Highland hopes for Hollywood hit: filmmakers seeking locations for blockbuster set in Scotland
It has been turned into a screenplay by Randall Wallace, an American with an impeccable pedigree for Scottish-Hollywood blockbusters after initiating and writing Braveheart.
The American production company, Essential Pictures, has thrown its weight behind the project. It aims to shoot next spring and hopes the film will be the first in a "franchise" as enduring as James Bond and Indiana Jones.
The budget is likely to be around 25m and it is almost certain the film will shoot on location in Scotland, following the dollar's recent rise against the pound.
James McAvoy, who is now well established as Scotland's top young film actor, after The Last King Of Scotland, Atonement and the action movie Wanted, is an obvious contender for a starring role.
Knightley could be in line for the role of his sweetheart. Her mother is the Scottish writer Sharman Macdonald, and she is already involved in a film of King Lear that is likely to shoot in Scotland.
Last night, a Hollywood insider told Scotland on Sunday: "Randall has written an adaptation of Outlander. Essential, who commissioned the adaptation and controls the film rights for the book, is going out to directors."
Trish Shorthouse, film commissioner for the Scottish Highlands and Islands, said Outlander would give rural Scotland an economic boost.
"Anything of that size would be of great significance to the rural economy in the north of Scotland, especially during a time when petrol prices are crunching in on locations," she said. "We are starting to see a little bit of that happening, with cutbacks in location budgets."
The Outlander series of books is written by Mexican-American writer Diana Gabaldon and they are much more popular in the US than the UK.
They begin in the 1940s, when Claire Randall, an English nurse, goes on holiday to Inverness, visits standing stones, blacks out, regains consciousness and thinks she is in the middle of a battle re-enactment – only slowly realising she has travelled back in time to the mid-18th century.
Randall finds herself caught up in Scottish history, just a few years before the 1745 Jacobite Rising, with tensions running high. She meets, and gradually becomes romantically involved with, a young Highlander called Jamie Fraser, despite the fact that she already has a husband in the 20th century.
The first novel appeared in 1991 and was called Cross Stitch in the UK. Subsequent instalments shift the focus to the Jacobite Rising itself, Culloden and finally the American Revolution. There have been six books so far, with more to come
"They have got a terrific following in America," said Alastair Cunningham, who organises tours of Outlander locations, including Castle Leod in Easter Ross (the model for the MacKenzie stronghold of Castle Leoch in the novels), the Clava Cairns, near Inverness, Loch Ness and Culloden.
"They really put the spotlight on the romance of Scotland. A large number of our clients come over because of the romance of the place, the castles and the clans."