When it comes to “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” what’s old is new. Quite literally.
Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, published in 2003, captured the imagination of a vast readership with its story of a marriage unmoored by a husband’s tendency to skip through time. The widespread swooning made a film adaptation, released in 2009 and starring Eric Bana as time traveler and Rachel McAdams as wife, a foregone conclusion. Now, the franchise reappears in our timeline, with Theo James and Rose Leslie taking on the lead roles in an HBO drama series that keeps Niffenegger’s complicated conceit intact.
Here, James’ Henry and Leslie’s Clare speak at times directly to camera, documentary-style, about the strangeness of their plight: Henry is unstuck in history, vanishing from linear time to pop up at moments of key importance. This is what lends his romance with Clare its sense of destiny, as, in adulthood, he was transported to meet her as a child. She was seemingly fated to be an important figure in his life. It’s also what gives the marriage its air of doom. Henry cannot meaningfully be present when he’s always moments from being snatched into the past. And the fact that Clare has met Henry at various ages but never as a senior citizen suggests a premature end lies ahead.
This all made for more story than the feature film could get its arms around; perhaps, then, a six-episode season of television, directed by Emmy-winning “Game of Thrones” helmer David Nutter, could begin to do the job. But the fact of the previous adaptation looms over “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” 2022 edition: This is a series that struggles at times to find a new way into its story. And that story, as before, is so elaborately and granularly detailed that a novel angle of approach seems perhaps impossible. In order to do “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” executive producer Steven Moffat (of “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock”) seems to have concluded, one must stick to the Niffenegger playbook, no matter how limiting it becomes.
One might think that a story hinging on time travel would be open and wildly free-ranging, but “The Time Traveler’s Wife” has, in all its incarnations, had a sourness to it. This show depicts someone who is not merely able to move through the eras of his life, but is compelled to do so against his will. The trick that no one has yet achieved is making what is for Henry a forced march feel for the viewer like, well, not that. James’ performance leans into Henry’s weariness, seeming at times petulant at what he’s being made to endure. Leslie, a warm and appealing presence on “Game of Thrones,” fares well by contrast, and excels particularly at carrying across some of the more florid lines of dialogue that remind viewers of this project’s literary origins. But the story fails to convince that the couple shares much more than an understanding of the obstacles keeping them apart. So much time is spent on establishing the rules of this show’s game that there’s little room to play.
Those rules, explained by Henry to friends deep into the season’s run, are elaborate: For instance, when Henry disappears, he doesn’t take his clothes with him, and so has to rapidly contrive a way to steal garments to avoid drawing attention to himself, or to fight his way out if he does. The show does a great deal of wheel-spinning around Henry’s quest to cover himself, and does what verges on a gratuitous amount of ogling of James’ nude form as well. (A tricky element for a show in which we hop from Henry’s twenties to his early middle age at random is that James perennially presents as kissed by youth, and isn’t meaningfully aged up by the production beyond changes in his hair. It begins to make sense that character ages are listed with onscreen text.) And the show addresses the genuinely tricky matter of Henry’s first meeting Clare in early life — as that onscreen text has it, when he’s 31 and she’s 6 — without reckoning with it. When Henry, in a moment of panicked emotion, refers to the pair’s relationship as “grooming,” it can feel, unfortunately, hard to argue. Simply stating that something strange is going on is not tantamount to untangling it.
And “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is indeed a strange thing: It’s a work made with true fealty to a nearly 20-year-old novel following in a film adaptation that did the same thing, undercutting opportunities that present themself to tell a story we’ve already seen in an innovative way. (Incidentally, its presence on linear HBO feels confusing as well: “The Staircase” and “Tokyo Vice” are but two of the recent HBO Max streaming original dramas that feel more in line with the Sunday-nights-on-HBO brand of prestigey quality than does this series.) Perhaps this heartfelt but unsteady series makes for a fitting example of style following substance: A story about a fellow who finds himself forced to relive his past at the expense of opportunities in the present ends up suffering the same fate.
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” premieres Sunday, May 15 on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.