Whenever I see a reboot or revival of a beloved intellectual property, the first thing I ask myself, or anyone within earshot of me, which is usually my husband, is, “Does this thing need to exist?” Sometimes the answer is yes, like with the critically acclaimed reinterpretation of High Fidelity. Other times, the answer is no, as with the disastrous Sex in the City sequel, And Just Like That. So, do we need a remake of The Time Traveler’s Wife? Not necessarily. However, it is fair to say the television version is a vast improvement from the 2009 feature film adaptation, which starred Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana as the star-crossed lovers Clare and Henry.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is a solid romantic sci-fi drama. Steven Moffat’s attention to detail and Rose Leslie’s performance elevate the HBO series. Yet, the series falters due to its lack of chemistry between the leads, inability to cast more actors of color, and puzzling choice to keep some of the romance’s more problematic elements.
Based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife follows Henry (Theo James), a young time traveler who falls in love with Clare (Leslie), a college art student from Chicago. The pilot episode begins with an older version of Henry and Clare as they explain to an unnamed documentarian how they first met. Technically speaking, Clare meets a 36-year-old version of Henry in a field behind her house when she is six-year-olds, but their true meet-cute begins when Clare, now 20, runs into Henry, now 28 and a librarian, at the renowned Newberry Library. This faithful convergence of sorts jumpstarts the decades-long romance and adventure between a misguided time traveler and his spirited wife.
Moffat is a legendary sci-fi writer, so he knows how to ground the supernatural elements of The Time Traveler’s Wife with meticulous detail. Moffat depicts this by having Henry explain how his abilities work to a documentarian and a younger version of himself. According to the time traveler, the farthest time he can go back is to his birth; he cannot bring anything with him, including his clothes; and no matter where or when the man travels, he will always “ping” back to the present. Notably, all of “him” time travels, including his baby teeth, nail clippings, and pools of blood. These rules are essential as it gives Henry and, by extension the audience, a playbook on how the first season will work out.
Another improvement in the television series is Leslie’s role as Clare. The actor’s performance is more dimensional than Rachel McAdams’s take on the character. Leslie possesses a level of forwardness that McAdams did not tap into for the movie. In this rendition of the story, Clare does not take Henry’s tomfoolery lightly.
After having sex with Henry in his apartment, 20-year-old Clare finds out that her lover, now 28, has a girlfriend by finding her bra and silk robe in his bathroom. Chaos ensues. The couple argues. Henry calls her cray. As a result, Clare throws her high-heeled shoe at him, which inadvertently falls out the window and hits a 34-year-old version of Henry (yeah, the show gets weird). This characterization of Clare works as it shows the woman holding her future husband accountable for his actions instead of letting him do whatever he wants to, like in the movie.
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Clare and Henry flounders till the last five minutes of the pilot. Though Leslie gives a riveting performance as Clare, James barely holds his own against his romantic lead. The leading man’s take on Henry is much more charming and livelier than the previous iteration of the character—his meeting with the younger version of himself at the Field Museum is hella charming. However, the attraction between the two leads does not quite click as the pilot spends more time explaining Henry’s powers than on why we need to care about the couple. It is not until the last few minutes of the pilot that the relationship blossoms.
In one of the scenes, Henry, now 36, returns home to his wife Clare after traveling to meet the twentysomething-year-old versions of himself and his partner. As the time traveler crawls into bed, his wife wakes up and says, “When were you?” Ever the tentative husband, Henry places her hand on his forehead. Then, while rubbing her lover’s scar, it slowly dawns on Clare where and when he was. Feeling guilty about throwing her shoe at him when she was 20, Clare apologizes. Now wise and mature, Henry responds, “Well, it’s about time.”
This intimate scene is a master class in both acting and direction as it shows, not tells, how much Henry and Clare love each other. It is honestly one of the few scenes in the pilot that sells the couple’s romance. Hopefully, Moffat and his team will have more moments like this in the later episodes, which move past exposition and into character development.
Sadly, Moffat does not use the opportunity to address some of the franchise’s more problematic areas, particularly Henry’s first meeting with Clare as a child. Moffat and company can undoubtedly defend their choice of sticking to the source material however they want, but watching a grown man interact with the future version of his wife as a child is just plain weird. It may be more interesting—and less cringy—if the showrunner has young Clare meet the younger version of Henry since he starts gaining his powers at seven. But in place of doing that, the only thing Moffat does to address the controversy is that he uses a throwaway line about grooming.
It is also unfortunate that Moffat does not cast actors from diverse backgrounds as the leads of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Though it is nice that he put more people of color in the foreground, the series is still not doing enough to move past being a “pretty white people romance.” Of course, the film only features white people, as most romances from the early aughts do. However, there is no excuse for not casting actors of color as the leads since we are living in the age of Bridgerton and Love, Victor. Casting a Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or Asian actor on an HBO romantic sci-fi drama may encourage more viewers to watch the series, stream the movie, or read the book. Instead, Moffat picks a lovely white couple like he is running the show on the Hallmark Channel.
Moffat does an admirable job adapting Niffenegger’s work for a new audience. Still, he drops the ball in some areas, mainly by keeping some of the story’s problematic plot elements and not doing enough to diversify the series. The romantic sci-fi drama may be a massive improvement from the feature film, but it does not quite justify its existence. With that said, it is not the worst reboot on television. That award goes to And Just Like That.