Critics and audiences alike seem uncomfortable with Steven Moffat’s adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 best-seller The Time Traveler’s Wife after the first of six episodes dropped Sunday on HBO Max. Though there is the usual griping about casting, plot and creative choices that accompanies the adaptation of any popular work, most of the concern is centered on a feature of the narrative where the titular time traveler Henry (porrayed by Theo James) pays frequent, involuntary visits to his current-day wife Clare (Rose Leslie) in the past, when she was a child and adolescent (Everleigh McDonell and Caitlin Shorey). These contacts shape their later adult relationship in ways that bring to mind the term at the center of our current moral panic, grooming.
Niffenegger, who does not control the media rights to the book and is only tangentially involved in the current adaptation, says the discomfort arising from that scenario is not a failure of taste on the part of Moffat (who has already responded to the critics); challenging the audience with the moral ambiguity of the situation was always part of her creative intent de ella.
“It’s not meant to be shown as a model”
“I don’t think I had encountered the word grooming in 1997 [when first writing the novel] but I was familiar with the concept. It’s obviously inappropriate for grown men to be hanging out with little girls unsupervised,” she said. “That’s why it’s in the book. It’s weird. It’s the way that time travel is messing with them. It’s not meant to be shown as a model. Henry knows it’s a bad, bad idea and he’s doing his best to be hands off and parental because he’s the antithesis of somebody who is trying to groom a kid. It’s clear in the book that he is unsettled by this.”
Part of the issue with the reception of the show, she thinks, might be the result of mismatched expectations. though The Time Traveler’s Wife sold well over 8 million copies worldwide and was previously adapted into a 2009 feature film starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, it was never intended as a crowd-pleasing genre novel with simple conflicts and resolutions.
“There are people who say it’s not sci-fi enough, and people who say ‘this isn’t a romance!’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, it’s a book.’ I didn’t want to peg it to anything so specific.”
A literary novel masquerading as a genre best-seller
Niffenegger, who is also an accomplished visual artist, wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife between 1997 and 2002, when she was in her late 30s, as an experiment. “It was the first novel I ever wrote,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to try to tell a story just in words, without leaning on pictures. It was accepted by a small independent publisher, MacAdam/Cage, and I would have been happy to sell a few thousand copies.”
The book, like Niffenegger’s visual aesthetic, is multi-layered, gothic, self-aware, and difficult to compartmentalize. It has aspects of science fiction in its use of time travel, as well as a beautifully realized and tragic romance at its heart. The Time Traveler’s Wife’s extraordinary commercial success stripped away this context and complexity. People react to it through the lens of uncomplicated genre expectations, not as a troublesome, arty work of literature from a West Coast indie press that is willing to let readers deal with their own “ick factor” when assessing Henry and Clare’s complicated relationship.
When it gets adapted by someone like Steven Moffat, best known to audiences as the showrunner of the all-ages science fiction series Doctor Who from 2007-2017 and BBC’s modern-day version of Sherlock Holmesand takes on the surface qualities of a sci-fi tinged romantic comedy, the parts that the author deliberately included to discomfort readers strike an especially discordant note.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is also, ironically, a product of its time. It is peppered with details from Niffenegger’s young adult years in Chicago’s art and music scene of the 80s, and steeped in the experiences of people who grew up in the 70s, giving it a specific appeal to GenX readers who were briefly ascendent as a trend- making demographics in the late 90s-early 2000s.
Niffenegger believes that changes in generational experiences and attitudes between that era and now might also be fueling the negative reactions. “People are very focused on child abuse these days; what was seen as no big deal in the 1980s is now seen as neglect. In the novel, Clare was born in 1972. Steven [Moffat] has brought the whole timeline forward by 20 years. A child of the early 2000s would have been more watched over.”
“People seem to want to jump up and down on this version with cleats”
Niffenegger believes mismatched expectations and sensibilities might be why so much of the reaction is tinged with notes of indignation. “In earlier days, I got a lot of blowback from feminists who objected to the title defining Clare in relationship to her husband de Ella Henry,” she said. “Now, it’s this. People seem to want to jump up and down on this new version with cleats. I would just note that the complicated and messy lives of the characters are not necessarily endorsed by the author.”
Niffenegger credits writer/director Moffat with capturing the spirit of her book despite taking a few liberties with the adaptation. She said they had been in touch for years, after someone pointed out that a Moffat-penned episode of Doctor Who called “The Girl in the Fireplace” played like an homage to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Niffenegger returned the favor with an easter egg in her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.
“You can never exactly replicate a book,” she said. “You can’t just breathe it on to the screen. But I feel like they really gave it their all. It’s edgy, it’s odd, but they’ve done their absolute utmost to make it great.”
Long-awaited sequel is in the works
Whatever the creative and commercial fortunes of the current HBO series, Niffenegger says that fans of the original book and the characters can look forward to the long-awaited sequel, The Other Husband, focused on Henry and Clare’s daughter Alba and set in times ranging from the 1960s to the latter half of the 21st century. “I finished the manuscript and my agent and I are editing it,” she said. In the meantime, she is involved in the restoration of the Harley Clarke Mansion in Evanston, Illinois as a new center for bookmaking, art and literature.