The naked truth about "The Time Traveler's Wife" is that it would be a mess in any era

Steven Moffat's six-episode adaptation of the 2003 novel can't get past some of the story's skeevier aspects

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 15, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Theo James and Rose Leslie in "The Time Traveler's Wife" (Macall Polay/HBO)
Theo James and Rose Leslie in "The Time Traveler's Wife" (Macall Polay/HBO)

Imagine that you, a reasonable adult, are suddenly told by a 6-year-old girl that she found an imaginary friend in the woods behind your house. She explains she must "dress him up, because he's naked." Then she speeds off with an armful of menswear. Wouldn't you sense something might not be kosher with this situation? Wouldn't you follow her make sure this very vulnerable minor wasn't in any danger from an actual naked man, or that the pants she's toting won't pick up any grass stains?

One would think so, which is the problem confronting "The Time Traveler's Wife." Thinking ruins it in a very specific ways. Kick the mental tires too much on this genre romance, and the whole thing slides right into Skeeveyville. So if your heart is set on enjoying the TV adaption, it's better to simply go along with what happens when the described moment occurs: the adult in question, a housekeeper, blinks at her employer's young daughter Clare Abshire (Everleigh McDonell) and resumes going about her business.

Meanwhile the girl dashes out to the edge of the woods behind her home and hands some clothing to a very real, very naked 41-year-old Henry DeTamble (Theo James). It's fine, see, because when Clare grows up (and is played by Rose Leslie) the two will be married.  

Also, this may be the first time she's meeting Henry, but to him their first meeting will take place when they're both in their 20s.

RELATED: Steven Moffat on how "Doctor Who" was influenced by "The Time Traveler's Wife"

Confusing? Love affairs interrupted by time travel certainly can be, and this one presents quite the jumble. But Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel melted plenty of hearts back in 2003 when she first introduced Henry, a man with a genetic anomaly that causes him to be unstuck in time, and Clare, the girl who grows up with him visiting her at regular intervals. (Those who haven't read the novel may be familiar with the story by way of the 2009 movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.)

This doesn't happen throughout Henry's life. Only after he meets Clare and realizes she's his destiny does he start uncontrollably popping back to her childhood home, where they play checkers and he helps her with her homework.

This sounds, and may read, as an entirely innocent relationship between a grown man and a little girl. Watching it play out on our screens is an entirely different experience, which Steven Moffat acknowledges by writing uncomfortable grooming jokes into this scene the first episode.

"Was it love at first sight?" young Clare asks about the wife Henry's says he has, leaving out the detail that it is her, in the future. Instead he uncomfortably replies, "God, I hope not," as he moves away from her.

Maybe that's a little funny in the moment. A taut exchange in the fourth episode removes that humor when a middle-aged Henry guiltily admits he feels like he has groomed Clare, only to have her 18-year-old version rebut that, no, it was she who groomed him . . . over all those years before she was legal.

Somehow there must be a means of pulling off these scenes in ways that don't make a person's skin crawl, but Moffat has not cracked that nut.

To his credit, James handles these scenes as well as he possibly can, carefully lending an upright, standoffish demeanor to Henry that becomes more frantic as the character matures and the more flirtatious Leslie takes over, starting at age 16. Regardless, this is still a grown man interacting with the woman he'll eventually be sleeping with while she is a child playing with a toy horse. He's weirded out by it, and rightly so; therefore, so are we.

The Time Traveler's WifeTheo James and Everleigh McDonell in "The Time Traveler's Wife" (Macall Polay/HBO)

Somehow there must be a means of pulling off these scenes in ways that don't make a person's skin crawl, but Moffat has not cracked that nut.

Not that it matters, since he's working with a highly successful bestseller and hired James, one of the tightest bods in the business, to nudely tumble across our screens several times per episode. Life is tough, and who am I to deny horny romantics their weekly serving of TV-MA hind ham? Besides, naked time traveling men have a TV fanbase. It showed up in force when Ioan Gruffudd kept on reincarnating in his birthday suit for the 2014 ABC series "Forever," and will certainly tune in for this.

Enough of those who loved the novel will have no problem overlooking the story's creepier implications because Henry's plight is far more distracting. He can't control when he travels or where he ends up, whether in time or his location. His only guarantee is that whenever and wherever he arrives, he'll be naked, penniless and hungry, and will probably have to fight someone for clothes and food. That also means Henry's story cannot possibly end well, a conclusion the first episode foreshadows in several scenes.

As for Clare, she matures from a 6-year-old girl to an 18-year-old young woman, arranging her life around the ideal version of the love of her life, only to discover him in his 20s when he's a hot librarian and a complete jerk – and in his timeline, that's the first time they meet.

Writhing within its puddle is the potential for the series to smooth out into a less problematic love story in a potential second season alongside, one hopes, a broader view into Clare's identity apart from Henry. The mid-credits cliffhanger in the sixth and final episode hints at Moffat's plans for such an eventuality, which would take us through parts of the book, and Clare and Henry's marriage, that we don't see in this first season.

Moffat understands the navigational intricacies of timelines, times of life, and relationships doomed by time.

Adapting "The Time Traveler's Wife" should be firmly in Moffat's wheelhouse. During his six seasons of running "Doctor Who," he introduced Amy Pond, companion to Matt Smith's Time Lord, who he first encounters when she's 5 years old and officially meets when she's 7, marking the start of her lifelong obsession the "raggedy doctor" she'd travel with one day companion. Crafting Amy and The Doctor's corkscrewing timeline was terrific practice to adapt this book – which Moffat recently told critics inspired the acclaimed "Doctor Who" episode "The Girl in the Fireplace."

We have evidence that Moffat understands the navigational intricacies of timelines, times of life, and relationships doomed by time. None of the major pitfalls in "The Time Traveler's Wife" have anything to do with these sci-fi frills, as long as you can accept the repetitious sensation of Henry's frequent bounces around the times of their lives.

Provided you're on board with that side of the business, there's still this adaptation's stylistic messiness to sort. Moffat's efforts to adhere the novel's point-of-view shifts between chapters materialize onscreen in the form of mockumentary-style confessional, with the actors speaking straight into the camera. But their observations about love are such pabulum that a passer-by might mistake what their glimpsing for the opener of a "Saturday Night Live" short film parody.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Whether the main flaw in "The Time Traveler's Wife" is in the flatness of the prose or the emotional disconnect in the delivery is hard to say, but together they conspire to transform Clare into little more than a construct waiting to be animated.

A recurring critique with Moffat's work is in his inability to write women with much complexity, apart from the way male characters relate to them. This was less prevalent on "Doctor Who" than on his other best-known work "Sherlock." Here, it's as blinding as a neon sign, with episodes spending more time spelunking through Henry's headspace and sorting his buried pain that it ever ventures to do with Clare.

Between Clare and Henry's recurring debates over whether agency trumps free will and the fact that the show is titled "The Time Traveler's Wife," this imbalance becomes increasingly pronounced as the season wears on.

A pity, because Niffenegger's epiphanies regarding love in the novel are both pragmatic and heartrending. It boils down to the notion that lasting relationships are a matter of recognizing that time is limited and making the most of whatever portion of it you're allowed to have with your loved ones. Whether "The Time Traveler's Wife" plays a part in that for a wide audience is impossible to predict. These lovers might not be able to easily move forward, but the world has – and it may not have as much understanding for a man getting to know his bride as a child.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" premieres Sunday, May 15 at 9 p.m. on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

More stories like this:

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Doctor Who Hbo Review Rose Leslie Steven Moffat The Time Traveler's Wife Theo James Tv