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Let's (Not) Do the Time Warp Again!

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 14, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 14, 2009 |

It’s amazing, the power of a good novel. The way it can suck you in. The way it can block out everything around you and bring you into another world. Put you smack dab in the middle of a war. In a distant meadow. At a baseball game that happened 40 years ago. Or into a magical, levitating, life-affirming kiss. And then you reach the end of a chapter, pull the book away, and realize you’re just lying on your bed holding a book of words - of articles, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and punctuation marks. Just a 300 page series of words, strung together in just the right way that you have been transported.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife was one of those amazing novels (it made our list of the Generation’s Best Novels) that sent you out of your chair and into a melancholic love affair, witness to one of modern literature’s most heartfelt romances. Robert Schwentke’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, on the other hand, is the cinematic equivalent of so many words on a page. A series of scenes stitched together by scores of hands, robbed of the effective qualities that made Audrey Niffenegger’s novel so compelling. To the extent that the film works for a reader of the book, it’s only to trigger memories, to remind you of what you loved about it, and to provide a few new faces for your mind’s version of events.

Indeed, Schwentke’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is but a highlight reel of the novel, a Cliff’s note version, stripped of the lingering melancholia, seemingly rushed together with maximum focus on the book’s dramatic plot turns, and minimum regard for its pace and tone. Despite the strong casting choices, almost none of the book’s magic translates onto the big screen. In fact, without the context of the novel, I’d venture that the movie is even less effective: It provides little exposition, almost no explanation of what’s going on, and highlights the book’s many logical inconsistencies. To the novel’s immense credit, it was so absorbing that the pages turned to quickly enough that there wasn’t much time to contemplate those inconsistencies. But they are glaring here.

If you’re at all familiar with the tropes of time travel movies or if you’ve spent much time with Doctor Who, you understand that the one sin in the genre is that you never mess with your own personal timeline. Back to the Future, obviously, revolved around that sin, and Marty McFly spent most of the movie trying to put his back together. The Time Traveler’s Wife dances in the convention’s meadow: What if you could only travel back and forth in your own personal timeline, but you were hopeless to alter the events within? When Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) was a young boy, his mother died in a tragic car accident, and though for the remainder of his life, Henry would travel back in time to that accident hundreds of times, he’d never be able to alter those events. Not for lack of effort, but because it was fated to happen, and Henry’s genetic disorder — which caused him to travel back and forth through his own timeline involuntarily — never placed him in a position to alter the events.

However, the central love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife seems almost in direct contradiction to this conceit: As a man in his late 30s, Henry travels back in time to meet his wife, Claire (Rachel McAdams), when she’s only a child. In the process, young Claire becomes smitten with the older Henry, so that by the time their real timelines intersect, Claire is already in love with a man that doesn’t yet know she exists (because his present self hasn’t yet traveled back in time to meet her). Future Henry manipulated past Claire into their present relationship. It’s a circular chicken-egg predicament, and while it somehow works in the novel, it fails to pass muster in the movie.

Still, even if you could put aside the time-travel inconsistency and just give into its premise, this ineptThe Time Traveler’s Wife adaptation still falls flat. After Henry and Claire are married in the present, Henry disappears for weeks at a time (traveling back to the past, where he’s often with a younger Claire), which puts a certain strain on their marriage, although it never feels genuine when huge swaths of time take place between scenes. The film completely fails to capture the prolonged loneliness that Claire experiences so poignantly in the book. Perhaps due to cinematic necessity, we follow Henry’s life mostly out of chronological order, but it’s often very difficult to tell which Henry we are seeing — Henry from the past, present, or future — because aside from a slightly longer mane or a few grey hairs, Henry looks the same. Without the contextual cues from the novel, I can only imagine how lost movie viewers who have never read the book might get.

The central conflict in The Time Traveler’s Wife is Claire’s desire to have a baby despite numerous miscarriages that occur when her fetuses, marred with the same genetic, time-traveling abnormality as their father, transport out of her womb and die. Even within the movie’s conceit, this sounds preposterous, but like all the characters in the movie — who never question the logic of what’s going on — we’re supposed to just go with it. Robert Schwentke basically begs his audience not to question the logic or take issue with the implausible the plot, but he’s not a strong enough filmmaker, and he’s not working from a good enough script (from Ghost’s Bruce Joel Rubin) to tap into our suspension of disbelief as Niffenegger did.

It’s not either Bana or McAdams’ fault, however. They are more than serviceable, and The Time Traveler’s Wife fails despite their best efforts. Schwentke never spends enough time in any timeframe of the characters lives for us to get comfortable with them before they’re racing off to pay lip service to another of the novel’s plot points. To his credit, however, after whizzing through 90 percent of the novel in the first hour plus, Schwentke finally does settle comfortably into the question that plagues the audience nearly from the beginning: Why don’t we ever see an older version of Henry? Why does his timeline seem to stop in his early 40s?

And despite all the missteps, the terrible pacing, and the lapses in logic, Schwentke does manage to get a decent head of steam toward the end of the film. But

slight spoilers

that son of a bitch fritters it all away in the last five minutes. By now you probably know that Schwentke changed the novel’s ending,and he did so in perhaps the worst possible way. It’s not the happy, feel-good ending you’d expect to come out of test audience screenings, nor is it the dark, gut wrenching, wistful ending of the novel, either. It’s somewhere in the middle. It’s weak sauce. A tepid nod to no one, not the slavering masses who want the ride off into the sunset or the Niffenegger faithful who want to leave the theater drenched in their own tears. Motherfucker: We go into a tearjerker expecting tears to be yanked from our eyes and sprayed on the seat in front of us. If we’re going into The Time Traveler’s Wife, we want to be manipulated. . I’m not saying we should be proud of it, but goddamnit, anybody who steps into The Time Traveler’s Wife wants a four-hankie weepie, not this listless moist-toilette horseshit. And this may be Schwentke’s worst sin: He doesn’t manipulate the viewer enough. He grabs hold of our heartstrings, but instead of playing them like a harp at a heavy metal concert, he gives them a light strum and walks off the stage, depriving us of wet sleeves, snotty noses, and embarrassed looks. You won’t walk out of The Time Traveler’s Wife sad, you’ll walk out confused, dry-cheeked and disappointed.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.