Once upon a time, there was a book called Outlander. It spawned Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager, and so on, until, in the fullness of time, there are seven books in the series, with an 8th in the works. Somewhere along the line, the author, Diana Gabaldon, began writing a number of novels and short stories featuring an 18th century nobleman, Lord John Grey, who is a career military man and diplomat, homosexual, and given to solving mysteries. These books are spin-offs of the Outlander saga -- he first figures in DIA as a 16 year old, and he reappears occasionally in the later books, becoming a major character in the most recent, An Echo in the Bone. Although she occasionally writes something contemporary, Gabaldon, most of the time, sticks with the universe she began to create in Outlander. Each book has some characters die or disappear, each book introduces new ones, so that the cast of characters has become quite large in the two decades that "Gabaldonia" is in existence.
Diana Gabaldon is a lush writer, lavish in description [all carefully researched], and full of small details. In fact, it is this that gives credibility to an otherwise fantastic conception: that time travel exists, and that a British nurse, at the end of WWII, can be transported to Scotland just before the Rising of 1745.
She has been immensely successful: about 17 million books in print so far, with a large fan following, several internet groups who discuss her books endlessly, and she herself is involved with a Compuserve writers' forum and not infrequently meets her fans at publicity events, where she talks and signs books. I've corresponded with her, and got an mention in the Acknowledgments in "Echo" for help with information concerning how to do a breech delivery. She seems a very nice person.
She is also a very intelligent one, and a good businesswoman. Her background is not history, but marine biology, and prior to writing Outlander, was a university lecturer. It's obvious she's good at multitasking; when she was still in academia, as well as raising three children, she had worked for Disney, writing comics, and was beginning her first novel.
Now Ms. Gabaldon seems to have been searching for new horizons with her tale of Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall. There's a new CD called "Outlander: the Musical" and a graphic novel, which is supposed to be the first part of Outlander told from a different viewpoint. What comes next? A Hollywood company has an option on Outlander, for a film, but it's all very vague at this time, and it has been hinted that perhaps a TV miniseries might at some point be considered. What's next? A line of men's colognes and/or women's perfumes named for Jamie and Claire?
The big initial problem Outlander had was of classification. It's not a book one can describe in 30 seconds or less. It is a historical novel with overtones of fantasy [the time travel aspect]. It's an adventure story -- there's plenty of action, and in fact, a not inconsiderable number of men find the saga interesting. And it definitely has a major love story, with explicit scenes that would qualify for an X rating. By default, although it radically departs from the standard formula for the genre, it was usually found on "Romance" shelves in bookstores, despite Ms. Gabaldon's crusade to move it. "Simply call it fiction", she has said. In many ways, it is similar in genre to Clavell's "Shogun" [Blackthorne discovers an unknown civilization, not through time travel, but through journeying to a virtually unknown destination, 17th century Japan, and is transformed by it].
No one would claim Outlander to be high class literature. Yet the decision to turn Outlander into a musical, and then into a graphic novel do not seem to help it achieve recognition that it is anything more than an upwardly mobile bodice ripper. Both the musical and the graphic novel will bring in scads more readers, undoubtedly. But will it also cheapen the original product and turn what should be a serious novelistic ouvre into fluff?
I think it will. I will frankly admit that I can't listen to the CD musical. I've tried, but find it saccharine and sentimental, but I'm not a big musical fan anyway. Just think about Anna Karenina as a musical, or, a better comparison, James Clavell's Shogun as a musical with Dutch sailors in chorus lines or humming samurai in the background while Blackthorne and Mariko sing a love duet. Sort of puts you off your breakfast, doesn't it?
The graphic novel is worse. It absolutely bastardizes the original work, reducing it almost to parody. An 800-odd page book is reduced to 184 pages [actually a bit less as the chapters are divided by title pages]. No one in the book resembles my mental image as based on the written descriptions in the novel itself, and there is enough variation in the artist's renderings that at times one can't even recognize a character who was in a different panel on the same page. In more than one drawing, Jamie looks as if he has mumps. Claire is reduced to a caricature [and is almost a twin of Jamie's sister] Murtagh bears a marked resemblance to the actor Sean Bean. But, to be fair, since I have no experience with graphic novels, it might be that the art work is above average in this book. If so, then the artistic level of graphic novels as a whole must be pretty abysmal.
In order to make fans feel that they are getting full value, a completely extraneous storyline, with a new character, is introduced, for what purpose I really can't tell. The backstory of Claire's particular circumstances, and even why she came to the stone circle through which she traveled back in time, is left out. This must make it a bit difficult for those who haven't read Outlander first. There is so little text that I think, were I asked to make an outline, chapter by chapter, of the original novel, I'd have more text than we have in the graphic version, and most of it is verbatim quotes of snatches of dialogue from the book. This is a book, in short, for the functionally illiterate, who would never dream of actually sitting down and reading a big, thick book. I was always sure it would sell very well -- and the NY Times has had it as #1 for two weeks now. In order to "hook" more readers into buying the other books, Amazon has been selling Outlander for $0.00 for about the same time, undoubtedly hoping that the graphic novel readers would decide they wanted to go for the hard-core stuff after reading the "trailer" that is the graphic novel.
So, as a business decision, the graphic novel seems a good idea. Certainly most of the fans are cooing over it. [So far Amazon hasn't posted any comments by anyone who hasn't already read some of the series, so it is difficult to gauge how the non-Gabaldonophiles are reacting.] Ditto the musical. Both will spread the story of Jamie and Claire to a larger audience. But what will it do to Ms. Gabaldon's literary reputation?
|Your Brain is Green|