How HBO’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ is different from the book

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Massive spoilers ahead, as well as triggering content.

Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife has been adapted to the screen twice: as a film in 2009, and now as a TV series on HBO.

The story of The Time Traveler’s Wife — a science-fiction romance spanning decades — is extremely tricky to adapt. Clare Abshire (Rose Leslie) meets her future husband Henry DeTamble (Theo James) when he has involuntarily traveled back in time, at which point she is 6 and he’s 36. The novel tells the story of their relationship out of chronological order, including their first meeting in the “present” and their marriage.

As with any adaptation, screenwriter Steven Moffat’s new version of The Time Traveler’s Wife has to make some adjustments. But which ones work, and which ones fall flat? Here are all the biggest changes from the novel. Beware: the list includes spoilers for the show and the books.

A new framing device

Right off the bat, the first episode of The Time Traveler’s Wife hits us with a structural change. The series opens with Henry and Clare recording videos of themselves speaking directly to camera about their relationship to time travel. This framing device isn’t in the novel, but Moffat uses this direct address in order to lift some prose directly from Niffenegger’s novel, specifically from the prologue. Why are they making videos? Who are they speaking to? Only time will tell.

We’re updating this whole story

The TV version of The Time Traveler’s Wife takes place from the 1990s to the present day, whereas the novel takes place from the 1960s to the early 2000s. This decision is likely to make the story feel more relevant, but it will be interesting to see how (and if) more modern technology impacts the story.

The fight about Ingrid

A man and a woman sitting at a table in a restaurant.

This first date ends up very differently in the book.
Credit: Macall Polay

Definitely the biggest change between the book and the show in the first episode is Clare’s reaction to finding out Henry has a girlfriend, named Ingrid (Chelsea Frei). Clare finds Ingrid’s toiletries in Henry’s bathroom and fights with him, calling him an asshole and storming out of his apartment. Only an intervention from Henry’s older self makes Clare consider seeing Henry again.

In the book, Clare’s reaction to seeing Ingrid’s stuff is a lot milder. She thinks, “Whoever you are, I’m here now. You may be Henry’s past, but I’m his future.” Henry explains the situation with Ingrid and apologizes to Clare, and that’s that. Show Clare’s reaction might be a bit more realistic than book Clare’s, but the fight also puts Henry and Clare’s relationship on a far more antagonistic path.

Henry’s baby teeth can time travel?

Moffat adds some new time travel lore to The Time Traveler’s Wife. In the show, parts of Henry’s body, such as his baby teeth, are able to time travel separately. The first episode also explores this idea with the double whammy of a time-traveling pool of blood and a time-traveling pair of detached feet. These moments, all show-only creations, foreshadow the darkest moments of Henry’s future. On the other hand, they raise some questions about what other bodily… fluids of Henry’s are just time traveling willy-nilly across the world.

Henry and Clare keep fighting

Episode 2 of The Time Traveler’s Wife features 20-year-old Clare and 28-year-old Henry still arguing about Henry being a jerk and cheating on Ingrid. They keep fighting, and Clare even tries to change the future and get away from their date. However, since the future’s already set in stone, the date goes on anyway.

While Clare and Henry begin to make up this episode — with Clare even admitting she’s been horrible to Henry, too — the choice to make them so antagonistic from the start really sours their relationship. Where’s the care for each other? Where’s the tenderness? Henry and Clare’s love story is already embroiled in discomfort given that they met when she was 6 and he was fully grown. Why make it even harder to root for them by making them both so relentlessly mean? This whole sequence just feels like Moffat mistook an argument for playful romantic banter. Sorry, it doesn’t work.

A message from the past

A woman in a glittering silver gown stands onstage under a spotlight.

Annette delivers a message to Clare in the show.
Credit: Macall Polay / HBO

The main focus of The Time Traveler’s Wife‘s second episode is showing just how much the death of Henry’s mother Annette (Kate Siegel) impacted him. We see the fateful Christmas car accident play out a few too many times if you ask me. Later, Henry watches his younger self (Jason David) try to warn his mother about the accident in a show-only scene that emphasizes how Henry is unable to change the path.

Henry and Clare’s second date culminates in a trip to the Newberry Library, where Henry plays Clare a recording of one of his mother’s performances. He asks Clare if she has anything she’d have liked to ask his mother while she was still alive, at which point Henry reveals that Annette answers Clare’s question — “How does any couple get together?” — in the old recording. Annette tells future-Clare that couples don’t get together. They get together for a short amount of time, but relationships always end. And that’s okay because it’s better to have been happy for a little while than not at all. Sweet, I guess?

While this speech is new to the show, it sets up the tragic end of Henry and Clare’s relationship and continues to play with the mechanics of time travel. It also allows two very important people in Henry’s life to interact in a way they normally couldn’t have.

The Time Traveler’s Wife makes the worst possible book-to-TV show change in Episode 3

When it comes to Episode 3 of The Time Traveler’s Wife, there are a number of small book-to-show changes I could talk about. But I only want to focus on one change, which is the incomprehensible decision to add a rape to the show that isn’t in the book.

In Niffenegger’s novel, 16-year-old Clare goes on a date with a jock named Jason. When she chooses not to have sex with him, he beats her and burns her with a cigarette. Clare enlists Henry to beat him up for her, telling him what happened, including the fact that Jason didn’t rape her. In the show, Clare tells Henry the exact same thing. However, the scene then cuts to future Clare, talking straight to camera as part of the show’s new framing device, saying, “Of course he raped me.” From that point on, the rest of the episode barely registers.

To put it mildly, this is a wildly irresponsible and disgusting adaptation decision. Jason’s assault of Clare in the books is already vile, yet the show traumatizes her further for no good reason. Depictions of rape and assault onscreen need to be handled with care. The Time Traveler’s Wife does not do that. If anything, it frames Clare’s rape as a shocking revelation and then has the audacity to make her assault about Henry, with Henry’s reaction to Clare’s injuries leading to him revealing he’s her husband in the future. The rest of the episode treats the rape, and the fact that Clare never tells Henry about it, more as background noise. However, it’s impossible to forget it, no matter how much The Time Traveler’s Wife tries to move on with business as usual.

Steven Moffat, I want to know what prompted you to make this choice. What about the source material made you think, “I should add rape to this”? Did you think it would make for more impactful television?

I can assure you, it does not. It’s jarring, it’s a slap in the face to people familiar with the novel, and it needlessly puts a character — who has already gone through a lot of pain — through even more. Of all the changes you could have made when adapting Niffenegger’s novel to the screen, this one shouldn’t have even been on your radar. It’s ridiculous that it crossed your mind, and it’s ridiculous that it made it to air.

A timey-wimey dinner party

How do you follow up an episode that begins with how deeply messed up it is to meet your much older soulmate when you’re 6 years old and ends with a mention of rape that isn’t even in the source material? With a dinner party caper, of course! Episode 4 of The Time Traveler’s Wife focuses on two timelines: the past, when Clare and Henry have sex for the first time; and the present, where two versions of Henry reveal themselves to Clare’s friends.

The dinner party sequence is new, as Gomez (Desmin Borges) and Charisse (Natasha Lopez) find out about Henry’s time traveling in a way that differs from their conversations in Niffenegger’s novel. Having two Henrys explain time travel is more fun for TV since it’s a visual medium, plus it continues to play around with the idea that Clare is more in love with older Henry than present-day Henry, which is fascinating.

Much of the dinner plays like a comedy of errors, especially with Gomez and Charisse’s stunned reactions and the arrival of Henry’s ex, Ingrid. However, it’s hard to laugh when you remember that this same show made a grave misstep in its portrayal of sexual assault just last episode — it even shows a flash of it onscreen this episode, as if we’d forget! It also gets hard to laugh when Henry effectively tells Ingrid she dies by suicide in the future. The tonal shift is abrupt, following jokes about stock tips for the future, and the rest of the episode falters along with it.

Wait, Clare and Charisse? Clare-isse?

A woman with curly hair and wearing a green long-sleeved shirt stands by a kitchen counter.

Let’s talk about Clare and Charisse’s relationship.
Credit: Barbara Nitke / HBO

While this episode follows the book’s plotline of Clare and Gomez having sex before she meets Henry in the present, the show adds a new sexual encounter between Clare and Charisse. Does The Time Traveler’s Wife explore that further, like it does with Gomez’s clear attraction towards Clare? No, no it does not.

I do think briefly pairing Charisse and Clare is an interesting choice. For almost all her life, Clare has known she would grow up to marry a man. Because her future is seemingly set in stone, she finds that she has little to no reason to date, or, for that matter, to explore her sexuality. The Clare-Charisse scene could have been a great time to delve into how she’s been locked into a heteronormative relationship since she was a child. Plus, it’s an interesting juxtaposition to Henry’s assertion that he isn’t gay after the truly wild scene when he gives his past self a blowjob. Sadly, The Time Traveler’s Wife does none of that, only having Clare dramatically whisper, “Henry” after sleeping with Charisse. Sure, fine.

A visit to Meadowlark House

Henry finally meets Clare’s family in The Time Traveler’s Wife‘s fifth episode, and, like many things in this series, it’s completely different from the book. For starters, Henry and Clare arrive at Meadowlark in the summer instead of on Christmas Eve, as they do in the novel. A change in season may not seem like the biggest difference, but Christmas is always such a fraught time for Henry because it reminds him of his mother’s death. That adds another layer of complication to the visit, as Henry is constantly trying to mitigate the stress and sadness of this time of year.

Being in winter in the book means the visit is the first time Henry sees the clearing where he and Clare meet. It’s barren and snowed-in, creating a further divide between his present self and his future self. Moffat’s adaptation constantly plays up Clare’s preference for older Henry, so a wintry introduction to the clearing would have been right at home here. Instead, the series focuses on the return to the meadow through adult Clare’s eyes, where she sees signs of industrialism and decay that tarnish her idealized version of meeting Henry when she was younger. This change may be a bit on the nose, but it’s among the more effective adaptation choices this series has made, giving Clare time to reflect on her childhood in a new way.

The Abshires themselves are also fairly different in the show. Gone is the entire subplot involving Clare’s brother Mark (Peter Graham) getting married to a woman he got pregnant. It’s replaced instead by Mark cross-examining Henry and Clare about why Henry came to dinner late covered in bruises. (The answer: He got beaten up during a quick round of time travel.) The whole scene is incredibly uncomfortable and rife with implications of domestic abuse, but it goes nowhere beyond “Mark is a smug asshole.”

A pivotal haircut

A man with long hair reads a book in a chair while resting his feet on a nearby bed. The surrounding bedroom is quite messy/

Say goodbye to these locks.
Credit: Barbara Nitke/HBO

Let’s talk about Clare’s younger sister Alicia (Taylor Richardson). When she first meets Henry in the show, she pretends to be Clare, feeling him up, talking about time travel, and swooning over him being her future husband. First of all, weird. Second of all, why? In a change from the book, the show’s Clare told Alicia about Henry so that she would stop freaking out about Clare hiding a naked man in their basement. I can accept that. What I can’t accept is Alicia’s bizarrely horny way of “teasing” Henry, which she thinks is part of her duty as Clare’s sister. This scene is played for laughs, which is a wild choice in a show that’s already made wild choices involving sex.

In other, less sexually charged news, Alicia wants to be a hairdresser now. This surprise addition to her character means that she gives Henry the haircut that transforms him from “young Henry” to “old Henry.” The book sees Henry do this the day before his wedding so he can “become the me of my future.” Here, it happens right before the “proposal” to Clare, where he commits to becoming “someone else” — essentially, his future self.

In the grand scheme of things, this change doesn’t matter that much, but Alicia’s flimsy characterization and outburst of “I’m a hairdresser” makes the upcoming haircut moment so predictable it’s funny. Whatever, anything to free Theo James from that horrendous wig.

It’s foreshadowing o’clock

In the finale of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry tries to mitigate his time travel with drugs, with disastrous results. However, instead of being sent into the past, he’s catapulted forward into the future. There, he’s treated to a Sparknotes version of the second half of Niffenegger’s novel, including Clare’s many miscarriages and what is presumably Henry’s funeral. It’s not all doom and gloom though: Henry also sees his future daughter, and the day he and Clare find their perfect home.

Although Niffenegger’s novel hints at fated tragedy throughout, this entire nightmare trip into the future is a show-only sequence. I do think this addition, including Henry’s fight with his future self, is an interesting look at what’s still to come in Henry and Clare’s lives.

However, Henry’s journey takes up so much of the episode that we end up losing Clare, both as she prepares for her wedding day and as she experiences pain in the future. We see her sadness solely through Henry’s eyes, as he watches her older self mourn something he isn’t quite aware of yet. Perhaps Moffat is saving Clare’s perspective for Season 2, but it’s baffling to me that the show would pull focus away from the time traveler’s wife in its finale. It’s the titular role!

A very angry wedding

You know what else is baffling to me? How combative Henry and Clare are throughout this entire series, and especially in the Season 1 finale. They argue about everything, from having a wedding video to what kind of silverware to buy. Then, when present Henry inevitably time travels on the big day and future Henry marries Clare instead, Clare is pissed. So is present Henry, who ends up watching the wedding video with future Clare. Seemingly everyone and their mother calls Henry an asshole.

Compare this to the book. Clare’s initial reaction to Henry time traveling is one of worry, not rage. Then, when she sees that future Henry is there instead of present Henry, she thinks, “He looks about forty. But he’s here.” Present Henry returns, then he and Clare get married at City Hall a few days later. Overall, the book’s wedding is a joyful occasion, while the show’s is extremely bitter. Again, it makes us question why we should even care about Henry and Clare when it seems like they can barely stand each other. Not even an overly cutesy wedding flash mob will fix that.

Where do we go from here?

A man and a woman embrace in a forest clearing.

What does the future hold?
Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

If The Time Traveler’s Wife gets a second season, the Season 1 finale gives us a pretty good idea of what’s coming next. We’ll see Clare and Henry’s marriage, their attempts to have children, and the incident that leads to Henry becoming a wheelchair user. We’ll also hopefully get the payoff for the show’s framing device of having Henry and Clare speaking directly to camera. I can understand Henry making videos for his child to remember him, but I’m still unclear as to why Clare is also making videos instead of just talking directly to her child.

Final verdict

The fact that The Time Traveler’s Wife diverges from its source material is not a problem in itself, as it’s completely possible to make an adaptation that differs from the book but still captures the original’s spirit. It’s the way in which The Time Traveler’s Wife diverges from Niffenegger’s novel that causes an issue.

Frankly, many of the book-to-show changes make no sense. They range from mildly confusing to completely unforgivable. Why make Clare and Henry so argumentative? Why establish new rules about Henry’s feet and baby teeth time traveling? Why show us Annette’s death hundreds of times? Why make the wedding such a miserable experience? And why add rape to an already upsetting storyline involving assault?

In adapting The Time Traveler’s Wife for TV, Moffat could have easily given Niffenegger’s story more room to breathe than the film adaptation did. Instead, the show expands on things that didn’t need to be expanded, rushes through key moments, and botches its central relationship in its quest to be witty.

It’s exhausting. If I could travel back in time to make the creative team re-read the book and re-think their approach to the show, I would. But alas, this is the TV adaptation we’re stuck with.

The Time Traveler’s Wife(opens in a new tab) is now streaming on HBO Max.(opens in a new tab)

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