Rose Leslie and Theo James in The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Photo: Macall Polay/HBO
The year is 2022. A critic is sitting in front of her TV, watching the first episode of the new adaptation of the 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, starring Rose Leslie and Theo James, premiering Sunday, May 15, on HBO.
Kathryn today: I think the most off-putting thing about The Time Traveler’s Wife, right from the jump, is how strangely chintzy and thin it looks. I’ve only seen the first episode, but immediately I’m taken aback by the framing device in which time traveler Henry and his wife, Clare, stare into a camera and talk about their feelings. It’s not the device itself, although I always find this kind of fourth-wall breaking to be a terrible replacement for first-person narrators in a novel. It’s that both the look and the overall tone are so odd! Theo James’s Old Henry makeup looks like a poorly coded aging filter on a free iPhone app, and Rose Leslie looks like she’s doing a celebrity promotional spot for essential oils that’s about to play on QVC.
Then there’s the clearing outside Clare’s childhood home, which is a key location for so much of the novel and, I assume, the rest of this TV adaptation. Every rock looks like it’s made out of Styrofoam; every shrub looks like it was recently purchased from Michaels. Maybe this is just an episode-one thing? It’s supposed to look fake but then later it looks all too real?
Kathryn six days from now: [Abruptly pops into existence.] Nope.
Kathryn today: Wait, who are you! Are you me? Are you me from the future?
Kathryn six days from now: Yes, I am. I have watched the rest of the screeners, and I am here to tell you that it retains this bizarre flimsy aesthetic throughout. Even in a later scene where the clearing is supposed to feel all dirty and real, the trash and the smokestacks look like leftovers from a middle-school drama production.
Kathryn today: Ouch. Hey, while you’re here, why aren’t you naked and glistening like Theo James always is when he time-travels?
Kathryn six days from now: Really? That’s the part of the show you’re going to complain about? [Suddenly disappears.]
Kathryn today: Anyhow, The Time Traveler’s Wife. It sounds like the heavy emphasis on a fairy-tale look continues throughout, which is such a bummer. The book is far from perfect, but to the extent that it works, it’s in part because all the dreamy, surrealist high-concept-premise stuff is pretty well grounded in real textures. The novel is also just wildly sad, right from the start. This first episode seems like it’s trying to turn this story into a romantic romp, which is a very odd and frankly discomfiting approach to the material. Presumably, the show gets much sadder as it goes along. But even with a radical realignment of the overall tone, this cutesy-farce vibe seems like a strange choice, given the tragedy and, to be honest, the ick factor of how this relationship works.
Kathryn six days from now: [Blinks back into existence.] Yeah, bad news. It does get more sad, but it absolutely does not know how to make that emotional gravity tie into the silly fun stuff.
Kathryn today: It doesn’t, huh.
Kathryn six days from now: Maybe the best episode is one set at a dinner party, where various versions of time-traveling Henry end up colliding. There’s a bit of a drawing-room-comedy thing going on with all the doubles and the secrets and the weird timelines.
Kathryn today: Well, that’s an odd tonal choice for a show that has to navigate a central romance in which a mysterious, supernatural older man shapes a young redheaded girl’s entire sense of self by appearing at notable intervals throughout her childhood until she’s old enough to be a sexual being, thereby preventing her from ever experiencing true self-determination.
Kathryn from 2010: [Appears out of thin air.] Oh, hey guys, are you watching Doctor Who?
Kathryn today and Kathryn six days from now: What? What are you talking about?
Kathryn from 2010: It’s me, Kathryn from 2010! I just heard you describing a show in which a mysterious older man shows up occasionally to guide and interact with a young redheaded girl who is wise beyond her years until eventually she’s an adult whose whole life has been shaped by this man. And I thought, They must be watching the new season of Doctor Who, now helmed by new showrunner Steven Moffat! Because that’s just how it starts!
Kathryn today: Uh, no, actually. This is The Time Traveler’s Wife, and in this show, the older man is a traumatized but very special person who is all alone in the universe and whose only real connection to humanity comes via his deep, meaningful relationship with … oh, wait. Wait. I see what you’re saying.
Photo: Macall Polay/HBO
Kathryn from 2010: Wow, what a coincidence. There’s no way that your show is also created by Steven Moffat, is there?
Kathryn today and Kathryn six days from now: Well …
Kathryn, 2010: It’s the same guy?! At what point do you have to ask, like … What is his deal?
Kathryn today: It seems like that time is now!
Moving along, I do not mind the chemistry between Rose Leslie and Theo James when they have the contemporary romantic bits, but I am so worried about how the show will handle the sections of their relationship involving anything other than absent longing or fond pleasure. Because the novel is written through back-and-forth first-person narrators, it manages to hold on to a lot of ambiguity around the very troubling early-relationship stuff. She starts having fantasies about him as a sexual partner when she’s very very young. But when it’s narrated as a past experience, the novel can at least provide ample internal commentary about how extremely messed up and gross this is and how everyone involved knows it. When we just see it from the outside, onscreen, it’s hard not to imagine that’s gonna look … pretty bad.
Kathryn six days from now: [Muffled throat clearing.]
Kathryn today: Am I right? Is it pretty bad?
Kathryn six days from now: I mean, it’s not great!!
Kathryn from 2010: But hey, I read this book. At least they don’t try to turn all the heavily poetic, overburdened tragedy prose into real dialogue, right? That’d be rough.
Kathryn today and Kathryn six days from now: [Evocative silence.]
Kathryn from 2010: At least they’re not going to mess up the very dark business with what happens to Henry, right? Like, they’re not going to turn the feet thing goofy?
Kathryn today: You mean, by ending the first episode with the most fake-looking gray severed feet you can imagine just sitting there in an alley, like someone forgot part of their Frankenstein decoration on the way home from a Spirit Halloween?
Kathryn six days from now: What if I told you that not only does that happen, but every episode finds its own unbearably cutesy way to re-create the book’s cover image of little girl feet next to a pair of empty adult shoes?
Kathryn today: No. No! That can’t be! You have to be kidding. I’m going to start watching the rest of these episodes now to prove you wrong. There’s no way someone didn’t intervene.
Faced with the prospect of watching more of this show, the time travelers disappear, never to be seen again. Left alone to her fate, the critic hits play on episode two. She loves TV, loves it so much. But she also knows that sometimes the things we love hurt us.