The Time Traveler’s Wife: I waited, you didn’t come

The film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife could be a clever metaphor, cynical exploitation, or just a bit of a flub

I was broken when I read The Time Traveler’s Wife; it crept inside and stayed. So the film version, screening here from December 3, was hard to watch. It was like that regrettable bit in the book after Henry has died, and Clare screws Gomez, trying to resurrect her dead husband.

Clare is Clare Abshire; Henry, Henry DeTamble. Clare first meets Henry when she is six, and he is thirty-six; he meets her when he is twenty-eight and she is twenty. Henry is the eponymous “time traveler”, sucked out of linear time by the gravitational pull of big events in his past and future -- or, more often than not, at random.

He is Clare’s childhood best friend. She is his big event. Disappointed with gauche young Henry, she confides in the older one, who remonstrates with her: “Think of all the hours I spent, am spending, with your tiny self …”. Time travelling, he watches her grow into his wife; later, in real time, she shapes him into the man she loves. Together they complete the jigsaw: her memories of episodes Henry hasn’t lived yet; his snatched bits of the future that Clare will build her life around.

The genius of the concept and the plot’s complexity were bound to get lost in translation.

The film has glimpses of perfection. There’s some great casting, particularly Rachel McAdams as Clare, but also Eric Bana as Henry, and whoever plays Henry’s mother Lucille. The time travelling is good: my fears of tacky special effects were not realised. Clare wears the kind of clothes that Clare would wear. At the wedding, indie rock band Broken Social Scene cover Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, with strings and a double bass: Henry music.

But in the book, Henry is a punk librarian who, unlike Clare, not having met his soul mate at age six, spends a lot of the intervening time drinking and fucking around. Clare is an artist. Friends Gomez and Charisse are revolutionaries who want to smash the state. In the film, there’s little of any of that: Henry and Clare are a cute middle class pair who win the lottery.

When Henry dies, the scene is so impeccably shot that it was a flash of déjà vu -- exactly how it ought to be. But in the book, it is an incident Clare has seen, although incompletely understood, as a child; that Henry has seen, because he has travelled to it months before; and that the reader sees, because Henry narrates as he watches: “I know the end, now. It goes like this: … I will stand over a small trampled bloody patch of soil and I will know: somewhere out there I am dying.” The film attempts the same thing differently, which doesn’t work.

But anyway, meanwhile … film Henry gets a dorky haircut and, after he and Clare game the lottery, they buy an ugly house. The house I could excuse, on the grounds of American taste. The haircut is indefensible. The book is explicit: the day before his wedding, Henry, killing time, wanders into a barber’s shop. He holds up finger and thumb, about an inch apart. “Cut it all off,” he says.

The film narrative is more joined up: Henry travels from different places (as in, different from the ones in the book), to related places. He time travels from their wedding, to a conversation with young Clare about his wife; when they fight about his vasectomy, he arrives from the past unsnipped, to make a baby.

The price of a more coherent narrative is some excruciating plot explication and resort to cliché. A lot of this happens around the wedding. There’s an emetic proposal, followed by Clare and Henry dancing like wedding cake figurines, and bouncing trampoline-style on the bed. In the book, the wedding is incidental, and a bit of a farce. The Henry that Clare marries is the one to whom she is already married. But if the film was intended to be satirical, it doesn’t quite pull it off.

It’s not hard to see that some of the choices made in scripting the book for the screen would have driven some other choices: having left some bits out, others needed to be done differently. And perhaps it is just different, not wrong. But having cut out the heart of the book, the film fails to come to life. It’s like watching on fast forward, with stops on the big events: Clare and Henry meet (twice), they marry, they give birth to daughter Alba, Henry dies. The shared history that is the story gets lost.

Early in the film, twenty year-old Clare says she’s waited her whole life for Henry. In the book, but not the film, she actually does. In the book, Clare is thirty-five when Henry dies. He writes her a letter, telling they’ll see one another again: “The woman turns and sees me and her face is remade into joy; … this is Clare, Clare old! and she is coming to me, so slowly, and I take her into my arms.It was sweet, Clare, it was sweet beyond telling, to come as though from death to hold you, and to see the years all present in your face.”

He urges her to stop waiting, though he tells her this to give her hope. But for eighty-two year-old Clare, in 2053, "Today is not much different from all the other days … not much different from the many other times he was gone, and I waited, except that this time I have instructions …”.

It could be random, but given Henry’s penchant for main events, and the bit from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Going Blind” that precedes this “treatise on longing”, you have to think that this third meeting of theirs is when Clare dies; apart from anything else, the alternative is too cruel. The film totally loses this plot.

I wanted a grown-up film, but this one is just ordinary. In one scene in the film, arguing about serial miscarriages and whether to adopt, Clare asserts that she wants her own baby. She pleads to be ordinary. Is that so much to ask, she asks? Maybe the director is giving her what she wants; perhaps, the fast-forward-zeroing-in-on-big-events thing is supposed to echo Henry’s life experience.

You should be careful what you wish for, as they say, because The Time Traveler’s Wife might in fact be a grown up film -- a clever film. Any romantic embarking on the actual romance is bound to find that early hints at fantastical perfection turn out to be pretty mundane. Which is why, even if the film makers knew they’d failed, they might not mind -- but I do.

Audiences are assured for the film of this best selling book. I tried my best to like it, but really I think it’s just capitalising on something that would have been better left alone, exploiting women of a certain age, like me.