'Outlander' Producer Defends Latest Book Changes: "It Will Cause a Lot of Talk"

"We knew this was going to be a big shock to the audience," executive producer Toni Graphia tells THR of the latest deviations from Diana Gabaldon's novel.
Courtesy of Starz

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Outlander, "First Wife."]

Outlander is throwing out the script that fans of Diana Gabaldon's novels may be expecting.

The Starz adaptation of the hit time travel romance drama has already made some massive changes to the story in the first half of season three, but it was Sunday's episode, "First Wife," that outright changed iconic moments from Voyager into something new. From revealing that Jamie (Sam Heughan) was married to someone else but keeping it a secret from Claire (Caitriona Balfe), to cutting a whole secret mission that ended in someone's death, the TV series is beginning to become its own entity, separate from Gabaldon's novels.

Some fans have embraced the changes, while others criticized the choices the Outlander writers have made. And while the producers and writers are not blind to the comments and complaints being shared on the Internet, they stand behind every creative departure, like not including the late-night Arbroath smuggling mission with Jamie, Claire, Young Ian (John Bell) and Ian (Steven Cree).

"We don't even like to say 'cuts' because we love the books. We hate to leave out anything," executive producer Toni Graphia tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But we do have to simplify quite a lot just for TV and we only have an hour to tell the story."

The Outlander team read the books together as a group, and while reading Voyager in preparation for season three, they very quickly realized that fitting the third book into just one season would be a massive challenge.

"It's so jam-packed. Sometimes we reluctantly leave stuff behind and we did a lot of that in the second half of this season, not just in this episode," Graphia says. "There is just so much. A lot of people wondered if we were splitting Voyager into two seasons because there is so much but we would rather have a jam-packed, exciting one season than two seasons where we tried to play everything and it wouldn't be as dramatic as it was in the book. This is one of the most dense books in the series so we picked our favorite parts and tried to do them justice."

In addition to leaving out some stories, the Outlander team has also been changing key moments like when Jenny (Laura Donnelly) and Ian make Jamie punish Young Ian for running away from Lallybroch. In the book, Jenny and Ian force Jamie to beat Young Ian with his belt to teach both men a lesson, and after he's done, Jamie surprisingly makes Young Ian do the same back to him. However, in this week's episode, Jamie convinced Jenny and Ian to make Young Ian do gross chores on the farm, no belting or beating at all.

"We did explore an early draft of it where exactly what happens in the book happens in the script," Graphia says. "But it hit all of us that we made such a big deal in [season one's] 'The Reckoning' episode of Claire teaching Jamie that beating someone is not always the answer and isn't a good thing to do to someone you love, even if it happened to you as a kid. Jamie agreed to never hit her again, so we thought why would that not extend to a child or a teenager?"

In fact, showing that Jamie took that lesson to heart had a very meaningful purpose. "Choosing to not hit someone, that shows growth in him. This is one of the ways that he's been changed by Claire," Graphia says. "He comes up with a different way, a really nasty chore, and in fact that is almost worse for Young Ian because he was made to do something only the young children are assigned to do. We did research on what the worst thing kids had to do back then, and it was make dung cakes. So if he was going to act like a child, he had to do child's work."

Taking that moment "to highlight how much Claire's presence has influenced Jamie and his attitude" was important for the writers. "Plus, Jamie's seen a lot of beatings, he deserved a break," Graphia adds with a laugh.

The biggest shock of the hour came when Claire finally learned that Jamie had a wife. The audience already was clued in on this secret in the last few episodes, when Jamie was asked by Fergus (Cesar Domboy) and Ian about what he was going to do about his "other wife" now that Claire was back in the picture. In the books, readers find out that secret when Claire does: when Jamie's other wife Laoghaire (Nell Hudson) walks in on Jamie and Claire in flagrante. To make matters worse, Laoghaire's two young daughters are with her when they all catch Jamie and Claire in bed, and the girls call Jamie "daddy," making his betrayal all the more shocking to both Claire and the readers. The show decided to cast Jamie in a much more sympathetic light, with Jamie taking time to explain the confusing situation to his stepdaughter in a sweet scene. 

"We knew this was going to be a big shock to the audience, and non-book readers would really have trouble understanding why Jamie would marry this woman who had threatened Claire," Graphia says. "If you remember, we deviated way back in the [season one] witch trial episode where we had chosen to have Laoghaire come and testify. In the book, she sends an anonymous note or something that implicates Claire but she doesn't actually show up and testify against Claire in court, which was a pretty awful thing to do."

Because of that change way back in the first season, "we had a lot more to answer for with Laoghaire because this wasn't just a girl with a crush — she got Claire arrested and actually testified against her in front of everyone," Graphia says, which almost led to Claire's death. While the showrunners then added in a sympathetic storyline for Laoghaire last season in "The Fox's Lair," where she tried to redeem herself by helping Jamie and Claire change Lord Lovat's (Clive Russell) mind at a crucial moment, they still knew that "it would be hard to swallow that he married Laoghaire."

"So that's why we showed that scene where you see Jamie falling in love with the two young girls and not Laoghaire, because they were so sweet to him during a time when he was really lonely and depressed," Graphia says of that cozy flashback scene where the girls asked Jamie to dance. "They brought him out of his shell, and it was the first time he felt happiness again after losing Claire. He didn't even know they were Laoghaire's daughters and they brought him joy. He never got to be a father to Willie [Clark Butler] or Brianna [Sophie Skelton] and wanted a family so he made this match and ultimately it didn't even work."

The writers knew they had to somehow show how this marriage was even possible, knowing what Laoghaire tried to do to Claire all those years ago. "It's more understandable when you see it play out this way," Graphia says. "We even considered having Jamie tell Claire about it immediately [when she returns to the past] but we agreed, obviously with Diana, that if he told her that right out of the gate, he just got the love of his life back after 20 years so is he really going to tell her he married her enemy? He would have risked losing her — she would have run screaming back to the stones immediately."

That's why the writers added in a moment where Jamie asks Fergus to contact his lawyer friend Ned Gowan (Bill Paterson) immediately when Claire returns. "He wanted to reach Ned Gowan to find out if his second marriage was even valid so he could have good news to tell her with it," Graphia explains. "Like, 'Don't worry, it's not a real marriage because you're back.' It will cause a lot of talk, I know, but we had to pick the best path we thought and go with it. It made sense to us."

When Laoghaire does show up to confront Jamie and Claire (after Jenny made sure his second wife knew Claire was back), her reaction was explosive, to say the least. Jamie ended up with buck shot in his arm after Laoghaire shot him. But even the way that she shot him goes down much differently than it does in the book, because Claire was actually there to see it all happen in the episode. She was supposed to have been a full day's ride away, on her way back to the stones, ready to go back to her own time after learning of his betrayal. In the episode, she packed up her clothes and tried to leave Lallybroch, but Laoghaire aims at her and Jamie jumps in front of the bullet to save her.

"We just didn't think that Claire would go all the way back to the stones," Graphia says. "We think she'd be upset and leave for a while to clear her head and need space, but we wanted to have Claire in that scene because the one that Laoghaire is actually mad at is Claire. She loves Jamie, is just upset and jealous, and knows they haven't been together in quite a long time, but she just doesn't want another woman stealing Jamie away, especially this woman who she believes stole him away all those years ago. We thought it was more credible that she would try to shoot Claire and it would be more interesting and dramatic to see it play out between the three of them."

And the writers almost went even further with changing the story in Sunday's installment. Try to imagine a version of Outlander where Jamie and Claire actually tell Jenny the truth about where Claire has been for the last 20 years, time-travel secret and all, because that almost happened on the show to try and alleviate the tension between the two women.

"I know the biggest story here is Jamie, Claire and Laoghaire, but I think it's heartbreaking to see these two ladies who used to be like sisters and loved each other have to come to this uneasy truce," Graphia says. "She can tell that she's not being told the whole story of where Claire went and how she's back now."

What started as an exciting conversation in the writers room fizzled the more they tried to figure out if it could work. "Unlike Murtagh, Jenny hasn't traveled the world and hasn't even stepped off Lallybroch, so there's no way she'd be open-minded enough to believe that Claire was from the future," Graphia says. "It would then open the can of worms of would Jenny tell Ian because she has no secrets from her husband and we didn't want too many people to know. So ultimately while we toyed with this idea of telling Jenny the secret, we didn't. But I thought that story of Jenny and Claire was a very rich one to tell."

Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.

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