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Literate Viewing: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Literate Viewing is a column that compares films to the books they’re based on. 


I asked My Wife the Famous Doctor if she had been satisfied with the film; she scowled at me. The standard peak for her disapproval is eye-rolling, so I promptly dropped the subject. I believe I am becoming slowly more adept at domestic life.

Years ago, when she was My Girlfriend the Doctoral Candidate, I had given her a copy of the Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Some days later she called me, exasperated, demanding to know what I was thinking when I had given her such an emotionally potent book. I knew better than to tell her that I thought sharing a romantic book would be an effective way to express my sensitive side without actually requiring me to be particularly sensitive. So I mumbled that I thought she would like it.

“Like it? It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read! Why would I like this?”

It turns out that industrious doctoral candidates do not like when a book is so effectively poignant that it costs them an entire night’s work due to emotional exhaustion. You can see that it would be hard for me not to have at least gotten a little bit better at this kind of thing since then.

Thankfully, she did become a fervent fan of the book, one who pushes it onto any literary friends. She displays the consideration I didn’t, though, and warns them beforehand to not crack it open if they are at a particularly tumultuous place. That’s why she’s the Famous Doctor.

I told you that so I could tell you this: Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife is incredibly potent. The 2009 film adaptation of the work is decisively not.

Niffenegger’s novel is a chrono-displacement love-story about Henry,a man who spontaneously and uncontrollably leaps through time, and Clare, the woman who loves him.

“When Henry meets Clare, he is twenty-eight and she is twenty. (…) Henry has never met Clare before; Clare has known Henry since she was six.”

Niffenegger makes this fantastic precept work by not working at it. The novel leaps immediately into the dual-narratives of the couple’s relationship, sliding the time-travel aspect seamlessly into the scenario as something to be accepted. The plot, impossible as it is, walks a conceptual high-wire so deftly that falling into ridiculous never even feels like a danger.

Where the work does occur is the narrative. Niffenegger flips back and forth between Henry and Clare, sometimes a paragraph at a time, sometimes a chapter. The prose is a string of alternating personal reflections and responses to events, at times presenting dual views of a single instance with hundreds of pages between recountings and still appropriately placed in terms of history and recitation for each character. The novel follows how they meet for the first time at different times, the dangers and complications of a life and romance unstuck in time.

It is predictably a tragic love story. Rarely since inception has ‘Starcrossed’ been a more appropriate descriptor.

Let me add this: The Time Traveler’s Wife novel is so incredibly effective and interesting that it never crossed my mind to think that this wasn’t my type of book. It is an incredibly addictive and moving work.

Which is why it is such a shame that the movie is not.

2009’s The Time Traveler’s Wife adaptation is instead toothless. It lacks life and bite, as well agility. The oscillations of the novel are reduced to commonplace cuts, tumbling the concept into the gimmickry the novel so cleverly avoided. To make the experience worse, the novel waters down its impact as the structure is depleted as well. Plainly put, there’s no one thing the movie does well.

Well, the musical score is okay.

Maybe the biggest reason for the mediocrity of this work is lowered expectations. Not of the film, but of the audience. Complexity is reduced or removed to accommodate a casual viewing. Tragedy is removed to prevent weighing too heavily on a general audience. Even the ending is radically shifted so as to offer a peace-making. You will not be moved to tears by the movie and lose an entire night’s work. You just won’t be moved at all. The film tries to do so little that it succeeds.

There may be an audience for whom this adaptation is a worthy film, but that audience certainly is not made up of fans for whom the book was impactful. To make matters worse, I’ve encountered viewers of the movie whose experience was so bland that they have no urge to accept a recommendation of this uniquely potent novel.

Fans of the powerful book, victims of the milquetoast adaptation, both parties deserve a re-do. And let’s call Ned Benson to do it.

Ned Benson’s feature-length directorial debut, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is similar casualty of lowered expectations. The work, a love & tragedy story in two perspective, was filmed and imagined as two movies , Him and Her. Each film would present one side of a relationship, James McAvoy as the titular him and Jessica Chastain as her. The films are Part shared-narrative and part unique story, presenting a story with multiple paths of viewership and grasp that is only fully understood after both pieces have been watched.

Despite a warm reception at its festival debut, the film’s distributor chickened out. Asking an audience to see two shows to get one movie was feared to be too much (note: I can’t speak to all theaters, but at mine you could purchase one ticket to see both). A month before the debut of the dual-features, a water-down chimerical amalgamation was released: Them. The result was uninspiring, a let-down, the tepid hype leaked greatly into the public, the eventual release of the intended double-feature was met with shrugs and reluctance. Even now the DVD is sold as Them, with the intended Him and Her exiled to ‘bonus features.’

Much like The Time Traveler’s Wife, it deserved better. Now if only we could find a way to go back and undo what was done, and instead save the adaptation of Niffenegger’s work for when Benson was set to make his debut.

Diagnosis: The Time Traveler’s Wife is a powerful and intricate novel which is rendered less effective by directing choices which sought to make it less complex and lacking impact.

Prescription: Read the book, skip the movie. Niffenegger’s novel is in the sweet-spot of being conceptually interesting without being a ‘complicated’ book. Whether you read it for the time travel or you read it for the romance, it is a novel which can be labelled Engrossing. I would recommend this work anybody except a doctoral candidate in the midst of a heavy defense. The movie, if you loved the book, will only leave a sour taste in your mouth.


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