Some books might really be unsuitable.
The Time Traveler’s Wife was a wildly popular 2003 novel that told a complicated story. From the time Clare Abshire is six years old, she meets a grown man in a clearing near her home. He says he is from the future. He eventually reveals that he is her husband. Her future husband. His name is Henry, and he has a problem, which is that he gets unstuck in time and unwittingly travels to the past or the future. He also doesn’t control where and when he will land, but he tends to go to important places in his life, which is how he lands in Clare Glade again and again – because they are married in the future, so it is important.
The book was made into a movie in 2009, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. It received bad 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, that doesn’t really work either. For lack of a better explanation, this story is just too… bizarre.
The Time Traveler’s Wife has the same problems as most time travel novels when it comes to explaining the logistics. Presumably there was an original timeline where Clare and Henry met “naturally”, and it wasn’t until after that that Henry began to return to Clare’s childhood to spend time with her. is why he is still 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 his life really exists, Clare only marries him after spending most of her life being visited by him, from the age of sixand being told that they were destined to marry, and have sex with him when she was 18 and the version of him that landed in her life was something like 40.
There’s a metaphorical take on this story that’s quite poignant: Clare meets the man of her dreams when she was a child, but when she meets him when she’s 20 and he’s 26 (and he’s in her original timeline, where he knows he’s time-traveling but doesn’t “yet” recognize it), he’s not that person yet. She is in love with the person she believes she is becoming, the 40-year-old man she once slept with, the man – as she says at one point – around whom her whole notion of romance and sex. She pursues her ideal, while the man Henry is at the moment remains disappointing. And throughout their relationship, he keeps leaving, disappearing without warning, reappearing minutes, hours or days later, having been somewhere else. She is at the mercy of his whereabouts, and building any kind of stability is next to impossible when their lives are dominated by the unpredictability of his travels.
But when you bring that idea of waiting and hoping to life, when you actually portray it on screen — especially with the kind of lighthearted rom-com energy that creator Steven Moffat brings to scenes between Clare and Henry — it seems scary, like a comedy about a woman who finds herself in a relationship she never had the chance to choose or not.
It’s not that there’s nothing in there that has any appeal. Leslie and James are both cute, and they have perfectly working chemistry, and when they meet in “real life”, the moment she knows him but he doesn’t know her (because he hasn’t started yet to travel in time), they have a pleasant moment of flirtation. And because Henry can time travel to times when other versions of himself already exist, the series has fun with an older Henry insulting the version of himself who is young and stupid (don’t wouldn’t we all do?).
It’s worth mentioning that the series also relishes the part of Henry’s story that says he can’t take anything with him when he travels through time, so he always arrives everywhere naked. Rarely has even nudity-friendly HBO shown a naked individual behind as much as it shows Theo James’ bare behind on this show – it might as well be on the poster. James spends much of his adventures glowing with what appears to be a mist of baby oil, sculpted and exposed as Henry weaves his way through the cold (yikes) or through the bushes (ouch) or fights ( oof).
Rarely has even nudity-friendly HBO shown a naked individual behind as much as it shows Theo James’ bare behind on this show – it might as well be on the poster.
It feels like Moffat is trying to escape the disconcerting quality of this story — the way it can make Henry seem inescapably manipulative even though that’s not his intention — by keeping it light. It introduces playfulness around wacky time travel situations while trying to hold on to sad moments in which Clare (as an older woman, filmed in mockumentary style) (no, I don’t know why they chose this framing) speaks of his loneliness and loss. It’s oddly cheerful and bloody at times in others, focusing on one (very) bloody moment of a violent incident in Henry’s life and showing it over and over again…and over…and over.
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 fate crowds out the romantic notion of freedom. choose a partner.
It’s hard to imagine what anyone would do to make this more palatable – whether it would work better if it was more watery, or if it was darker, or if it was shorter or longer. It may be that, just as monsters are often scarier in a book than they can be when made physically real, the slippery notion of a man from the future telling a very young woman that he is her future husband is more disturbing when you actually see it than it could be in the abstract.
Maybe only the nudity really translates.
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