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Monday, August 17, 2009

Inconstant Man, or, Have Birthday Suit, Will Time Travel: A Review of The Time Traveler's Wife

by Gary Westfahl

When a man is sitting in a predominantly female audience and watching a preview of the latest Hugh Grant movie, he has to realize that he does not represent the target audience for the upcoming film. Other clues would include the very title of the film, The Time Traveler's Wife, and the fact that it is based upon a book written by a woman and was adapted for the screen by Bruce Joel Rubin, best known for crafting the ectoplasmic tearjerker Ghost (1990).

Still, all of the husbands and boyfriends who are dragged into theatres by their significant others (including same-sex partners with a fondness for romantic films) will probably find themselves enjoying the film instead of, as is more typical, periodically checking their watches. For Rubin has not only remained faithful to, and efficiently streamlined, Audrey Niffenegger's sprawling novel, but he also, thankfully, has dampened its romance-novel ambience: the wife, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), is here less idealized and saintlike in her infinite patience with her wayward spouse, and the husband, Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana), is more grounded than the novel's hapless lost soul in desperate need of a woman's steadfast love and wise nurturing. And although the focus of the film remains the conventional chick-flick scenario — a man and a woman who seem like complete opposites nonetheless fall in love and forge a successful relationship — there is an interesting idea or two lurking in its bowels, for those who care to ferret them out.

The premise of the story is that DeTamble, since childhood, keeps spontaneously leaping forward or backward in time, usually to familiar places during his lifespan, leading to various complications due to his sudden absences at inopportune moments, his stark-naked appearances in the past and future, and his frantic efforts to find clothes and escape capture or violence while he waits to be returned to the present. The novel and film deploy variant gobbledygook to explain all of this as the result of a strange genetic disorder, but it is just as well that their explanatory efforts are minimal, for this is unquestionably a vision of time travel derived not from pondering physicists' equations but from watching Hollywood movies. (For example, Niffenegger's conceit that a time traveler would necessarily arrive naked is obviously lifted from The Terminator [1984] and its sequels.) The novelist's intent, manifestly, was to have DeTamble's time-traveling function as a literalization of the problem that wives habitually confront: seemingly attractive husbands who constantly feel compelled to keep drifting away, physically or mentally, from their virtuous spouses. Thus, one wife I know whose husband regularly vanishes from the family room to work on his computer or watch some wretched science fiction movie can undoubtedly relate to Clare's plight. In this respect, The Time Traveler's Wife recalls another recent movie that employs a man's time-related idiosyncracy as a metaphor for what's wrong with men, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) (review here). (Interestingly, Brad Pitt was originally envisioned as this film's protagonist and earned a credit as an executive producer; perhaps he opted out to avoid successive appearances in overly similar films.)

Since Henry's habits clearly make him an unsuitable husband, and since Clare still marries him despite knowing full well about his egregious flaws, the question to confront is: why do women keep choosing the wrong man, and why do men keep growing up to become the wrong man? Niffenegger's answer would appear to be — bad parenting, which engenders children who make bad choices. That is, after Henry's mother Annette (Michelle Nolden) dies in a car accident witnessed by Henry when he is five, his father Richard (Arliss Howard) becomes a distant, insensitive alcoholic whom he comes to despise, while Clare's mother Lucille (Fiona Reid) is cruel to her daughter, mentally ill, and sometimes suicidal. This is one aspect of the novel that the film softens: Philip is observed drinking his life away in one scene, but he promptly sobers up, shaves, and becomes a nice guy for the duration of the film, and Lucille is barely glimpsed and her issues are never discussed.

These are particular examples of a general pattern in the film that might disappoint readers of Niffenegger's novel, though it may have been unavoidable, given the disparate demands of novels and films. In novels, writers have the time to include and fully develop any number of intriguing secondary characters; in adapting novels as films, screenwriters are often obliged to focus their attention on the protagonists and either eliminate other characters or reduce them to bland figures in the background. So, while the Abshires' African-American servants and Philip's supportive Korean-American landlady Mrs. Kim may have been left out of the film because they seemed too much like racial stereotypes, their presence would have contributed greater diversity to the film's predominantly Anglo-American cast (the only exception being Jane McLean, a Canadian born in the Philippines who plays Clare's friend Charisse). Also absent from the film are Henry's depressed ex-girlfriend Ingrid, her new lesbian girlfriend Celia, and Henry's colleagues at the library where he works, who attribute his habit of vanishing and reappearing naked to compulsive exhibitionism. And the novel's version of Charisse's husband Gomez (Ron Livingston) is a delightful eccentric who makes witty remarks, spouts facetious Marxist rhetoric, moves from his career as a lawyer to an elected position as a city alderman, and is secretly in love with Clare — none of which surfaces in the movie, making the film's Gomez a dishearteningly colorless character.

The truncation and homogenization of Niffenegger's supporting cast may account for another aspect of the film that left me dissatisfied. For filmgoers of a certain age, one of the pleasures of watching contemporary films is seeing stars from their younger days show up in supporting roles; thus, when my wife dragged me into the theatre to watch Four Christmases (2008), I could at least enjoy Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Jon Voight effortlessly stealing the spotlight from stars Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon as their dysfunctional parents. Yet in The Time Traveler's Wife, all of the smaller parts are played by actors that most people have never heard of. Were the producers pinching pennies, or were they simply unable to attract more prominent performers to roles that essentially gave them nothing to do?

Other aspects of the novel's texture were lost in translation to film. Niffenegger draws upon her own experience as an art professor to offer interesting specifics about Clare's artworks, which include paper sculpture and kinetic sculpture, and there are details about Henry's job as a librarian in the Special Collections section of the Newberry Library. However, the art produced by the film's Clare is virtually unseen, and there is only one brief scene of Henry in the library. And a recurring source of minor conflicts in the novel is that Henry loves punk rock while Clare prefers more mainstream fare; the film's barely discernible vestiges of this theme are a scene in which Henry's friend Gomez is seen exiting a Pavement concert and the fact that the song played for Henry and Clare's wedding dance is a slow version of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (a peculiar choice, one would think, for a wedding anthem, but the song's relevance to the film's situation cannot be denied, as its lyrics reference lovers "taking different roads" and a man with "timing that flawed" and "failings exposed"). In these changes, Rubin's concern was not so much efficiency as another characteristic difference between novels and films: novelists are regularly encouraged to particularize their characters as much as possible, while screenwriters wish to make their characters broadly appealing. In this case, Rubin might have feared that some filmgoers would be less inclined to like Henry if they were overly aware of his intelligence and capabilities as a research librarian or his unusual musical proclivities.

As another difference between novels and films that works to this film's disadvantage, the experience of reading about something can be utterly unlike the experience of actually watching something. In both novel and film, the adult Henry regularly visits Clare between the ages of six and eighteen to provide friendship and guidance, and in the novel, all of this seems innocent and admirable enough. However, when one actually watches an adult stranger approach an unaccompanied child and start to befriend her, it is bound to be disturbing to modern audiences. This is particularly true in the scene when Henry vanishes on his wedding night, with the wedding ring left on the bed functioning as a telling symbol of the unfaithfulness that his disappearances represent. And where does he go? To visit with Clare as a small child. In his actions, then, Henry expresses a preference for the company of a little girl to the company of an adult sexual partner — which could be said to represent both the lingering immaturity of the typical adult male and something much creepier about his true character.

To explain what might interest viewers of this film who are not enamored of romantic dramas, I must discuss something that might be regarded as a "spoiler": the fact that Henry and Clare eventually have a daughter, Alba (portrayed at the age of five and ten, respectively, by real-life sisters Tatum McCann and Hailey McCann), who inherits her father's ability to travel through time. But even at a young age, Alba seems to be better at time-traveling than her father. For one thing, although the film does not make this explicit, she has apparently figured out how to take her clothes along during temporal journeys, for in contrast to the ill-fitting or incongruous clothes that Henry is often forced to don, the time-traveling Alba always appears to be wearing her own, perfectly-sized clothing. And we are told that she, unlike Henry, is learning how to control when she travels through time and where she goes; for example, she tells Henry that she can stop herself from involuntarily time-traveling by singing, but Henry finds that he cannot use the same trick, telling her that "I can't sing." Finally, while Henry displays no interest in the plight of his younger self until, as an adult, he briefly shows up at the scene of the fatal accident to comfort the young Henry, Alba as a ten-year-old displays preternatural maturity in already going back to see her five-year-old self in order to help her deal with an impending tragedy.

If we accept the time-traveling Henry as an embodiment of the ways that men have typically acted in the past, then, Alba might be regarded as an embodiment of the ways that women will typically act in the future. That is, as women adapt to the freedom of having careers once reserved for men, they will also be free to be wayward, inconstant wives who force patient husbands to endure their periodic absences; yet Alba suggests that they will do so in a manner that is more controlled and more sensitive to their spouses. As the child of Henry and Clare, Alba seems to be developing an approach to time-traveling that combines the stereotypically male restlessness of Henry (which, after all, can be regarded as a virtue as well as a flaw) and the stereotypically female constancy of Clare (which after, all, can be regarded as a flaw as well as a virtue). Thus, it might be worthwhile for either Niffenegger or the film's producers to explore the possibility of a sequel, The Time Traveler's Husband, which would feature the adult Alba coping with her own relationship problems, perhaps with periodic visits from her time-traveling father. (As it happens, Googling turns up an obscure novel with that title, but it appears to be an inconsequential time-travel romance.)

There is another possible direction for a sequel, hinted at in the novel, which is unlikely to interest either Niffenegger or the film's producers. In the novel, Henry's medical consultant Dr. Kendrick (played by Stephen Tobolowsky in the film) discovers the genetic cause of his condition and, by transplanting genes, is able to breed some time-traveling mice. The implication is that other people might naturally share Henry's abnormality or that, through genetic engineering, more and more people might come to possess his abilities. What would it be like, then, to live in a society in which many people are routinely jumping into the past or the future? However, writers with little experience in science fiction will generally prefer to deal with scientific innovations as temporary irruptions in an ultimately maintained status quo, while science fiction writers will, more creatively and realistically, generally seek to explore how scientific innovations will permanently disrupt the status quo. Hence, we observe in this film, as in other films, a time traveler here and a time traveler there, but we rarely if ever observe an entire society of time travelers.

I feel compelled to comment on one minor aspect of the film, unrelated to anything else discussed here, which I found to be utterly stunning. Without saying too much about later scenes in the film, I will note that we briefly see a stag standing in a snowy forest and then running away. It looked completely realistic to me, but buried in the film's credits is an acknowledgment of the company that created the "computer generated stag." That is also why the film's credits lack the standard comment that no animals were harmed in the making of the film — because no animals were used in the making of the film. Truly, we are rapidly approaching the time when advances in computer technology will make both animal and human performers unnecessary. The release of The Time Traveler's Wife was delayed for almost a year because, after shooting the film, Eric Bana shaved his head to appear in Star Trek (2009) (review here), and when some reshooting was deemed necessary, producers had to wait until his hair grew back. In a few years, filmmakers would surely deal with such a problem by creating a computer-generated Bana to appear in the added scenes, or by filming a bald Bana and adding some computer-generated hair.

Granted, some people may be disheartened by the notion that living performers may someday be replaced by computer-generated images, but science marches on, and society marches on, and it is pointless to reject scientific advances and social advances, including the fact that the tropes of science fiction are now being reduced to premises for character-driven romantic dramas. As another way to interpret Henry's situation, it is clear in both novel and film that he mostly travels into his past, instead of the future, suggesting that his problem might be characterized as an unhealthy attachment to the past and an unwillingness to adjust to the realities of the present. To avoid being like Henry, then, men everywhere should happily roll with the flow and allow their wives and significant others to drag them into theatres to see The Time Traveler's Wife — because, at some later moment, they can always, in the manner of their gender, contrive to vanish from sight and obtain some intellectual stimulation from the idea of time travel by reading a science fiction novel.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger

Starring Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Arliss Howard, Ron Livingston, Jane McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky, Philip Craig, Michelle Nolden, Fiona Reid, Hailey McCann, and Tatum McCann

Official Website: The Time Traverler's Wife

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