Why It’s So Difficult to Adapt The Time Traveler’s Wife’s Problematic Romance

Books Features Audrey Niffenegger
Why It’s So Difficult to Adapt The Time Traveler’s Wife’s Problematic Romance

Steven Moffat wastes no time with The Time Traveler’s Wife, his television adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s beloved yet complicated novel: Halfway through the first episode, when a 41-year-old Henry DeTamble (Theo James) has taken his first trip back in time to meet the six-year-old version of his wife Clare Abshire (Everleigh McDonell), she asks about his wife, not realizing they’re the same person: “Was it love at first sight?”

“God, I hope not,” he quips, his private joke, but when young Clare pushes to understand why grownups enjoy kissing, he points at the toy she’s brought to the meadow: “Why do you like brushing your horse’s hair?”

“It’s not brushing,” little Clare says, “I’m grooming her,” and Henry’s reaction is appropriately squicked out: “Oh-kay, moving on.” Moffat makes a joke (and a painfully self-aware one, at that) out of the biggest sticking point of what has become a polarizing sci-fi love story: that the only way for Clare and Henry to fall in love is for her to have known him since she was a child—an adult version of him, his best possible self, who is also thirty-plus years her senior.

When The Time Traveler’s Wife was published in 2003, this bizarre meet-cute was readily accepted as the foundation of their relationship. In the vacuum of a story—that is, nothing more than the words on the page—it takes on an almost fairytale sheen: Imagine getting to meet your partner, your soulmate, your better half, as an adorable child? Through the magic of time travel, the impossible happens: Henry gets to have a conversation (152 of them, to be precise) with his wife Clare before she ever knew who he was, to see her at her most unformed self.

But in the nearly two decades since the novel’s publication, readers have reevaluated this unconventional, nonlinear relationship and found it to be less achingly star-crossed and more creepy upon closer scrutiny. It didn’t help that the 2009 movie adaptation, with actual people inhabiting the characters, revealed the clear dissonance between a thirtysomething man squatting at the level of a girl who hasn’t yet reached puberty. Watching Eric Bana picnicking with the actress playing young Clare sets off a primal alarm, no matter how well he knows her in the future. With the 2022 TV series, there are moments that you watch James and (alternately) McDonell or Caitlin Shorey sitting on the rock playing checkers and you almost forget the specifics of their relationship… but then she says something precocious or he says something paternal, and you remember that even though nothing untoward happens between this young girl and this older man, their present selves (James playing 28 and Rose Leslie at 20) are very intimate.

What’s more, the reason that the twentysomething lovers are able to leap headfirst into the kind of lived-in, fast-tracked relationship is that the emotional intimacy has been established for years and years. Despite the relationship being mostly platonic (until it very much isn’t, when she turns 18), hindsight has readers wondering, how much of Henry and Clare’s relationship is built on grooming?

In interviews, Moffat has adamantly denied this: “That’s not what the story is in the book or the film or the TV show,” he told TVLine when the series premiered last month. “He’s married to her. He meets her as an adult, he falls in love with her, he gets married to her and then he’s flung back in time, through no fault of his own, and is confronted with the childhood version of the woman he already loves. Even more so in the TV show version, he absolutely makes it clear that he’s just a friend.”

Moffat has had plenty of practice playing out this scenario, twice on Doctor Who: the 2006 episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” in which a young Madame de Pompadour gets childhood visits from David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor; and the start of Amy Pond and the Eleventh Doctor’s (Matt Smith) arc with 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour.” Yet as the former is a single episode and the latter doesn’t advance Amy’s feelings for the Doctor beyond an unrequited girlhood crush, The Time Traveler’s Wife was still new terrain for handling the more delicate issues.

The first key way in which Moffat does so is to establish that every version of a person in time is a distinct entity, no matter how little time has passed between one version and the next. For instance, when Henry is 28 and yanked through time to become an unwitting mentor to his eight-year-old self, he lies to the chirpy, whiny, grieving boy that he is another time traveler, implying that young Henry is part of a long tradition of travelers. Unfortunately, too soon he has to reveal the truth: that no, there aren’t any other living time travelers he’s encountered; but at the same time, Henry is never alone.

The same reasoning goes for young Clare: When thirty- or fortysomething Henry tells the child and preteen versions of her that he and she are not married in the future, technically he’s telling the truth. Even teenage Clare is meant to be a separate person, though the series shows how those lines blur by having Leslie embody her (albeit awkwardly due to makeup, wigs, and costuming). Henry misleads her as well, until the confrontation with her rapist Jason in “Episode Three” forces him into admitting the truth in front of a shocked 16-year-old Clare.

Moffat’s other storytelling tenet is Henry’s aforementioned helplessness being thrown through time, which is emphasized in every single scenario of time travel but especially where it concerns an impressionable young girl. But despite Henry’s inability to control where he lands, the series also establishes how he’s had to learn to be self-sufficient once he’s up on his feet: stealing clothes and money, running from the cops, hiding out until his next involuntary jump back. Henry’s survival is built on the decisions he makes in the past.

Therefore, it rings false to act as if he has absolutely no power over young Clare. He could have chosen not to engage with her in the clearing, to have hidden in the bushes (though as a naked man, that would have been far creepier) or to have fled to a different spot in that expansive meadow until he was eventually pulled back to his starting point. He chooses to greet Clare the first time, even though she is rightfully suspicious of the older man claiming he’s her friend. (There’s no non-creepy way to do this; Bana’s delivery in the movie, wrapped in a picnic blanket, sounds more predator than imaginary friend.)

At first it seems as if their interactions over the following 12 years follow Clare’s lead: Henry doesn’t tell her to take French, but he oversees her study of French verbs. The checkers game she brings from her house as something to do; he beats her at it in order to win back his clothing after mischievous 16-year-old her pranks him. But even in these innocent interactions, Henry becomes her closest friend (aside from her younger sister Alicia) and her confidante. He wholly gains her trust even when he doesn’t trust her with future knowledge.

He chooses to do this because, in his mind, he has to; in order for him to be married to her in the future, she must fall in love with him—with this specific, older version of him—enough so that she’ll settle for his relatively unformed self (at 28), who will eventually grow up into the man she first met.

So Henry’s interactions with Clare have a clear, self-serving agenda. What’s more, despite Moffat describing older Henry as “a responsible man, so he has tremendously strict rules about this,” those rules reveal the clear power imbalance between them. Henry knows everything about their future, about the person that Clare grows up to be, but he withholds that information. He means well, of course, trying to leave her as much space as possible in which to make her own decisions…even if he already knows where those will lead her.

Yet there’s a difference between omitting details and intentionally misleading. Three times Henry lies to Clare about being married in the future—including when she’s 16—ostensibly trying to shield her from thinking that her entire romantic life has already been determined for her. In hindsight, future Clare (telling their story to a video camera) bears the full weight of the pain that Henry’s choices caused. “There are very few things in this world as harmful as the lies of decent men,” she says in “Episode Three.” One could make the argument that if Henry had come clean with Clare about their future relationship status, she might not have pursued Jason at that house party. This is in no way blaming Clare for Jason raping her; if anything, it blames Henry for not thinking through the consequences of his well-intended actions. The sexual assault is an unnecessary detail that Moffat added to the adaptation; in the book, it is ambiguous at best, with Clare telling Henry that Jason didn’t rape her but did hurt her.

To its credit, the TV series lays out how idiosyncratic and at times fucked-up Clare and Henry’s dynamic is; but it unfortunately also overextends itself. For the most part, the meadow flashbacks wrap up in “Episode Four,” which also seems to close the book (so to speak) on the grooming debate. Clare is 18 now and has decided, what better way to spend their final day in the meadow together, than to make love? It’s “right” and it’s “OK” because they’re married in the future, she argues, but it’s also the perfect moment here in the past; nothing will ever quite align like this again.

But for 41-year-old Henry, it’s all too good to be true; Clare only thinks that everything has fallen into place because, he is convinced, the past 12 years have aimed her toward believing that all of these pieces have to click together. That it has to be here, it has to be him, it has to be now when she’s still so young instead of waiting for their first meeting (during which she will still be relatively young!).

When Henry demurs, recalling over and over the rules that he made, she counters, “You made rules for you, you didn’t make rules for me.” And when she tries to debunk his theory about every version of themselves being distinct people, he admits that his real discomfort lies in the setting itself:

“It’s this place, this clearing where I watched you grow up, where I was teaching you French verbs and checkers one week ago, where I imprinted you like a duckling. It’s grooming, Clare, that’s what it is. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Not here. Not here.”

This line, more than anything else, hits home what Moffat has attempted to do here: It sums up the involuntary nature of Henry’s time travel, how for him their 152 meetings have been shuffled up in a way to feel confusing and very much the opposite of sexy or alluring; that he has related to her for most of this time more as a father figure (which is still deeply unsettling!) than as a sexual partner.

But then Clare has to go and deliver this groan-worthy line: “There will never be a better time or place. My eighteenth birthday? Right here? On the very spot where I groomed you.”

It’s not the clever wordplay that the rest of the series possesses; on every watch, that line grates because it just doesn’t make sense. What Clare is trying to say is that she’s shaped Henry as much as he has her. But she doesn’t mean herself at 18, nor the dozens of iterations before her; she is looking at this man approaching middle age, who has become this stable, patient presence because of the patience and emotional labor of her future self. By the laws of the series, that is a different Clare who did that work, who will do that work.

That other Clare will also withhold some key information from her husband, telling him that he was a “perfect gentleman” during all their time in the clearing, which in turn supports his assumption that he never made any inappropriate advances on her. Future Clare turns future Henry into something of a paternal figure for her younger self, knowing full well that she will have her first consensual sexual encounter with that older self, even if the age difference and the circumstances are still very problematic. Her first time with Henry is not the same as his first time with her.

There’s no easy answer to the The Time Traveler’s Wife debate. Other reviews criticized the pilot’s grooming joke for being too meta, checking off the controversy before swiftly moving on. But I appreciated the directness, because there’s no way in 2022 you don’t acknowledge it. I wouldn’t characterize their relationship as grooming with an intention toward sexual abuse or even any ill intent on Henry’s part. However, if you’re considering the broadest definition of grooming—that is, an adult shaping a child through their interactions—then it would be accurate.

Moffat’s take is best when it’s clear-eyed about the dark aspects of Clare and Henry’s relationship: the mutual lying and withholding of crucial information, each manipulating the timeline even as they both clam that their love was fated to happen. That same darkness is what made Niffenegger’s book such a compelling love story because it was about the unpleasant metaphor of a woman forced to wait for a man to grow up, and the ways in which she tries to control her destiny.

So kudos to Moffat for acknowledging the grooming debate. Where this adaptation does not work, however, is in trying to be extra clever about it or to somehow spread the responsibility over two characters. As demonstrated, despite the timey-wimey loopy nature of their relationship, some incredibly important aspects of The Time Traveler’s Wife only go one way.

Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.

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