The Leftovers, Outlander, and the Adaptation of Novels for Premium Cable

outlanderTwo adaptations of novels have come to premium cable this summer. The first was Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers on HBO and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander premieres on Starz today although the first episode was available for streaming on starz.com starting last Saturday.

I am approaching these two TV series from very different points of view. The Leftovers has been on my to-read list since it was released in 2011 but I’ve never quite gotten around to it. It takes place in a world after a Rapture-like event. Two percent of the world’s population has disappeared I have watched every episode of the show so far. I love the show but I can’t quite say that I’ve enjoyed it. It is a difficult show to watch. People aren’t wrong when they describe it as misery porn but I can’t quite get on with those who think its a slog. The characters have gone through something absolutely horrifying and watching them struggle through putting their lives back together is endlessly fascinating for me.

This show does exactly what a good adaptation should do. I haven’t read the book but I still know what is going on and can enjoy it as its own thing. I do wonder if the source material was more of a dark comedy than the show, though. Perrotta usually has a sense of humor about his work but if he and his pilot co-writer, showrunner Damon Lindeloff (Lost), couldn’t bring that across on the screen then I’m glad that they didn’t try. The Leftovers is a mirror image of another Tom Perrotta adaptation, Election, in that way. For the movie version, the comedy elements of the book were played up much more.

I come at the adaptation of Outlander from a completely different place. I discovered the book series when I was in high school and no one gets obsessed with something like a teenager gets upset with something. I devoured the first four books the summer I found them and have since read the next three, albeit with slightly waning interest. The first season of the show from showrunner Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) covers the first book, though, and I have read that more times than I care to think of considering that it’s 870 pages long.

I know Claire, Jamie, and the other characters who inhabit Gabaldon’s universe inside and out. They can do what they’d like with the plot to make it work for TV as long as they get the characters right. They probably don’t need to nail down every detail of an English World War II nurse who unexpectedly time travels to the eighteenth century while on vacation in Scotland to get reacquainted with her husband after the war but they do need to be true to the characters.

Fortunately, I was really impressed with Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies as Claire and Frank Randall. We spend most of the episode with them and really only get a small amount of time with Sam Heughan’s Jamie towards the end. I’m happy with what I’ve seen of him but will need more before I form a real opinion on him.

Both of these adaptations appear to stand on their own without needing knowledge of their source material to truly enjoy them. In many ways, that is the advantage of adapting a novel into a TV series with short seasons. There’s more space to expand the universe than in a two-hour movie but there isn’t so much time to fill that the writers have to stretch the source material out with time-filler episodes in order to make five 22-episode seasons.

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