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.