The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was given a accurate, descriptive title. The book is indeed about a time traveler, who involuntarily fades backward and forward in time, and his wife who is left behind in the present.
Unlike a sci-fi novel about the time-space continuum or butterfly effects on the past, Henry and Clare’s story deals with the minutiae of real life. It is about love and human relationships, and how such a fantastical thing – the inability to stay in the present – can impact the everyday.
This is one of my favourite novels. What I love about the story is its serendipity – Clare fell in love with Henry when she was six years old, and it was the strength of this love that regularly pulled him back to her childhood. They would never have met in the present, if he did not first visit her in the past; but he could not have visited her in the past, if she did not find him in the present.
Are you lost yet? The beauty of this book is that it doesn’t matter. All that you have to understand, believe and know is that Henry and Clare met because they were destined to. In their world, where time is circular and cause and effect are “muddled”, it doesn’t matter what came first. Like the chicken and the egg, their love is impossible to trace back to its point of origin.
The 2008 film, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, manages to capture the complete spirit of Henry and Clare’s impossibly complicated lives. Their love is as passionate as it is painful, and the story is as heartfelt and heart wrenching as the book it was based on.
Entire characters and subplots have been cut, from Henry’s troubled ex-girlfriend Ingrid and her best friend Celia, to his “crazy Korean card-playing babysitter” Kimmy, and from Clare’s childhood friends (and enemies) to her grandma with the beautiful white hair and “eyes like blue clouds.”
All the gory details of Henry’s mother’s death are missing, as is the story about Clare’s mother’s illness, Dr Kendrick’s family troubles and the love triangle with Gomez. You will also have to read the book to find out how Henry learnt how to pick locks and pockets, and how his fifteen-year-old selves spent their time together.
Although so much is missing from the film, nothing is missed. The film focuses on how Henry’s time travels affect his relationship with Clare, and how it feels for her to be constantly left behind and waiting. Everything else is superfluous. And this strict emphasis of their relationship makes the story more dramatic.
The film doesn’t lose any of the book’s impact – when you see Henry disappear, and see the look of anguish on Clare’s face, their story feels so much more dramatic.
This book has a lyrical quality. It is truly poetic. Niffenegger paints a picture with each word and weaves each sentence seamlessly, magically into the next. Through the expert use of punctuation she also creates a staccato rhythm – without this melody, it would be hard to persist with such a nonlinear novel. As dates and ages fly around it is the prose that keeps you tied to the page, committed to working out the puzzle.
Niffenegger writes so many beautiful lines that seem to encompass the heart of the whole story:
“I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going, and she cannot follow.”
“I am at a loss because I am in love with a man who is standing before me with no memories of me at all. Everything is in the future for him.”
“Things happen the way they happened. Once and only once.”
The novel is so complex, and yet it works. The real, day-to-day elements of their lives help to ground the fantastical.
In the movie we have to wait for Henry to get to the meadow, but in the book the different ways that Henry meets Clare – and Clare meets Henry – are presented concurrently.
Each chapter, and sometimes each paragraph within each chapter, begins with either “Clare:” or “Henry:” – a narrative device to indicate which perspective is about to be shared. Also pay attention to the dates and ages – they provide important context and will keep you grounded as Henry jumps back and forward in time.
This story – whether its print or motion picture version – will inevitably lead you to question: What is fate? Is everything inevitable?
As Henry time travels, he revisits his own past and then helps to recreate it. The past only happened that way that it did, because his future self already made his contribution. In Henry’s world, the past cannot be changed:
“There is only free will when you are in time, in the present. He say in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.”
The book is beautifully and brilliantly written. Every time you open its pages you find something new. And the film is its ideal counterpart – a complementary text that adds a whole new dimension to the characters and yet remains intrinsically the same.
In all fairness, I have to say, as much as I love Niffenegger’s novel, there are some deviations in the film that I prefer. The way that Clare becomes pregnant, for example, is extremely clever. The ending of the story was also improved in the film.
Nevertheless, in either incarnation, The Time Traveler’s Wife is the ultimate of love – complete and unending, and at the same time unrequited. A must read and see – take my word for it.
Book or Big Screen? Book
The film is: 4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities
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What’s coming next? A review of Snow White and the Huntsman