Drums of Autumn: The Stephen Bonnet Conundrum

Hey, folks,

Welcome back to novel2screen’s series on Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn, which will become this fall’s season of Outlander on STARZ. SPOILERS BELOW!

So last week, I ruffled a few feathers by declaring that I felt Drums spent too many pages on its set-up, and the actual plot (which begins halfway through the 900 page book, when Brianna crosses the stones), could possibly be bumped up in the series.

I feel like I should start this week by saying that I really like Diana Gabaldon’s books. They’re frankly unlike anything I’ve ever read–they’re full of some of the most immersive and detailed worlds I’ve ever seen in literature, and they are often overwhelmingly personal and devastating when it comes to the lives and conflicts of their characters. I seriously wouldn’t write about these books if I didn’t love them.

BUT… (come on, you knew there was a “but” coming)…

This is novel2screen, and in this blog we dissect both the things we think work in a novel, and often the things we think don’t work (and then we play “TV/Film writer” and delve into the process of adaptation from page to screen).

If you’re not interested in analyzing Diana’s books in this way, I totally get it, but I should probably warn you that this might not be the blog for you.

Okay, we move on.

The subject of this week’s article (drum roll, please) is:

The Stephen Bonnet Conundrum 

Now some of you are asking, “What fresh hell is this, Rebecca? Now what are you talking about?”

I’m glad you asked!

So every good story needs an antagonist, naturally, and in this book that role would appear to be occupied by Stephen Bonnet. But Mr. Bonnet is a bit of a problematic antagonist, and not just because he’s kind of a poor man’s Black Jack Randall. (Come on, you know you were thinking it too.)

No, the real problem with Stephen Bonnet is that, not only is he missing for HUGE chunks of the story, but really, he’s almost inessential to the story itself. Every single thing that Stephen Bonnet does in this book could be excised, and the story would essentially be the same.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence:

So Stephen Bonnet basically exists to do two things in this book: steal the jewels from Claire and Jamie (which Roger will later steal back from him), and rape Brianna, resulting in her not knowing who the father of her baby is.

But both of those things could disappear and the story would still work.

Exhibit one: Bonnet steals the jewels from Claire and Jamie.

You mean the jewels that they ended up not needing anyway? So what?

Exhibit two: Bonnet threatens Roger (and the young immigrant he’s protecting, Morag) aboard the boat to America, but then doesn’t actually hurt either of them.

That could have been any captain; it didn’t have to be Bonnet. The story would be the same. 

Exhibit three: Bonnet rapes Brianna.

Oh, boy, Diana and her rapes. Yes, be careful, kids. Don’t tread lightly into an Outlander novel, for ye will be raped. So we’re going to dedicate a whole article to Brianna’s rape storyline later, but for now, suffice it to say that Brianna doesn’t need to be raped. The very fact that she’s expecting a baby (thus trapping her on the wrong side of the stones), and her handfast husband Roger is missing is drama enough. You could lose the “who’s the daddy?” quandry, and the story would essentially be unchanged.

Exhibit four: The jewels Bonnet steals are the MacGuffin that Roger “must” go after, thus explaining why he leaves Brianna.

Yeah, there will also be an entire article about the “Roger has to ditch Brianna” problem, but for now let’s just say that any MacGuffin, or goal, could have stood in as a reason to separate Roger and Brianna. More on that later.

Ed Speleers will play Stephen Bonnet on Outlander

Basically, what we’ve seen is that Diana uses Stephen Bonnet in this book as sort of a “catch-all bad guy,” sticking him into place whenever she needs someone to do something bad to her heroes. But his actions don’t fundamentally change the story in any way (the way that, say, Black Jack Randall’s actions often compelled the main characters of earlier novels to completely change course in life). Even John Grey recovers from his head injury that Bonnet and his pal Murchison perpetrate against him, thus leaving him as though it never happened.

The only thing Bonnet does in this book that actually irreparably changes the course of the story is raping Brianna, but as stated above, she could just as easily have become pregnant from consensual sex with her handfast husband Roger, and the conflict of her being “stuck” on the wrong side of the stones would have remained intact.

Frankly, from a strictly Writing 101 point of view, Brianna becoming pregnant by Roger, who was never supposed to follow her, and whose pursuit of her is what throws her plans drastically off-course, would have tracked logically much better. In his own way, Roger becomes the inadvertent antagonist of this book, by taking actions that are directly contrary to the intentions of the protagonist, thus derailing her plans. The Bonnet stuff almost just muddies the waters of what would otherwise have been a pretty clean plot.

“But, but, but—” I can hear you saying, “But Brianna being raped is the reason Jamie attacks Roger, beating him up and selling him to the Indians!”

Richard Rankin and Sophie Skelton as Roger and Brianna

Alas, that storyline would also work even better without the “Rape of the Bonnet.” Why’s that, you ask? Because Jamie doesn’t attack Roger because Bree was raped. Jamie attacks Roger because the maid, Lizzie, TELLS HIM that Brianna was raped. And what is Lizzie referring to when she tells Jamie about this rape? That’s right—that time that Brianna slept with Roger (consensually, of course, but Lizzie doesn’t know that), and came back upset and covered in semen.

So yes, the “Jamie Attacks Rapist Roger” story would actually work BETTER if you took Bonnet out of it, because Lizzie would describe Bree’s “rapist” to Jamie and Ian as looking like–you guessed it–Roger! (Oh, poor Roger.)

PS: I haven’t forgotten about the issue of the “Theft of Claire’s Wedding Ring,” but I have so much to say about it, that it needs to be its own article next week.

But I digress. None of this really matters, because Ron Moore and the other Outlander writers are going to give us Stephen Bonnet in this thing, and they’re going to make him super bad.


Because baddies are fun… and also it’s in the book that way.

So why am I saying all this?

Because it’s probably the chief challenge that I’m interested to see how the Outlander writers resolve this season– how to make Stephen Bonnet feel essential to the action, and not just a token baddie.

For me, the solution probably lies in giving him a motivation other than “being a dick”– Does he rape Brianna because she happens to be there, or is there something about her specifically that he wants to destroy? Something, perhaps, tied into his backstory (the one in which he was almost killed by his coworkers while building a church, remember?)

In other words, flesh him out, and give him an internal conflict which manifests itself in his external actions. (I know, I know, I’m getting super EAST COAST LIBERAL ARTS LATTE-DRINKING BFA WITH A MINOR IN PSYCHOLOGY here. I’ll slap myself so you don’t have to.)

Of course, none of that will solve the “Claire’s Wedding Ring and Jewels Serving as the Most Convoluted MacGuffin of All Time” problem, which will be the subject of next week’s article.

Till then, please let me know in the comments what you think of the Stephen Bonnet character. All opinions welcome, including people who want to tell me that I can stick my opinions where the sun don’t shine. It wouldn’t be the first time!



Don’t miss Chris’s latest– an anticipation of Ready Player One.

Keep an eye out for DOWN WORLD, my original sci-fi novel, which will be available on Kindle this summer! More info to come.

To catch up on my Outlander reviews and exclusive content, be sure to click HERE. And don’t forget to follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel, “like” us on Facebook at Novel2Screen, or just follow this blog.

To read my Voyager mock-episode series in its entirety, click here. Also, be sure to check out my writing on TV Topik.

And if you’re looking for Outlander-themed jewelry, here’s the link:  Sassenach Jewelry

*Photos courtesy of Sony

18 thoughts on “Drums of Autumn: The Stephen Bonnet Conundrum

  1. Love your analysis!! And I’m thrilled to find someone who thinks like I do – derpy questions or comments from students are often met with “slap yourself so I don’t have to!”


    1. You make excellent suggestions. However; as we saw (unfortunately last season) changing even what, seems like small characters or events. Just leads to bad out comes. Ex. The Edinburg Fiend, Rev. Campbell was the bad guy, Mr. Willoughby wasn’t and the change made the ending just play stupid. Bonnet isn’t in DOA hardly at all but his “impact” cares on into the next book. Roger wouldn’t have been hung without, Bonnet. Having given this “adaptation ” thing a thought. 1. When someone tries to rewrite DG’s books is near to impossible because she writes in arcs and circles, that end up coming together. 2. When they leave out ,what is thought of not needed, lt affects other aspects of the writing. The jewels from the box in S3 went to Gillies to use for her rituals. Back to Muratgh his death makes Jamie being alone all the worse and it pushes Ian to the forefront . As you said DG’s mind’s eye to detail is something else. The gems being stolen are for two things. Show how vulnerable Jamie is in the new world. And how important the clans were and the fact that his name means nothing in the Ne World. He and Claire have to be closer than ever.There is no way to put it all in the series, because of time constraints but don’t leave out what , may seem small at first.


  2. Here’s a good reason to have Stephen Bonnet as the baddie in Outlander S4: We can finally get rid of Black Jack Randall!!!


  3. I agree that Bonnet could be written out of the screen adaption. I almost felt sorry for him in the book sometimes, but I don’t feel he is essential to the story either.


  4. Perfect. Yes! I always feel the same way when I reread and I do. Still all great fun. I do think, why? In the same way any Jane Austin book could have been 3 pages long if someone would have just spoken up in the first place. But I digress. Mr. Bonnet is a bit tiresome and predictable as in “Who? Oh yeah. I’d of never guessed.” Looking forward to the ring issue. Did seem silly to me. But then, we have to take a leap of faith when we go in don’t we? It’s the same as when you try and explain the books to someone. It’s not an easy task. Thank you again. Just found you and already a fan.


  5. I remember thinking, “another rape” when I read the book and it seemed a bit contrived, but I guess it served to put Stephen in the story and how he meets his end.


  6. Bonnet ads identity conflict for The Who’s the daddy issue, this conflict profoundly affects Rodger and even harks back to Frank fathering a child not his own. His (Roger’s) turmoil over returning or not would not be the same.
    Then there’s the disturbing conundrum that Bree finds herself pondering over, whether or not wishing Bonnett dead, killing him hersel or doing nothing will “help” and in discussion with her Da, a new level of understanding into both characters emerges. Jamie talks about the lasting effects of revenge killing and father and daughter have another, if painful and problematic bond.
    Bonnett’s casual, indifference masks deep fears from his past which ultimately bring a new compassion to the deepening character of Bree.
    Jaime’s guilt over beating and giving Roger away to the Indians is compounded by his knawing guilt over helping Bonnett escape the hangman’s noose.
    It goes on…those actually are path altering for Jamie ( he goes after and kills Claire’s rapist, unable to let another man go this time who has brought harm to the people he loves), for Rodger who, though still conflicted has a deep longing to actually be Jem’s Father, Brianna finds a new level of acceptance and closure that enables her to be more fully there for Roger and “stay” with him on another level, fully present to her sexuality.
    The jewels? Well, the unknown and worrisome idea of a possible safe return for our time traveling members would not have the same gleam without those jewels connected to so many threads of this saga, from seal island/Ardsmure to Gellis’s ultimate “departure” to understanding that Jem can travel…they are lost and found again and again with a deep hope for their being a salvation . First to the Jacobite cause and later to pay off That women we all love to hate, to potentially saving little Mandy’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Obviously you haven’t read the later books. SB keeps appearing. Roger’s conflict about Brianna being pregnant with someone else’s child is important also to the relationship between Jamie and Roger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true, I read the books one at a time and analyze them as stand-alone pieces of literature. Still, I’m not surprised to hear that this problem comes back to haunt us later. Oy vey!


      1. Ah, I see now. If you haven’t read any of the later books, some of your views about how the adaptation should be handled may not work for the series as a whole. This is one reason the “writers’ room” of Outlander is comprised of people who, like you, only read the current book, and of others like Maril Davis and Matt Roberts, who know the entire series and have the big picture in mind. Even then, Matt Carter recently put up an article on his website, stating that Diana Gabaldon told them about something they’d planned on changing in Season 4 that would “surprise readers of Book 9.” The writers changed whatever it was, based upon her comment. It helps to remember that she is a consultant on the series, and while they don’t always listen to her, in situations like this, they do.

        One thing about your analysis I totally agree with is that they need to make Stephen Bonnet “less of a dick” and show him as a complicated/conflicted character. I see that the points you make about the fact that his presence isn’t essential in this book are reasonable. They need to make sure he is essential.


  8. You touched upon Diana’s depth of research for the books background. In all her books there are interesting people around the background. Living in the USA in Jamie’s time frame and traveling would result in running into bad guys of many kinds and rape was very prevalent. That is why they appear in the books. The stories of the Indians adopting captives is very common although we hear little about it. Trials and tribulations are going to occur.


    1. That’s what I said , first it’s a fictional account of the times using real places and events and some real people. I don’t condone rap, but it did happen a lot and they need to put on their big girl panties and get on with. I don’t thing Bonnet is one note or one dimensional. If you read closely his back story is interesting and what transpires down the road with Bree is fascinating to me.


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