On The Time Traveler’s Wife: The Television Series

Last year, some noise was made about a television series based on The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel about a couple, Henry and Claire, who live a very strange life — he travels through time at random, living his life out of sequence, while she lives on the slow path, moving into the future at the rate of twenty-four hours each day.

(Doctor Who ref. Sorry. Can’t be helped.)

And because everything comes up at TrekBBS, I weighed in on how to translate the novel to a weekly television series:

The great problem in translating The Time Traveler’s Wife to television is that the novel is reactive. The characters in the story aren’t actors, they don’t have agency to do anything to alter their lives or their fate, and so they don’t. Henry and Claire are passive characters who react to events because they feel that they are powerless to do anything except accept what happens to them. I deliberately use the word “feel” in the preceding sentence, because the novel doesn’t address whether or not events are, in fact, predestined; Henry worries at one point that time has been altered, but when he discovers that things are not, in fact, altered, this discovery confirms what he’s always believed, that time cannot be altered.

Any TTW television series would have to address the agency question head on, and the question of “predestination versus free will” would be a powerful dramatic engine for the series. Television audiences aren’t exactly going to be receptive week after week to tune in and see Henry and Claire of different ages talking about their feelings, because there’s no drama inherent in that. That works in a book, where these scenes create mood and tension, but on screen they would be deadly dull and the show would be heading for a quick cancellation.

The series would also need an antagonist. The vicissitudes of fate isn’t sufficient, because it’s too abstract. There are several possibilities. An “evil Leaper,” since we’re told in the novel that Henry and later his daughter aren’t the only Chronally Displaced Persons; perhaps in his travels Henry crosses paths with someone else who is also displaced in time, only this person is a bit amoral. Or a determined police officer, who tries to establish who this mysterious naked man is that shows up at random and vanishes at random; over the course of the series, he attempts to pin several of Henry’s CDP burglaries on “present” Henry.

Finally, a television series would need, like all good genre television series today have, a story arc across the season.

The obvious story arc? Henry attempting to prevent his own death, the accidental shooting by Claire’s brother. That wouldn’t be difficult to structure across thirteen episodes; the question is whether or not it would be worth doing. Obviously, it violates the book massively, but it would also have undeniable dramatic appeal, which a television series requires.

A less obvious story arc? Henry attempting to control his chronal displacement. Perhaps he tries meditative techniques. Perhaps he tries experimental drug therapies. (And I know who I’d cast as Henry’s doctor — Andre Braugher. That’s who I pictured when I read the book.) Perhaps Henry even tries to find a way to make his leaps into the past more directed, eliminating the random element. Again, it’s contra the book, but this is a development that a television audience would probably expect.

If you can’t tell, I’ve given this a fair bit of thought. I’d also make Henry and Claire’s daughter more central, and I think that, in an early episode, I would want a scene where the young Henry, when he doesn’t quite understand what happens to him, displaces into the future and meets Claire as she is in her mid-thirties. (I feel like that’s in the book, but I don’t think it is.) Beyond that, I’m not really picky.

The television series is going to be a variation on the theme, because to work as a television series it’s going to need to be altered; things that work on the page won’t work on screen, and audience expectations over a long haul, as a television series has the potential to be, are going to be vastly different. A TTW television series is not going to be the emotional tone poem of the book, and for people who don’t (or won’t) like the changes a television series will make to the source material, the source material is still going to exist. Just pull the book down off the shelf and read it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *