REVIEW: The Time Traveler’s Wife [2009]

“I really wish she could hear you sing”

When I discuss Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife with people, I tell them, besides it being a top five book of all-time for me, that it is a romance/love story. There are fantastic elements of science fiction, (one of the best use of time travel I’ve ever experienced), as well as moments of true suspense with the thrilling adventures of our titular traveler too, but they only help bolster the tale of true love at its core. I’ll admit that after reading some early remarks about Robert Schwentke’s cinematic version I was very worried, in fact so much so that my expectations were somewhat low. This fact might have weighed on my ultimate decision concerning my enjoyment in seeing the DeTamble family’s story on screen because I actually really bought in and was swept away for the journey. Yes, a lot, (and I do mean a lot), is omitted through the adaptation process of Oscar-winner Bruce Joel Rubin, but enough is kept to stay true to that romantic tone. Distilled down and perhaps dumbed-down, The Time Traveler’s Wife may lose some of its geeky sci-fi flavor, but the heart and soul remains intact to be a solid date movie and entry to the romance drama genre.

As a fan of the book, I won’t lie; I was disappointed overall. So much of the backstory and many reasons for what occurs to some characters have been tossed aside. But this is completely understandable as New Line needed to make a return on the investment and they couldn’t risk losing their entire audience by scaring the girls with its science fiction devices or the boys for its romantic tendencies. Instead, they decided to market it as a love story to see with your significant other on a quiet evening out. On these terms, I really can’t fault the job that has been done. I bought into it all right from the start as the filmmakers throw you into the action. Not only do we see young Henry’s first travel through time, but we also witness the regular occasion of him meeting another version of himself at a different stage of life, as well as the incident that shapes his life forever—the passing of his mother in front of his eyes. There is no opportunity to waver in the belief of this man moving through time, you see it straight away and then you continue on the journey to see what will occur as a result.

The novel itself used the brilliant device of being told through the eyes of our two leads, Henry and his soulmate Clare Abshire, as diary entries. Alternating one with the other, we experience what they do upon each meeting or journey, hearing their thoughts as they anticipate the next rendezvous, knowing how the one feels before seeing what the other felt at the exact same time. I believe this device could have been used effectively in film with voice-over narration, however, the screenwriter chose not to do so. Instead, the film is pretty much a linear telling of the life of Clare, probably the best entry point in being that the title does reference her; she is the one who must cope with this man that she cannot live without yet can also never truly have to herself. We end up going back in time to see her as a child, meeting a late-30s Henry, but only in flashbacks and memories from when the two 20-something versions of them meet. You see the bond forming and fate working its way in, setting a specific path as both tell each other future details they know because of the time traveling; he telling a young girl what is in store and she telling a young man the words his elder self passed on.

Are Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana ideal actors to portray these roles … I’m not so sure. They do, however, perform well and allow for some chemistry to give us cause to buy into the emotional turmoil they experience on a daily basis. Between the struggles to just see each other without Henry disappearing, to the pains of miscarriages and the possibility that they may never have children, to the knowledge of so much that will happen and trying to still believe they are making choices, the DeTambles are not your normal family by any means. What made the book so wonderful was the realism in the fictional heartaches and consequences of being with, or just plain knowing, someone with “chrono displacement syndrome”. And I do believe our main characters carry that weight enough to draw a skeptic in. The other reason for Niffenegger’s novel’s genius is the large supporting cast, each with a history to themselves and a crucial part to play in the life of Henry and Clare. Unfortunately, in order to devote time to this tragic couple’s progression in less than two hours, almost all the nuance is gone. What I wouldn’t give for this to have been a miniseries or even a season of television so it could breath life into everyone.

Gone is Henry’s father’s battle to rid himself of alcoholism and, as a result, Clare’s family cook’s importance in the tale; gone is Gomez’s hidden secret, which makes his relationship with the DeTambles so much more interesting, although I did really enjoy Ron Livingston’s portrayal, alluding to the fact even if only noticed by someone who had read the book; gone are all the fun moments in Chicago’s Newberry Library and Henry’s coworkers finding him trapped in the cage with no entrance; gone is his past girlfriend and another tragedy to shape the man he becomes; and, most glaringly, is the fact of people meeting him before they actually meet him, (there is nothing like some quality déjà vu on the part of Gomez or Clare’s father and brother). Even Dr. David Kendrick’s role is condensed beyond recognition as Stephen Tobolowsky’s part becomes more a cog to progress the plot than a trusted friend who enters the DeTamble’s journey and really helps them survive.

You also never understand the sense of danger in what happens to Henry. Sure you see him pick some locks and get into fights, but what about the reason for why he ends up in a wheelchair? I know they have that one line about hypothermia and being stuck in the snow, but that story is so much bigger. By making it about Clare and how her life is affected, you only see Henry’s condition as a nuisance rather than a life-threatening affliction that could tear them apart forever, (I liked the very intriguing Joy Division cover at the wedding, pertaining to this fact). As a result, the film’s ending is similar to the book, but, in my opinion, not quite as memorable or important. Again, though, just because I know the novel is a masterpiece should not detract me from the film; it is its own entity. On the movie The Time Traveler’s Wife’s merits alone I am happy to say it is well worth the time. You still have to buy into the whole time travel thing, but rather than take the leap of faith scientifically with the printed version, you only need to want to see these two lovers grow old together. You pull for them to live happily ever after and frankly that is what a good romantic drama should do.

The Time Traveler’s Wife 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1 & 2] RACHEL McADAMS as Clare and ERIC BANA as Henry in New Line Cinema’s romantic drama “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Alan Markfield


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