Can This Time-Traveling Marriage Be Saved From Its Own Banality?

The Time Traveler's Wife is a story about deja vu. Everything that happens has already happened, and will happen again, thanks to the story's endless time loops. So maybe that's why everything in the movie feels so tiresomely familiar. Spoilers...

Imagine if someone from the future came and told you what was going to happen to you: You'd be trapped in a story. In a sense, that "trapped in a story" feeling is what The Time Traveler's Wife is about — both Audrey Niffenegger's masterful book and the new movie. The difference is, the novel uses a million grace notes to show how you can still live a joyful life, even though you know you're trapped inside a story you can't really change. The movie, meanwhile, just shows us that we're trapped and there's no escape from the plodding story beats.


In most love stories, after all, you know what's going to happen. Including time travel as a concept just solidifies the sense we already have that love stories — especially Hollywood love stories — are utterly predictable, and the most you can expect is carefully titrated levels of quirkiness, mostly coming from the supporting cast. Unless the leading man is Jack Black — then he gets to bring the quirkiness himself.

But of course, in a larger sense, life is a story whose ending is known to us from the beginning, since as Prince says, "We're all gonna die."

The basic story of The Time Traveler's Wife is one that could be intensely schlocky, but isn't at all in the novel. Henry De Tamble has a weird, made-up genetic condition that causes him to become unstuck in time, and he journeys back to emotionally significant moments in his own life. (He visits his own mother's death often.) And he frequently appears during the childhood of Clare Abshire, the woman he marries as an adult. Because she grows up seeing him as this mysterious, sophisticated apparition, she grows to love and mythologize him — only to have to make a relationship with the real Henry when she meets him in real time. And then, of course, Henry's always vanishing into the past and future while he and Clare are building a life.


I just re-read Niffenegger's novel this week, so I apologize if I talk about the book as much as I do the movie. (The truth is, the book impressed me anew, and the movie seemed instantly forgettable.) The novel is a meditation on time, and the way in which we're all trapped inside linear time — even Henry, who can't stop getting older or advancing towards the bad things he knows are waiting for him. And yet, all the ways in which we're all time travelers. Niffenegger packs in funny observations about the socially constructed nature of time — you can travel backward an hour just by crossing over from Michigan to Illinois. The longer Clare and Henry are together, the more she, too, travels backwards in time, except that she does it in her mind. She's constantly thinking about the things that took place between the two of them when she was a child — even when Henry isn't physically returning to them.

As Henry says towards the end of the book, minutes and years are "the same thing" when you're dealing with a traumatic or powerful event — something that happened decades ago can feel like it happened just now. His time-slipping condition just makes that fact less metaphorical.

In all relationships, Niffenegger seems to say, we are constantly living in both the past and the future — you can't help reminiscing about how the relationship started, and you can't help imagining what'll happen when you have a child, or one of you leaves — or dies.

Like I said, this story would be trite, cheesy or even squicky in the hands of a less sure-handed writer. But Niffenegger gives these characters enough life, enough weirdness, to make the Henry-Clare relationship feel like ones you've known. Clare grabs Henry's cock through a hole in his suit, during their wedding, to try and keep him from slipping away through the timestream during their wedding (and it doesn't work.)

So, since I re-read Niffenegger's novel right before going to see the movie, I can report that the film follows the structure of the novel quite closely, with a few changes. (You're not going to see a middle-aged Bana taking an 18-year-old McAdams' virginity. Also, the Gomez-loves-Clare subplot is gone, probably for the best.) The skeleton is the same, but in the movie it's covered with flab.

It would probably be impossible to convey the books's awesomeness in a movie, but the screenplay (by Ghost scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin) doesn't even try. Instead, it takes Niffenegger's basic story and uses it as a vehicle for such overwhelming schlockiness that I was sickened. In the novel, Henry and Clare are both witty and weighty, talking about their relationship and their lives in self-aware, clever ways. In the movie, they mostly talk like little kids — Clare, in particular, is whiny and annoying, something she never is in the book.

The biggest problem with the film is the dialogue, honestly — you're not going to be able to pack as much complexity into a movie as you could into a novel, of course, but every single word that comes out of these people's mouths is utterly banal and dull. There were dozens of moments where instead of saying something else and letting the subtext convey an emotion, the characters stated their emotions in the blandest possible way: "I am feeling anxious." "I am filled with unease." That sort of thing. The screenwriting is so hamfisted, after a while everyone sounds like an android trying to identify the proper emotion for the situation.

It's uterly pointless to say that the movie version of a book is worse than the source material, or that the movie ruined the book. I am not saying that at all. Instead, I am saying: Niffenegger's basic story could be intensely schlocky in the wrong hands, and she avoids that pitfall with a balletic grace. The movie dives right into it. It would have taken immense skill and determination to avoid nausea in crafting the story of a man who's constantly vanishing on his wife becuase he's traipsing off to visit her as a little girl. And the movie simply lacks that skill, and what's worse, it doesn't care.

On the plus side, the movie is genuinely funny in parts — including some parts that are deadly serious in the book — and stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams have great comic timing, when they decide to play the material for laughs. The audience I saw the film with laughed boisterously and often. So there's that.


My biggest problem with the movie, actually, was that I didn't like these versions of Clare or Henry — they seemed shallow, boring, petulant. Clare whines an awful lot about the fact that Henry keeps disappearing, even though she knows he can't control it and is trying to prevent it at all costs. The movie seems determined to create melodrama out of moments that should be quiet, and to create comedy out of moments that should be dramatic.

In many ways, TTTW reminded me of a slightly worse version of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button — they're both about a man who has a weird condition, and the woman who loves him. In both, the man's condition compels him to disappear on the woman just as they're building a life together. (Although Benjamin Button has a choice, and just does the wrong thing because he's an asspot.) And they're both intensely cheesy, drowning us in sentimentality because they ultimately don't think there is any meaning in human relationships. (Sentimentality being the rich, creamy sauce you pour over the essential nothingness of empty romance.)

It makes me sad, because there seemed to be a boomlet in smart, quirky literary novels that played with time, about five years ago: Niffenegger's novel was one of them, and Andrew Sean Greer's Confessions Of Max Tivoli was another. And now we've gotten the movie version of that boomlet, with TTTW and Benjamin Button (which felt like an adaptation of Max Tivoli, even though it officially wasn't.) These movies are like the chick-flick versions of G.I. Joe — cheesy, silly, and sporting one-dimensional characters. It's only sad because the books they're based on actually did demand smarter takes, and lord knows we could use some more thought-provoking, grown up science fiction stories.

In the end, though, what I really can't forgive the movie for is saying that we're trapped, there's no point, it's all useless. Because it never even tries to answer the question Niffenegger deals with in her book: What do you do when everything is predestined? How do you make a meaningful life? Instead, it just revels in its own predictability and dullness, because it's a Hollywood love story. And predictability is the Hollywood love story's meat and drink, without which it withers away.