The Time Traveler’s Wife (review)

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Will The Time Traveler’s Wife turn out to be the loveliest adaptation of a novel ever to get the biggest boos from diehard fans of the book? Could be. The ending, for one, is different: oh noes! Not a lot different, and the altered ending still makes sense emotionally — I teared up, oh yes I did, and isn’t that the point? — but ohmygod they ruined the book! some will scream.

They didn’t ruin the movie, I promise. But some will disagree with me.
The detours into dark alleys Audrey Niffenegger’s beloved novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] takes have been eliminated, for the most part, or softened; mostly eliminated. There are, um, interesting and intriguing and dangerous and nasty things you can do when you can meet future or past versions of yourself, or when you have foreknowledge or sidewiseknowledge of events, and when you don’t have to worry about the time-travel paradoxes that most science fiction worries about. You can have sex with yourself; you can dish out revenge both cold (on your side) and hot (as your victim will experience it). You can do things most people couldn’t imagine.

You would not guess from screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin and director Robert Schwentke’s (Flightplan) movie version that Niffenegger may be a rather twisted kind of gal for inventing such deeds for her hero, Henry DeTamble. But she did, even if none of them are here.

That’s all fine. Really. Because the core of what makes The Time Traveler’s Wife so special has been retained. The poignant tenderness and the sharp significance of the metaphor of the twisty, time-bending romance of Henry (Eric Bana: Funny People, Star Trek), a Chicago librarian, and Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams: State of Play, Married Life), an artist, are what’s important, and the movie gets it so right that it will linger in your imagination just as the novel did. Thank goodness. I couldn’t have borne it if Schwentke and Rubin — who did write the appallingly phony Ghost, it must be remembered — had screwed it up, because I love the book too. They’ve made a film that is achingly romantic but never schmaltzy and never less than charming and surprising.

Here’s why: Clare is only six years old the first time she meets Henry… when he is 30something. But Henry is only in his 20s the first time he meets Clare, when she’s around 20. It’s because he’s an inadvertent time traveler: he suffers from a genetic anomaly that causes him to become displaced in time, at random moments he has no control over, though sometimes stress triggers it. He melts away, leaving his clothes behind, and journeys back to moments in his own past, or ahead to moments in his own future. He’s learned to be clever about scrounging for clothes and finding shelter wherever and whenever he arrives. And often that means cultivating a friend in the places he travels to… like young Clare, who brings him clothes and food and entertains him while he waits to melt back to the future again.

People and events who are important to Henry draw him, like gravity — very much in the same way that we cannot help but dwell on powerful memories. The film opens with young Henry, about eight years old, experiencing his first instance of time travel: he disappears out of his mother’s car after banging his head during the beginning of a drawn-out crash, visits a cosy moment at home of the recent past, and returns just in time to see, from the side of the road, the car get demolished by another vehicle, killing his mother. And then… an older Henry is suddenly there to comfort young Henry. You’ll visit this moment lots of times, old-Henry tells young-Henry, and you’ll never be able to stop the crash from happening.

But even this darkness the film does not linger on. It’s mostly all Clare and Henry, and their relationship, and how sensitively and tenderly the strangeness of it is hardly strange at all. Oh, sure, a little girl’s “dream man” becomes the real thing, and that’s unlikely, but this is science fiction of a more sophisticated allegorical order, not a wish-fulfillment one. Oh yes, this is too science fiction, of the kind that really knows what SF is all about: not gadgets and spaceships (cool as they can be) but what it means to be human. Here, it’s the frontiers of our capacity to love that are explored, and the things we typically take as metaphors for the complications and joys of relationships — the feeling that we’re waiting for someone; the sense of destiny and inevitability that comes with falling in love — are made real, the stuff of only the truest of true loves.

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Fri, Aug 14, 2009 2:28pm

It’s funny how the best science fiction never gets labeled science fiction…

Yahoo movies says:
Genres: Drama, Romance and Adaptation
and IMDB lists Science Fiction third.

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 8:23pm

Dude. Seriously. You really, really have to do a Best Romance Movie/Romantic Comedy list. I’ve been begging for years and this is obviously a contender.

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 10:46pm

Just saw it. Convinced my BF of six years to see it. My 19 year old son went too. Probably they both agreed to go because when I finished reading the book I came in one day and sat down and was crying so hard trying to tell them about it. I cried HARD over this book. The movie–I cried some, but I have to say, I LIKED the changes they made. And I’m SUPER glad they changed the ending like you mention. But mostly I’m glad that they addressed some of the times in the book where I felt like ‘wow–where is her free will?’..’or isn’t it odd to be a middle aged man hanging out with a 15 year old????’ So, in all, I think people should see it. And for that person who complained about equal amounts of male/female nudity in movies–you get to see both their rears are different times. ;)

if that stuff matters.

Frank from UF
Fri, Aug 14, 2009 11:01pm

I just saw this with my girl, and I really appreciated how hard the movie worked to manipulate my emotions. I almost shed a tear of cynicism.

Thankfully I saw District 9 beforehand. Yes, it was a double feature for the price of one. I might have actually cried tears of sorrow if I had to pay to see Time Traveler’s Wife!

Sat, Aug 15, 2009 3:04pm

It’s not a bad film — gets the mood of the novel right, the romance is sweet without being sticky, and there are a few poignant moments. However, the emotionally wrenching parts of the novel are gone (maybe that’s not so awful, but it leaves the film just a little flat — and it all feels just a little too easy).

But the ending . . . SPOILERS AHEAD . . .

Well, I don’t so much mind that they changed the ending (the ending of the novel is frustratingly infuriating, after all — it’s all too much “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”), but the new ending they came up with simply contradicts the story. Thirty-nine year old Henry (who is still happy with Clare and baby Alba) would have had NO IDEA about his own death. He would not be able to comfort Alba or Clare. The very poignancy of the moment is lost, I’m afraid. This is not a man who has lost his family trying to reconnect with them, trying to hold onto something — he has lost nothing, he knows nothing, he is not yet aware. I found the new ending oddly disconnecting, and I’m sorry about that, because the movie could have been so much better.

OK, no more spoilers . . .

One thing I like much better in the film than in the novel is Clare’s character — she’s so much more self-sufficient. This isn’t a woman who will spend fifty years waiting for the return of a ghost. I liked that about the film. So, overall I enjoyed it. And I have no idea where all the really dreadful reviews are coming from.

Mon, Aug 17, 2009 5:02am

I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on that, but saw the film last night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

But Kate, perhaps you missed something?


According to the film, Henry learns about his death a good five years or so before it happens, when he first travels forward and meets the ten year old Alba at the zoo. She tells him that he dies when she is five years old, and given that she hasn’t yet been born, that’s quite a fair warning, leaving plenty of time for Henry to travel forward and take place in the closing scene.


Anyway, I may have to read the book now so I can find out how that ends. Hopefully seeing the movie hasn’t completely ruined it for me!

Keith Z-G
Keith Z-G
Wed, Aug 19, 2009 8:49pm

I only just discovered Journeyman, so I’m still mourning it; I’m not ready for another time-travelling science-fiction romance. Plus, although this review is easily among the most positive of reviews I’ve read of the movie, it still sounds like the movie is far more emotionally manipulative and less nuanced than Journeyman was. So maybe I’ll just invite some friends over and introduce them to Journeyman instead.

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 8:10pm

You know, MaryAnn, I thought you were going to hate this film, and criticize it for the shameless piece of Harlequin romance that it is. I did however notice that you do give a green light to certain movies simply because you were entertained by them – so I suppose they’re a guilty pleasure – or because you were taken in by the lead star – Wolverine comes to mind in that respect.

However, in spite of its charismatic stars, I’ll never be able to like something like The Time Traveler’s Wife , which uses a temporal gimmick in order to built a soppy, non-engaging romance. I also don’t think I would like the book, because the very basis of both book and film rings false and hollow to me. There are infinitely better ways in which you can describe enduring and genuine love between two individuals, and this one just does not elicit any sort of emotion from me. I thought you didn’t like films that manipulate you into feeling something, instead of triggering that emotion in a more natural way.

And seriously …miscarriages because the fetus tries to time travel? Cheating on your husband with an earlier version of your husband? And people think this is romantic and OMG so great? Frankly, apart from better acting, this film (and book) goes in the same category of romantic fantasy as Twilight.

Also, it’s at about 37% at RottenTomatoes …and a lot of women critics there called it crap …

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 10:08pm

SaintAndy, I used to have a friend who hated eating his vegetables. One day, I watched him eat brussels sprouts for the first time, eager to see him recoil with disgust (they’re so bitter), but you know what he did? He placed his fork upon the table, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “you know, these brussels sprouts are pretty good!”

I tried explaining to him that he was well known as a hater of vegetables, that I and 63% of all children hated brussel sprouts, but he kept telling me they tasted great and even explained in detail why he enjoyed their distinct texture and flavor. The next time I saw him, I shook him by his shoulders and demanded that he explain to me how he could like brussels sprouts but not cabbage or collard greens. He only turned away, mocking me with his silence.

Brussels sprouts? Why? How? It is a mystery that shall haunt me to my grave.

Sat, Aug 22, 2009 12:18am

So what you’re trying to say with your vegetable metaphor (or is it an analogy?) is that: a) de gustibus …or you can’t account for individual taste and b) romantic comedies are like vegetables, some are better than others? (oh and I suppose c) Brussels sprouts suck).

You know, some people are really obtuse when it comes to figures of speech (hint: ME). It would be really helpful if you elaborate a bit more on the subject.

I am still at a loss as to why many people still fall for pretentious romantic pieces of crap ..even superior pieces of crap such as this film.

L. Yinger
L. Yinger
Fri, Sep 11, 2009 10:51am

Wow! There’s an appearance of an awful lot of arrogance in the statement: “…. Rubin — who did write the appallingly phony Ghost,…”.
Is your use of the word ‘phony’ intended to be: “not honest or truthful”? Or is it: “giving the false impression of truth”? That “appallingly phony” Ghost script did win the Academy Award. Was it “appallingly” phony because it fooled (while delighting) so many people across so many demographics? I mean… some of us fools even have relatively high IQs too.