A warning from the future about the time traveler’s wife

Rose Leslie and Theo James present The wife of the time traveler.
Photo: Macall Polay/HBO

The year is 2022. A critic is sitting in front of her TV watching the first episode of the 2003 remake of the novel The wife of the time travelerstarring Rose Leslie and Theo James, premieres Sunday, May 15 on HBO.

Kathryn today: I think the most repulsive thing about it The wife of the time traveler, straight from the jump, is how oddly chintzy and skinny it looks. I’ve only seen the first episode but I’m immediately taken aback by the framing contraption 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 breaking the fourth wall to be a terrible substitute for first-person narration in a novel. It’s that both the appearance and the overall tone are so strange! Theo James’ Old Henry makeup looks like a badly coded aging filter on a free iPhone app, and Rose Leslie looks like she’s doing a celebrity essential oil commercial that’s about to air on QVC.

Then there’s the clearing outside Clare’s childhood home, which is a key location for much of the novel and, I assume, the rest of this TV adaptation. Each brick looks like it’s made out of styrofoam; each shrub looks like it was recently purchased from Michaels. Maybe this is just an episode 1 thing? You want it to look fake, but later it looks all too real?

Kathryn in six days: [Abruptly pops into existence.] nope

Kathryn today: Wait, who are you! are you me are you me from the future?

Kathryn in six days: Yes, I am. I’ve checked out the rest of the screener and I’m here to tell you that it maintains that bizarre, flimsy aesthetic throughout. Even in a later scene, where the clearing is meant to feel dirty and real, the garbage and chimneys look like leftovers from a middle school drama production.

Kathryn today: Ouch. Hey, while you’re here, why don’t you get naked and shiny like Theo James always does when he travels through time?

Kathryn in six days: For real? That’s the part of the show you’re going to complain about? [Suddenly disappears.]

Kathryn today: In any case, The wife of the time traveler. It sounds like there’s a heavy emphasis on a fairytale look throughout, which is such a bummer. The book is far from perfect, but to the extent that it works, it’s partly because all that dreamy, surreal, high-concept premise stuff is anchored to real-world textures pretty well. The novel is also fair wild shame from the start. This first episode seems to be trying to turn that story into a romantic romp, which is a very odd and frankly awkward approach to the material. Presumably the show will get a lot sadder as time goes on. But even with a radical recalibration of the overall tone, that cutesy farce vibe seems like an odd choice, given the tragedy and, to be honest, the ick factor of how this relationship works.

Kathryn in six days: [Blinks back into existence.] Yes, bad news. It gets sadder, but it absolutely doesn’t know how to weave that emotional gravity into the silly fun stuff.

Kathryn today: It doesn’t, huh.

Kathryn in six days: Perhaps the best episode is one set at a dinner party where different versions of the time-travelling Henry clash. With all the doubles and the mysteries and the weird timelines, there’s a bit of a parlor comedy going on.

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 redhead girl’s entire sense of self by appearing at notable intervals throughout her childhood until she gets old enough to be sexual, preventing her from ever experiencing true self-determination.

Kathryn from 2010: [Appears out of thin air.] Oh, hey guys, watch her Doctor Who?

Kathryn today and Kathryn in six days: What? What are you talking about?

Kathryn from 2010: It’s Kathryn from 2010! I just heard you describe a show where a mysterious older man occasionally shows up to guide and interact with a young redhead girl who is wise beyond her years until she is eventually an adult whose whole life was shaped by this man. And I thought, You must watch the new season of doctor who now headed by new showrunner Steven Moffat! Because that’s how it starts!

Kathryn today: Uh, no, actually. That is The wife of the time travelerand 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 is through his deep, meaningful relationship with… oh wait. Waiting. I understand what you’re saying.

Photo: Macall Polay/HBO

Kathryn from 2010: What a coincidence. There’s no way that your show is in addition created by Steven Moffat, is there?

Kathryn today and Kathryn in six days: Spring …

Kathryn, 2010: It’s the same guy?! At what point does one have to ask how… What is his? act?

Kathryn today: It seems like that time has come now!

Moving on, I don’t mind the chemistry between Rose Leslie and Theo James when they have the contemporary romantic parts, but I am concerned about how the show will handle the parts of their relationship that are anything other than absent longing or loving involve pleasure. Because the novel is written by reciprocating first-person narrators, it manages to capture a lot of the ambiguity surrounding them very troubling things in early relationship. She starts having fantasies about him as a sexual partner when she is very strong very young. But if told as a past experience, the novel can at least provide a lengthy internal commentary on how extremely messed up and disgusting this is, and as everyone involved knows. Just seeing it from the outside of the screen, it’s hard to imagine that it’s going to look… pretty bad.

Kathryn in six days: [Muffled throat clearing.]

Kathryn today: I’m right? Is it pretty bad?

Kathryn in six days: I mean it’s not great!!

Kathryn from 2010: But hey, I read this book. At least they’re not trying to turn all that heavily poetic, over-the-top tragedy prose into real dialogue, are they? That would be rough.

Kathryn today and Kathryn in six days: [Evocative silence.]

Kathryn from 2010: At least they won’t mess up the very dark matter of what’s happening with Henry, right? Like, they’re not going to do that silly thing with their feet?

Kathryn today: You mean by ending the first episode with the fake looking gray severed feet you can imagine just sitting in an alley like someone walking home from a ghost Halloween forgot some of their Frankenstein decorations?

Kathryn in six days: What if I told you that not only does that happen, but each episode finds its own maddeningly cute way of recreating the book cover with a little girl’s feet next to a pair of empty adult shoes?

Kathryn today: no No! That can not be! You must 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 seeing more of this show, the time travelers disappear, never to be seen again. Left to her fate, the critic turns on episode two. She loves TV, loves it so much. But she also knows that sometimes the things we love hurt us.

https://www.vulture.com/article/time-travelers-wife-hbo-series-adaptation-yikes.html A warning from the future about the time traveler’s wife

Lindsay Lowe

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