The first adaptation of the blockbuster novel by Audrey Niffenegger, a 2009 film starring Eric Bana as Henry, the time-hopping librarian, and a luminous Rachel McAdams as Clare, his long-suffering love, went for the tear ducts. From the book’s grab bag of themes and feelings, the film latched onto predestination and sorrow and got more lugubrious as it went along.
Thirteen years later, we have an HBO series, beginning Sunday, again with the same title as the book. Created by British writer and producer Steven Moffat, who wrote all six episodes of the first season, it can’t completely escape the book’s maudlin pull, but it offers both a more lighthearted and a tougher take than the film. It capitalizes on the possibilities for slapstick offered by Henry’s constant buck-naked, “Terminator”-style tumbles into unexpected times and places. And it restores the testiness and jealousy (and copious sex) between Clare and Henry that was muffled in the movie’s gauzy telling.
Moffat’s involvement was the reason to have some hope for, or at least be curious about, this new adaptation. The love of puzzles and sleight of hand and general narrative complexity that he has demonstrated, often with considerable ingenuity, in “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” seemed to make him a good match for the nerdy science fiction side of Niffenegger’s book. And the best moments in Moffat’s series are ones that get into the details of how time travel works, or that show the tricks Henry uses to communicate with himself or manipulate events across time.
It’s still “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” though, and you can’t get away from the material, a stilted mix of sentimentality, doomy fatalism, truisms about love and queasily sexualized romance that sold several million copies. Niffenegger’s gift for sexed-up fantastical melodrama drew in a ton of readers, including Moffat, who based an episode of “Doctor Who” (“The Girl in the Fireplace”) on the novel.
Given the chance to adapt the real thing, Moffat and director David Nutter (“Game of Thrones”) have made it watchable — favoring humor and action over soap opera — but they haven’t managed to conjure the emotion, or dramatize the ideas, that so many people seem to find in the story. A device of breaking away to have older versions of Henry and Clare speak straight to the camera, as if being filmed for a documentary, echoes the book’s alternating first-person narration but also exposes the script’s notions about soul mates, absence and fate for the dull platitudes they are.
They’re easy enough to sit through, however, when they’re being delivered by performers as amiably earnest and unfussily attractive as Rose Leslie and Theo James, who play Clare and Henry as adults. Younger versions of Clare are played, charmingly, by Everleigh McDonell and Caitlin Shorey. This is where the queasy part comes in: the story’s central conceit that the lovers meet when Clare is 6 and an adult Henry tumbles naked onto her family’s estate. They continue to have private and increasingly intense meetings throughout her childhood and adolescence.
The idea is that because Henry is married to Clare in the future before ever meeting her as a child, there’s a purity to their “little girl hanging out with 30-something guy” encounters. Again, this is easy enough to accept in the series, partly because James has an innate courtliness and partly because Nutter stages their meetings in a slightly heightened, fairy-tale style.
Those pastoral interludes are respites from Henry’s other travels backward and forward in time, which can involve landing on subway tracks or on top of easily angered motorcycle-club members. This other side of the story, in which the time travel is a curse and Henry is constantly in danger of being beaten up, arrested or killed, gives the series its energy.
The action, and the elements of mystery that accompany it, don’t really make up for the insipidity of the melodrama. Of course, many people, particularly those who bought the book, may disagree with that. Those viewers will be most concerned with how HBO’s decision to make “The Time Traveler’s Wife” a continuing series affects the storytelling. There are moments in the show that point toward an eventual ending in line with the book, but in the meantime there are major plot elements that are barely arrived at or remain entirely absent.
Will Moffat get to finish telling his version of the story? Only Henry knows for sure.
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