May 21, 2022

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ is still weird, even as a TV show

Rose Leslie and Theo James as Clare and Henry.

Macall Polay/HBO


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Rose Leslie and Theo James as Clare and Henry.

Macall Polay/HBO

Some books really might be unadaptable.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was a very popular 2003 novel that told a complicated tale. Beginning when Clare Abshire is six, she has meetups with an adult man in a clearing near her house. He says that he’s from the future. He eventually reveals that he’s her husband. Her future husband. His name is Henry, and he has a problem, which is that he comes unstuck in time and involuntarily travels to either the past or the future. He also doesn’t control where or when he’ll be when he lands, but he has a tendency to travel to places that are important in his life, which is how he keeps landing again and again in Clare’s clearing – because they’re married in the future, so she’s important.

The book was made into a film in 2009, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. It got lousy reviews. Now it’s back as an HBO series with a six-episode first season (note the word “first”) starring Rose Leslie and Theo James. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work either. For lack of a better explanation, this story is just too … weird.

The Time Traveler’s Wife premiers on Sunday on HBO.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife has the same problems that most time-travel fiction does when it comes to explaining the logistics. Presumably, there was an original timeline where Clare and Henry met “naturally,” and it was only after that when Henry started traveling back to Clare’s childhood to hang out with her, which is why he’s always a grown man when she sees him. But that timeline no longer exists, because he altered it. And what that means is that now, as her life now really exists, Clare marries him only after spending most of her life being visited by him, starting when she was six, and being told that they were destined to marry, and having sex with him when she was 18 and the version of him that landed in her life was something like 40.

There is a metaphorical interpretation of this story that’s rather poignant: Clare meets her dream man as a child, but when she actually encounters him when she’s 20 and he’s 26 (and he’s in his original timeline, where he knows he time-travels but doesn’t “yet” recognize her), he’s not that person yet. She is in love with the person she believes he’s going to turn into, the 40-year-old she already slept with, the man – as she says at one point – around whom her entire notion of romance and sex was formed. She is chasing her ideal, while the man Henry is in the moment remains disappointing. And all through their relationship, he keeps leaving, vanishing without warning, showing up minutes or hours or days later, having been somewhere else. She is at the mercy of his comings and goings, and building any kind of stability is practically impossible when their lives are dominated by the unpredictability of his travels.

Theo James as Henry and Everleigh McDonell as young Clare.

Macall Polay/HBO


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Theo James as Henry and Everleigh McDonell as young Clare.

Macall Polay/HBO

But when you make this idea of waiting and hoping literal, when you actually portray it on a screen – especially with the kind of light romcom energy that creator Steven Moffat brings to the scenes between Clare and Henry – it seems creepy, like a comedy about a woman who ends up in a relationship she never had a chance to choose or not.

It’s not that there’s nothing about it that has any appeal. Leslie and James are both cute, and they have perfectly workable chemistry, and when they meet in “real life,” at the moment where she knows him but he doesn’t know her (because he has not yet begun time-traveling), they have a pleasantly flirty time. And because Henry can time-travel to moments when other versions of himself already exist, the show has some fun with an older Henry insulting the version of himself that is young and stupid (wouldn’t we all?).

It bears mention that the show also relishes the part of Henry’s story that says he can take nothing with him when he time-travels, so he always arrives everywhere naked. Rarely has even the nudity-friendly HBO shown an individual naked behind as much as it shows Theo James’s naked behind in this show – it might as well be on the poster. James spends much of his adventures gleaming with what seems to be a mist of baby oil, sculpted and on display as Henry sneaks around in the cold (yikes) or through bushes (ouch) or gets into fights (oof).

It feels like Moffat is trying to evade the discomfiting quality of this story – the way it can make Henry seem inescapably manipulative even if it’s not his intent – by keeping it light. He introduces playfulness around wacky time-travel situations while trying to hang on to sad moments in which Clare (as an older woman, filmed mockumentary-style) (no, I don’t know why they chose this framing) discusses her loneliness and her losses. It’s strangely perky at times and gory in others, fixating on a (very) bloody moment from a violent incident in Henry’s life and showing it again … and again … and again.

This story is meant to be powerfully sad, but the adaptation never comes together emotionally other than as an abstract idea, because that sadness is so closely tied to the uncomfortable fact that a belief in the romantic notion of destiny crowds out the romantic notion of freely choosing a partner.

It’s hard to imagine what one would do to make this more palatable – whether it would work better if it were weepier, or if it were darker, or if it were shorter or longer. It may be that just as monsters are often more frightening in a book than they can possibly be when they are made physically real, the slippery notion of a man from the future telling a very young woman he’s her future husband is more squirm-inducing when you actually see it than it might be in the abstract.

Perhaps only the nudity really translates.

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