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The Time Traveler's Wife posterHBO Max’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, whose six-episode first season concluded earlier this summer, represents the perfect fusion of artist and source material. Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling 2003 novel, in which time traveling librarian Henry DeTamble meets his future wife, Clare Abshire, when she’s only six years old, has been a touchstone text for showrunner Steven Moffat for most of his career. Throughout his work, and especially on Doctor Who, one finds tropes taken straight from the novel: non-linear relationships (“Blink” [2007]), a woman whose life is shaped by a childhood meeting with a dashing time traveler (Amy Pond), a woman who waits for her time traveling lover to return to her (“The Girl in the Fireplace” [2006], River Song). It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that if The Time Traveler’s Wife had never been written, Moffat’s career would have looked entirely different.

At the same time, Moffat brings something entirely his own, and entirely necessary, to his adaptation of the novel. This is The Time Traveler’s Wife’s second bite at the adaptation apple. The first, a soporific 2009 movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, seemed convinced that a tragic love story could only be told in the soppiest of terms. For an hour and forty-seven minutes, it contented itself with having Henry and Clare trade dewy, pained looks. Moffat, who has made a career out of writing asshole men and the too-clever women who love them, seems to have understood that this is a story that demands a bit more bite. [1] His Henry and Claire quip—at each other and everyone else—in the best tradition of Moffat’s work from Coupling (2000-2004) onward, though this time around there’s an anxious, sweaty energy to their barbs.

At this point, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that this review of The Time Traveler’s Wife is a rave. Let me hasten to correct that impression. The Time Traveler’s Wife is hilariously, deliriously bad. It’s everything that critics of the book have been complaining about for nearly twenty years, multiplied by every complaint that Moffat’s critics have leveled at him for roughly the same amount of time. And, like the show’s Henry and Clare themselves—a couple who have intimate conversations in a completely normal speaking voice while out in public, for example arguing over whether Henry has been ogling a woman on the subway while sitting right next to said woman—it’s the sort of pairing where you find yourself happy that these two toxic disaster zones have found each other, because at least they won’t impose their dysfunction on anyone else.

The true pleasure of watching The Time Traveler’s Wife lies in trying to puzzle out who is more responsible for the atrocity playing out on screen, Moffat or Niffenegger. The author, it must be said, bears a lion’s share of the blame. It’s been a while since I read the novel, so quite often while watching I would find myself staring slack-jawed at the screen before remembering that, yes, this is an accurate representation of events in a book that squatted for weeks in the upper tiers of the New York Times bestseller list. Take, for example, the fact that Clare’s best friend Charisse (Natasha Lopez) is dating, and will eventually marry, a man named Gomez (Desmin Borges), who is in love with Clare—which everyone in the foursome, including Charisse herself, is fully aware of. [2] Or that the only person in the series to point out how depraved Henry and Clare’s situation is—Henry’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid (Chelsea Frei)—almost immediately finds herself rewarded with a prophecy of her own imminent, self-inflicted death.

Still, Moffat adds his own unique flavor to the proceedings. To the litany of difficulties inherent to Henry’s version of time travel—he can’t control when he travels, or where or when he appears, and he always appears naked—he adds the complication that Henry’s discarded dead tissue—baby teeth, nail clippings, shed blood—also time travels, occasionally showing up in his vicinity only to disappear again soon after. [3] This seems to have been posited solely so that the season’s first episode can conclude with Henry rounding a corner and discovering (spoilers for a twenty-year-old novel that you really shouldn’t read) his own amputated feet. After which, it never comes up again.

The first season of The Time Traveler’s Wife covers the first segment of the novel, in which Henry and Clare meet (she meets him for the first time when she’s six and he’s thirty-six; he meets her for the first time when he’s twenty-eight and she’s twenty) and negotiate their relationship, culminating in their wedding. This means that from the word go, the season dives into what is arguably the novel’s most problematic aspect, the fact that Clare has been groomed from early childhood to be one man’s perfect mate, that time or fate have left her no space to actually decide to be with Henry. [4] Her meetings with the older Henry span her entire childhood and end when she’s eighteen; her meeting with the younger one occurs two years later. Just enough time to miss him, not enough time to become her own person, much less fall in love with someone else.

Rose Leslie vaulted to fame playing a woman—the wilding Ygritte on Game of Thrones—so devoted to her people’s political aims that she would riddle the man she loved with arrows rather than allow him to stand in their way. One assumes that casting her as Clare was an attempt to infuse some of that energy into a character whose entire life is shaped by a single, all-consuming relationship. If so, that’s an attempt that failed. Clare’s anger—at the way in which Henry’s visits throughout her childhood have moulded her personality so as to leave her with only one acceptable future, and also at the fact that the younger Henry is not the loving, mature man she fell in love with as a young girl—comes off as petulant rather than profound.

None of this is helped by the Moffat of it all. True to his experience as the writer of a time travel show, he rather cleverly arranges the season’s episodes around themes. Episode 2 deals with Henry’s mother and her traumatizing early death, and establishes the impossibility of changing the past. Episode 4 introduces Gomez and Charisse, while addressing the fraught issue of young Clare/old Henry’s sexual relationship—her teenage demands to make love, his insistence that she spend their time apart expanding her sexual horizons. But what this means is that the one episode that is told entirely from Clare’s point of view, in which she is the sole narrator and even reveals things that Henry never learned, is also the rape episode.

To be fair, it was Niffenegger who decided that a necessary component of Henry and Clare’s bonding would be for a teenage Clare to recruit older Henry to get revenge on a boy who has assaulted her. And Moffat really does try to smooth out some of the original story’s problems—he omits, for example, Henry’s speech to Clare’s assailant, in which he agrees with him that Clare is a cocktease, but insists that she can’t be held responsible for her own actions and it’s up to men to restrain themselves around her. [5] He even tries to give the chapter a different significance than it has in the novel, transforming it from a tale of male vengeance into one of female solidarity, with Clare calling on other girls to turn her assailant into a work of art on the topic of sexual violence. But none of that gets around the simple fact that the only solo point of view granted to this series’s heroine, the only episode during which she gets to make decisions on her own, is when she is dealing with having been sexually assaulted.

Still, by the time the season ended, I found myself feeling sorrier for Henry than Clare. As an actor, Theo James has specialized in playing dickish-yet-vulnerable romantic leads, in the Divergent movies (2014-16) and, more recently, on the Austen-inspired soap Sanditon (2019-). He’s also both willing and able to pull off the multiple scenes in which a naked, glistening Henry falls out of midair, runs away from an angry crowd, or fights a random stranger for his clothes. Both these aspects of his performances can have a dehumanizing effect on the character, reducing him to an instrument of someone else’s pleasure—Clare’s, or the audience’s. This might make it harder to recognize that while Clare, after some struggle, gets everything she wants, Henry just seems to give up.

The crux of these chapters in the novel is that, while Clare has loved Henry for most of her life, Henry has no feelings for her. From his perspective, he has to fall in love with the woman whom he already knows he’s going to marry. In the show, that never really seems to happen. You can’t pinpoint a moment when Henry realizes that he wants to be with Clare. What stands in for love is, instead, surrender. In the season’s penultimate episode, Henry gets his hair cut, changing it from the longer look that has symbolized, to Clare, his difference from the man she remembers, to the shorter one sported by his older self. Clare apologizes for constantly comparing him to someone else. Henry, in what is probably meant to be a romantic line, but which sent a shiver of horror down my spine, replies: “I can be someone else.”

And that, to me, feels like 100 percent Moffat. Throughout his work, he has repeatedly conceived of relationships between men and women not as something that people choose and build together, but as something that consumes them. For men in particular, committing to a woman represents—as it does for Henry—the death of the self. “Marriage is not about making each other happy,” an older Clare scoffs at Henry, who has time traveled from shortly before his wedding. Again, this is probably meant to be romantic—she goes on to explain that marriage is about clinging together through the challenges of life. But you can’t escape the impression that, for Moffat, marriage is an edifice that exists independently of the individuals who make it up. It’s what transforms Clare—a twenty-year-old art student—into someone who has an opinion about silver patterns. And it’s what makes the younger Henry, a person who is literally mourned by several people throughout the season, disappear.

What the fusion of Niffenegger and Moffat has produced ends up feeling less like a love story and more like existential horror. Six episodes in which two people slide inexorably towards a trap that will consume their personalities, their futures, maybe even their souls. And ultimately, I feel like the person most to blame for this isn’t the author or the showrunner, but whoever it was who decided that this story, instead of being allowed to sink into obscurity, surviving only as a bit of early twenty-first-century lore with which to scare zoomers (can you believe that people in 2003 thought this was romantic?), in fact needed to be retold in 2022. There was perhaps no better person to illustrate—and intensify—the horror of The Time Traveler’s Wife than Steven Moffat. But all his adaptation really teaches us is that the thing should never have been attempted.

Endnotes

[1] If you played a drinking game where you downed a shot every time someone on this show calls Henry an asshole, you’d end up in the hospital. [return]

[2] Moffat’s added wrinkle is to suggest that Charisse, too, is in love with Clare. If you’re imagining that this makes her, or Clare, a more interesting, rounded person, I regret to inform you that this is not the case. [return]

[3] What happens to his urine and feces, one wonders. [return]

[4] Some people might argue that the most problematic aspect of the novel actually comes in its second segment, in which Clare undergoes a double-digit number of miscarriages but categorically refuses to consider any alternative to carrying Henry’s biological child (one very obvious option that is completely out of bounds for this story’s extreme heteronormativity: Henry’s father is still alive)—to the extent of losing her shit when Henry decides to have a vasectomy, apparently on the grounds that his penis is community property. The novel is a target-rich environment, is what I’m saying. [return]

[5] Moffat also reverses Niffenegger’s cop-out: in the book Clare gets away before the actual rape can occur; in the show she reveals that although this is the story she told Henry, she was in fact raped. I really can’t decide if this is better or worse. [return]



Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and tweets as @NussbaumAbigail.
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