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.
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!”
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.
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And if you’re looking for Outlander-themed jewelry, here’s the link: Sassenach Jewelry
*Photos courtesy of Sony