A tremendous amount happened in this week’s episode of Outlander. Roger and Brianna were “handfasted” (a.k.a. married-ish) and consummated their relationship, Jamie and Claire performed a tense and daring bit of subterfuge in order to save Murtagh, all while George and Martha Washington made a cameo appearance. But these plot points feel especially “apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” in light of the latest sexual assault perpetrated on a member of the unlucky Fraser family. Many book readers will have been bracing themselves for the moment when Sophie Skelton’s Brianna met Ed Speleers’ Stephen Bonnet with devastating results. Skelton spoke with Vanity Fair not only about how the show’s version of events diverged from the novels but, with some regret, about the more explicit footage she filmed that wound up on the cutting room floor.
Though sexual assault is a rather common occurrence in Diana Gabaldon’s novels, members of the media have been asking Outlander producers and writers for some time now how they planned to handle the attack on Brianna in light of recent heightened sensitivities around both sexual assault/misconduct in the real world and the way such acts are portrayed in the media. Would Brianna’s rape be cut altogether in the glare of the Time’s Up movement? Nope! There are future plot-based reasons why the Outlander writers felt this particular assault was impossible to avoid, but executive producer Maril Davis also told The Hollywood Reporter way back in March that her team was “sensitive to what’s going on in this time right now [and] also filming something that’s a historical piece. So we’re trying to do that with both hats on.”
In order to wear both hats, Davis and her writers took another major departure from the books—one that resulted in a thoughtful and shockingly relevant commentary on the current climate of sexual assault given that the episode itself is set in the 18th century. Unlike in the book, where every gruesome aspect of Brianna’s assault is described in vivid detail, the Starz adaptation chose to place the bulk of the confrontation behind closed doors allowing the camera to linger on the impassive, uncomfortable, and smirking faces of the men and women who turned a blind eye to Brianna’s distress.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Skelton said she filmed multiple versions including one where the camera sticks with Brianna throughout her ordeal. After much “debate,” the footage of Brianna’s full attack was cut. For her part, Skelton says she understands that the writers were “trying to be sensitive to the time period that we are in now” but that from an actor’s point of view she thinks it’s a “shame not to see the whole thing” because it’s important for audiences “to witness what Brianna went through.”
In the book Drums of Autumn, as in the show, Brianna notices her mother’s wedding ring in the possession of Stephen Bonnet while making her way through a crowded taproom. But here is where the narratives diverge significantly. In the novel, Brianna—who, for the record, is much, much taller and brawnier than Skelton—meets up with Bonnet days later, not mere hours after losing her virginity to Roger. Brianna in the books cannily takes the precaution to visit Bonnet on his ship the Gloriana in the daytime hoping she will be safer with the sun out. In the show, Brianna also has reason to believe she might be safe to follow Bonnet into a back room of the crowded pub. She’s not just exhibiting time traveler naiveté for the way things worked in the 18th century. After all, the door to the back room was wide open and the front room was packed to the rafters with eye witnesses.
But here’s where the show makes its sharpest parallel to the harrowing tales of sexual assault that started pouring out in earnest in late 2017 and have yet to stop. Stories of sexual assault are, of course, nothing new, but the 2017 Harvey Weinstein case with its stable of high-profile celebrity female witnesses cast a new light on the epidemic. In December last year The New York Times published a particularly damning report titled “Weinstein’s Complicity Machine” which detailed how Weinstein’s many alleged crimes could not have happened without either the willful ignorance of or willing assistance from high-profile Hollywood managers, agents, and assistants.