Book vs. Movie: The Time Traveler's Wife
By Russ Bickerstaff
August 18, 2009

If nothing else, we look impossibly pretty together.

In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.

And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.

Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie

The Time Traveler's Wife

A few years back, Chicago-based writer Audrey Niffenegger wrote a science fiction book that was published and marketed as non-genre fiction. It was her first novel and it became a best-seller. The premise is simple: a man has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time. Along the way, he frequently runs into a girl at various stages in his life. This girl is destined to be his wife. The episodic novel plays on a lot of different ideas about the romantic love that ties two people together. The idea was so simple and primal that it had gotten a lot of attention before it ever saw commercial bookshelves. Before it was even published, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's Plan B Entertainment had optioned the film rights to the novel. Over half a decade later, the film makes it to the screen in a film starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. How does the work of a first-time author stack-up to a big-budget Hollywood adaptation?

The Book

From the first page, Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife establishes itself with a non-traditional, somewhat non-linear plot structure. We are seeing the story from two perspectives: that of inadvertent time traveler Henry and Clare, the woman he loves.

The concept of time travel as an affliction has appeared elsewhere before, but never in such vivid emotional clarity as Niffenegger manages here. Over the course of the novel, we see that Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that causes him to disappear and reappear at some other point in time. The inadvertent time travel happens only within only those places and times that have meaning for him ...or something like that. Though there is a great deal of explanation about Henry's condition, it exists in the novel as a phenomenon that science is only beginning to understand, so precisely why he ends up where he does at given times is never fully explained. And there's never really a very satisfactory explanation for why traveling robs him of his clothes...whenever he appears in a different time, he is nude.

This initial vulnerability of passing through time and finding himself naked causes a great deal of stress. Suddenly naked and often in a public place, Henry has mastered the art of picking locks and picking pockets in order to right himself as quickly as possible and adjust to where he is. This adds a particularly dark survival aspect to the character. There's a particularly interesting scene in the novel where an adult Henry is teaching himself to pick locks and pockets as a child. It is only later that he realizes that the man who is teaching him these things is, in fact, himself.

Another nagging little detail about Henry's disorder is the fact that he can only visit people once he's met them...which means that he never met Clare until she introduced herself to him as someone he'd been visiting since she was a very, very young child. This makes a lot more sense in the context of the novel than it does in a brief explanation here, but it makes for a really interesting and entertaining way to open the book.

From there, things get a bit nebulous. The novel is only slightly more than 500 pages long, but it feels like it has the kind of depth that might come from a multi-volume series It achieves the illusion of depth through a very engrossing series of episodes that don't appear to be framed with a coherent plot arc in mind until the deadlier parts of Henry's condition begin to catch-up with him toward the end of the book. And then there's the question of whether or not they'll be able to have a child with his strange genetic disorder...and the fact that it'll likely be passed along to any children he might have with Clare.

Suffice it to say, it's a pretty sad story. There's a great deal of romance here, though. The problem is that none of the prose feels particularly fresh. Niffenegger has said that she writes with "a little movie" that runs in her head as the story flutters into prose. That sort of storytelling style really shows through in the book, which is extremely heavy on dialogue, making the 500+ pages of the book a surprisingly quick read. It's a real roller coaster of a novel, but it lacks significant depth beyond the romance. Yes, there are issues being addressed here, but there's little insight into the mysteries the novel explores beyond the inherent cleverness of the premise. As intense as it is, too much of what's going on here feels like empty emotion.

The Movie

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, The Last Mimzy) has taken a very careful approach to the adaptation, which amplifies the emotional intensity of the novel without leaving too much out. Niffenegger's approach to telling the story is very scattered and episodic. The story in the novel comes out in isolated scenes. Any first time novelist will have trillions of ideas streaming into the narrative and the plot of this novel gives that kind of energy room to breathe, but it lacks finesse. Rubin takes individual scenes that are quickly glossed-over in the novel and gives them extended moments that stir emotions much more effectively than Niffenegger's prose. This would not be the case were it not for the camera work of an exceedingly competent director (Robert Schwentke) and, most likely, a really talented DP (Florian Ballhaus.) The scene between an adult Henry and the mother he never knew in adulthood (Michelle Nolden) is a brilliantly crafted bit of screen drama. From beginning to end, the director makes brilliant use of on-location shooting on a very distinct and authentic Chicago elevated train.

The one serious misstep on the part of Rubin is the film's opening. In the book we get a really clever moment as the Clare meets a man she has fallen in love with who hasn't met her yet. Rather than playing on the confusion of this as Niffenegger does in the novel, we get a very simple, schematic approach to an explanation — moments after a childhood Henry has his inadvertent time travel episode, an adult Henry promptly explains what happened to him. There are special effects and there's interesting editing and it's all very cinematic. It's nice, but it's over-expository. As an audience, we don't really need this intro to Henry and it removes some of the mystery of his past that the book did so well in keeping mysterious.

The film doesn't take long in getting to the scene where Henry meets Clare for the first time. Here the reality of it plays out a bit more like an aging single guy's idea of fantasy romance than it does in the book. We see a 40-year-old Bana approached by a beautiful woman ten years younger than him — a woman he's never met before who is completely in love with him and is desperate to go back to his place to have sex with him, where she seems fascinated by how young he is. Without the context of the book, it feels a bit weird.

On the whole, the romance between Clare and Henry never really comes together in the film all that well. McAdams hasn't really crafted a unique enough personality for Clare to really seem like much of an individual here and the script doesn't exactly make that easy for the actress. Gone is so much of the wit and energy that made the character so compelling to begin with. Nine-year-old actress Brooklynn Proulx makes a much more charming Clare as she meets him for the first time in a forest clearing at ages six and eight. The youngster does a stunning job with the opportunity she's given. McAdams has talent, but Proulx outshines her quite a bit here, making the character of young Clare seem much more compelling than her adult counterpart.

The Verdict

While the book has a complexity of human emotion that the film's simplicity lacks, the metaphor of Henry's condition is never really presented in a way that makes full use of that realistic complexity. The overly sentimental notions of fate and romance tend to play much better on the big screen than they do on the page, so the film is actually a much more potent exploration of the fantastic romance and emotional tragedy of the story. That being said, the film fails to deliver some fairly basic elements of the story to the screen in a way that supports the story well enough to be understood vividly by an audience. This story is one that my work the best with a quick skimming of the novel before going to see a far more elegant movie adaptation. It's a bit of an awkward way to experience the story, but so is the romance between Clare and Henry. And perhaps, like their romance, it's worth the awkwardness.