to play two different people," said both Frank, a World War II officer, and Black Jack "are shaped by the experience of war, but with very differing results."

He added, Black Jack has hardended. He seems lacking in empathy.

"He has that little voice of conscience inside," said Menzies, "but he has turned away from it."

A HAPPY ENDING?

Should we expect "Outlander to buck the historical record and give us, in grand Hollywood tradition a happy ending — where the Scottish rebels aren’t defeated by the English, where Claire finds true love with Jamie and gets to go back to the future?

Don’t count on it.

"We have a full-time historian who vets the scripts, a Gaelic teacher and an herbalist to show how herbs were used in medicine," said Moore.

"If you want to give a fantastical story to the audience, then you want to keep it as grounded in reality as much as possible."

Heughan laughed at the question.

"A happy ending? Well, um ... I don’t know. This is Ronald Moore. ... There’s always a sense of doom and foreboding."

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