Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife was an instant bestseller, a cross-genre smash that combined popular elements of science fiction and romance to create something that felt as though it existed in a space all its own. Full of tortured romance, star-crossed characters, and a sensitive hero who just happened to spend a lot of time falling out of the sky naked, it’s a novel that is laser-targeted to appeal to the part of us that enjoys stories where love is often synonymous with pain. (Look, I also love Romeo and Juliet as much as the next person with multiple English degrees, but it messed me up when it came to understanding what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like.)
Nearly two decades after Niffenegger’s novel dominated the bestseller list, a prestige television adaptation is arriving on HBO, landing smack in the middle of broader cultural conversations about female agency, autonomy, and duty. Will audiences still swoon for its story of destiny, soulmates, and ride-or-die romantic loyalty, even when your partner doesn’t necessarily seem worthy of that sort of devotion? Or have we grown tired of love stories based on unspoken power imbalances and tragedy disguised as aspiration? Is the answer somewhere in the middle? I genuinely don’t know. (And I say that as someone who loved the book when it was first released! Growing up is hard!)
The Time Traveler’s Wife, in its broadest strokes, follows Henry DeTamble (Theo James), a man whose unique genetic disorder means he often comes unstuck in time, falling through to different points in the past or future. He usually (but not always) sticks to traveling in the years in which he is alive, and often manages to interact with himself along the way. But he cannot choose when these “attacks” of time travel happen or where he will go when they do, and though he eventually makes it back to the place he first left, he also cannot control how long that journey takes.
Clare Abshire (Rose Leslie) has grown up knowing—and loving—Henry, since he’s been time traveling to visit her since she was six. (She told everyone he was her imaginary friend.) When they meet as adults in their 20s, she’s thrilled to see him again, but he doesn’t know who she is—since, for him, his visits to the clearing behind her house are still in his future (even though they are in her past.) She also knows they’ll be married one day, as well as plenty of other snippets about how other aspects of their lives have turned out despite none of them having happened for her yet, and if this all gives you a headache, well, trust that you aren’t alone.
The six-episode series comes from Steven Moffat, who is probably best known for his time as the showrunner of Doctor Who and Sherlock, and if you’ve watched almost any of his work there, The Time Traveler’s Wife is going to feel deeply familiar to you, regardless of whether you’ve read the book the show is based on. After all, Moffat loves nothing so much as a love story told out of sequence—unless it is a ridiculously complicated puzzle-box mystery, or perhaps a young woman who imprints on a man at an impossibly early age and forms her life and personality around her feelings for him. This story is basically his World Series, is what I’m saying.
And, as such, it’s an almost perfect storm of everything that’s both great and terrible about Moffat as a storyteller.
On the surface, this is a story that feels sweepingly, achingly romantic; an ode to fate and destiny that says we end up with the person we’re meant to be with despite our best efforts to the contrary, and which insists our choices are ultimately our own, but also the decisions we were always going to make. Henry and Clare’s determination to be together, across years and lifetimes, is intense and magical, and Leslie and James certainly have smoldering chemistry together. The deft way the series weaves various elements of Henry’s life in and around one another is well done (some of the show’s best scenes are when Henry shares screentime with multiple versions of himself), and the videographer interview framework allows us to get some sense of the toll living this way inevitably takes on both parties.
Moffat’s interpretation of Clare certainly owes a lot to both Doctor Who’s Amelia Pond, the “girl who waited” for half her life for a mysterious time-traveling spaceman that once appeared in her garden to return, as well as to River Song, the sassy archaeologist whose love story with the Doctor takes place in reverse order and also requires a handy guidebook of dates to track. And while Rose Leslie does her best—her Clare is full of a deep, simmering anger that the show never seems to want to look at too closely—it’s difficult not to feel like this is a story we’ve (sort of) seen before.
Part of the problem is that despite the fact that this story is called “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” it often feels like Clare is little more than a cipher, a woman left to simply exist on the sidelines of Henry’s broader adventures, as various versions of him bounce in and out of her life and she is expected to simply love whichever one shows up. (In the book she compares herself to The Odyssey’s Penelope, a woman who is literally famous for her seemingly bottomless patience. It’s not entirely inaccurate, even if it is rather sad.) Whether he’s meeting with a charming child, a rebellious teen, or an older woman, Clare’s entire existence is seemingly defined by whether Henry is present or not, and most of her job in the world of the show is to react to him.
Unlike Niffenegger’s book, which is written in alternating POV chapters, the HBO adaptation focuses primarily on Henry and feels reluctant to ever truly get into Clare’s head. (This is fairly unfortunate because it seems like she’s honestly a very cool person I would have liked the chance to get to know!) But is that because Moffat simply finds Henry more interesting (possible!) or simply doesn’t want to deal with the story’s more problematic elements (likely), such as: the fact that its hero begins his relationship with Clare when she’s six years old, sleeps with her on her eighteenth birthday (for him, they’ve been in love and married for years), and never truly gives her the chance to become her own person separate and apart from him.
There’s a point where it feels as though the show wants to poke at the idea that Clare is in love with a very specific version of Henry and sort of resents the idea that she is seemingly destined to be the mechanism by which his younger, more assholish-self grows up and is forged into a better man. But every time it feels as though the show might actually want to have a real conversation about fate, free will, or consequences, it slides away from the implication without ever fully looking it in the face. (Usually, these are the moments where Henry will briefly indicate some small form of general contrition or emotional growth, and I think we’re supposed to be happy he tries that much.)
The fact that Henry is destined for a tragic end is heavily foreshadowed (on both the page and the screen), though The Time Traveler’s Wife very deliberately doesn’t give away the novel’s original ending. (Likely in the hopes that this allegedly “limited” series will return for a second season.) Maybe that makes it more realistic, I’ve never been quite clear on that. All love stories do end, after all. But in a post-#MeToo world, I’m curious about how modern audiences will respond to the more problematic elements of Henry and Clare’s romance—particularly when it’s her voice we hear so little of. It’s clear they love one another very passionately and for what is essentially all time. I guess the question is: Is that a good thing in this instance? And is this still the kind of love story we should be aspiring to? Twentysomething me would have unequivocally said yes. Older me isn’t so sure anymore.
The Time Traveler’s Wife premieres Sunday, May 15 on HBO.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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