Thinking about The Time Traveler's Wife





I hear that HBO’s Time Traveler’s Wife series was a dud and has been cancelled. Ironically, I recently plucked Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel from a neighborhood “little library,” read it, and then watched the 2009 movie adaptation. I don’t get HBO, but it doesn’t surprise me that it bombed or that the 2009 movie, though watchable, was on the lame side of the ledger. Put simply, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a tough book to adapt for platforms that require tamer, more saccharine material.


Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five? It contains a killer line: “Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time.” That’s the premise of The Time Traveler’s Wife. It protagonist is Henry DeTamble, who works at Chicago’s Newberry Library. He suffers from Chrono-Impairment, a genetic flaw that causes him to time travel against his will. It’s not only inconvenient; it’s dangerous. When Henry time travels, his clothing does not–not even his underwear. Imagine being 36, thrust into a summertime meadow, and encounter a six-year-old girl, Clare Abshire, who will become your future wife. (He’s only eight years older when they wed decades later.) Even worse, imagine being jerked from the present to a snowy bad Chicago neighborhood naked as a jay bird. Henry never knows when it will happen, who he will encounter, what age he will be at his new destination, or when he will return to the Newberry or his apartment, also naked. To survive, Henry becomes an adroit thief, pickpocket, and street brawler.


At 546 pages, Niffenegger’s novel was hefty, though highly entertaining and populated with meaningful characters, among them: friends Gomez and Charisse; Dr. Kendrick, a geneticist who tries to help Henry; Henry’s father, Richard, once a concert violinist; and Henry’s mother, Annette, an operatic singer who died in a car crash when Henry was a child. Henry can’t change the past, but he has visited his mother and seen her die time and time again. At heart, though, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance, the eventual coming together of Henry and Clare. Henry time travels, but does this relationship have a future?


Time travel books are hard to film. Do you make a romance, a science fiction offering, or try to emphasize both aspects? Most opt for the last of these, but it can be problematic to strike the correct balance. This is especially true for The Time Traveler’s Wife; its time travel elements notwithstanding, Niffenegger seeks levels of verisimilitude. The best time travel movies are fantasies, like the movie version of Jack Finney’s Time After Time in which Jack the Ripper appropriates H. G. Wells’ time machine and Wells pursues him in 1970s San Francisco, in his tweeds of course!


The Time Traveler’s Wife is cut from different cloth. Henry is whip smart, but he’s also a rogue. The is a lot of sex in the novel and, before marrying Clare, Henry was a horndog. To survive, he is also violent; Gomez, who knows about Henry’s Chromo-impairment, sees a younger Henry out of time brutally beating a man he is robbing. The novel is fueled by the punk scene, intellectual conversations, and dark real-life problems such as Clare’s five miscarriages. There are also some very sweet moments.


Guess which elements show up on the screen?  (There’s also a musical of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I will steer well clear of that!) The 2009 movie cast Rachel McAdams as Clare. She was perfectly fine, but all her edges and sex drive are smoothed out. Similarly, Eric Bana was Henry with his inner bad boy sliced away. This makes Henry’s time travel and disappearances more of a studio trick than the very essence of the story.


In short, The Time Traveler’s Wife in book form places Henry in a lot of peril in between its uplifting moments; the movie reverses the equation. The novel is also told from differing perspectives and that too is difficult to do on film. After all, a 107-minute movie doesn’t have the time to show multiple perspectives or different voices. The movie isn’t bad, but it’s like an expurgated Reader’s Digest version of the narrative.


I get the allure of adapting novels for stage and film. How many novelists get a chance to make big money? If, though, you want to do a deep dive into characters and circumstances, read The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s always time for fluff later.


Rob Weir


Lessons Beautifully Written but Discursive



LESSONS (2022)

By Ian McEwan

Alfred A. Knopf, 438 pages.





Ian McEwan is a superb writer, yet Lessons too often reads like he’s writing to dazzle rather than being faithful to the story. It is, though, a whale of a story. Roland Baines is a dilettante who has held a series of dead-end jobs, all of which were a come down for someone once pegged a brilliant pianist. 


Roland has abandonment issues and deep insecurities around women. His mother split when he was a child and left him to the non-affectionate care of his military father, Robert (“The Major”). But this was nothing compared to what Roland experienced from his private school piano teacher, Miriam. She sexually fondled him when he was 11, and became her private student/lover/sex slave at age 14. (She was 26.) Miriam kept him in pajamas and wouldn’t allow him to play the music he really loved: jazz. Roland eventually gave up his concert pianist plans and dropped out of school.


Things never seem to go right for the passive Roland. At one point he realizes that he “has never made an important decision,” other than quitting school. This sprawling novel takes us from the 1940s, through the Thatcher years, and into the 21st century. Roland is fluent in German and acquires a younger wife, Alissa, whom he met during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everything seems to fill him with regret or go south. He had friends in East Germany whose fate is unknown and you can imagine how disgusted he, a democratic socialist, was with Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Brexit. Alissa abandons him as well; though he’s sure she’s in Germany, local police think he may have killed her. He will even get the shaft two times over from a former bandmate who was once his best friend. About the beat that can be said that Roland is a pretty good dad to his son Lawrence.


Alissa is indeed in Germany, where she establishes herself as an important feminist writer and makes it known that she wants no relationship with Roland or Lawrence. When Roland finally finds love late in life, she dies, and there is a battle royal over who owns her ashes. It’s not a pretty portrait. Roland is 70, has lost his second wife and his brother, has no savings, and is living on a meagre state pension. He’s not jealous of Alissa’s success–he even edits her books–but she grows into an embittered narcissist with health issues and is not the sort who can be grateful.


Get the picture? Maybe not. There’s a lot going on in Lessons and, frankly, it’s often too much. Not only are there a lot of characters, there are also loads of themes. McEwan raises questions about abuse, for instance. If you’ve ever seen any of Michael Apted’s brilliant 7 Up documentaries you will recall that he said that if you give him a boy at the age of seven, “I will give you the man.” The age might be debatable, but imagine the obstacles faced by a child abandoned by his mother and sexually abused. Yeah, he might find it hard to get his life together.


McEwan also gives us a look at repeating patterns of desertion, rejection, family scandals, and things that can be forgiven and not. McEwan’s use of a male sexual abuse victim is a gusty device in the age of #MeToo, but a needed reminder that no one holds a monopoly on trauma. Though some might bristle, McEwan was also bold to cast women as the irresponsible actors in his novel. Alissa is especially unlikable; she’s driven, but her feminism is cold-hearted and shrill.


McEwan is a literary stylist, but this does not always serve him well. Too many beautifully written passages are discursive asides that break the narrative flow. He wants to get us inside of Roland’s psyche, but I’m not sure this works in a novel that spans eight decades of his protagonist and detours even deeper into the past. Much of the novel is episodic, appropriate for Roland’s rolling stone nature, but it also splashes in the shallows where plumbing the depths is in order. The ironically names Lessons (Roland has trouble learning them!) is impressive. It is a good novel? About half, in my estimation.


Rob Weir


Safety Last! is Iconic for a Reason



Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Pathé Exchange, 73 minutes, Not-rated.





Even if you know little about silent movies, chances are good you’ve seen a still from Safety Last! of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clockface 12 storeys above Los Angeles. A hundred years later and all manner of f/x notwithstanding, it is one of the most dazzling scenes in cinema history. 




Safety Last! is a Hal Roach comedy. Roach was the mastermind behind Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang, though he specialized in romantic comedies. Because there was no dialogue other than what was printed on intertitles, silent film scripts are pared to the bone. Neither Lloyd nor his love interest, Mildred Davis, have names; he is The Boy and she The Girl. Lloyd is a bit of a braggart who exaggerates his job to impress his girlfriend. She thinks he’s a manager of some sort; he’s actually a clerk who is bullied by the store floorwalker. (That job is almost extinct. It’s a person who supervises the sales staff on behalf of upper management.)


Lloyd’s bragging gets him into trouble on another level. He has a good friend in the police department he has known for years and the two like to prank each other. When Lloyd runs into another friend, a steeplejack named “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother), Lloyd convinces Bill to give the cop on the corner a kick in the pants. Problem! It’s not Lloyd’s friend. The enraged policeman chases Bill all over town–being chased by cops was a staple of silent movies–and gets away, but the policeman vows he’ll find Bill and arrest him.


The Boy (Lloyd) realizes that if wants to hold onto The Girl he needs to come up with some serious money. When he hears that his department store is offering a $1,000 prize–overly $14,000 today and a small fortune in the 1920s–for the best idea to attract people to the building, he hatches a harebrained scheme. He asks Bill to scale the outside of the building to the roof, all 12 storeys of it. The ultimate plan is that Bill, dressed as The Boy, will climb to the roof and Lloyd will pop out and take credit for the ascension.


Things go wrong from the start. As Bill prepares for his climb, he is spotted by the cop he booted. He has just enough time to tell Lloyd he will have to start the climb himself and that he’ll meet him at a window on the first level and trade places with him. Tell that to the cop who observes Bill entering the building. As you would anticipate, each time Bill shows up on a floor to take Lloyd’s place, the policeman shows up to chase Bill. I guess the moral of this tale is that people will do strange things for love. Lloyd does the entire perilous climb, one made even more difficult by his own ineptitude. Several times, including the famous clock sequence, Lloyd is nearly knocked down to a certain death, but manages to stagger to safety. The people on the ground are enthralled; they believe everything they see is part of a choreographed act.


The use of long shots makes for a really tense sequence. It was all the more so if you know that Lloyd did his own stunt work. I was biting my nails wondering how he had the moxie to attempt such thing. After Lloyd’s death, his stunt coach revealed a key part of the illusion. Buildings of varying heights were used and each time a façade was constructed to mirror that of the department store. It was still a difficult accomplishment, but Lloyd was probably not in mortal danger. (Of course, someone could die just as easily falling from one or two floors as twelve.)


I was gobsmacked when I found out about the trick, because the matching in the movie is so good that there are no visual clues that Lloyd isn’t climbing a very tall building. It remains a remarkable achievement and one that earned its iconic status. I highly recommend that you watch Safety Last! to appreciate what can be done via fortitude and cleverness outside of the digital world. You probably won’t be enraptured by the narrative, but the climb—oh, my goodness!


Rob Weir