Content Note: This article contains spoilers and detailed discussion of grooming.
With Easter term finished and May Week upon us, it’s the perfect time to catch up on everything I’ve been too busy to watch over the last few weeks. One of these things is the new HBO adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife. With Steven Moffat (Dr Who, Sherlock) as writer and producer, and Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) and Theo James (Divergent) in the main roles, I was intrigued. To be fair, I found the 2009 film painfully over-sentimental and problematic, and left the 2003 novel unfinished after only a few pages. But I thought that perhaps this fresh take on the immensely popular story could transform its unconventional premise into something unique and worthwhile.
“The word ‘grooming’ hangs in the air but the show doesn’t engage with it critically”
It didn’t take more than one episode to realise how misplaced my hopes had been. In fact, there’s something very wrong with the whole show, and it soon became clear that all its valorous attempts to update the source material have backfired miserably. I suspect that setting the series in 2022 was motivated by a desire to make the story more current and socially conscious. The narrative follows the development of Claire and Henry’s romantic relationship, with the slight complication that Henry uncontrollably and unpredictably time travels. From Claire’s perspective, she falls in love with a thirty to forty year old Henry (who is married to a thirty to forty year old Claire) as a six year old, and has sex with him as soon as she turns eighteen. Concerns over grooming can thus easily overshadow the whole narrative. Perhaps the only thing saving this show from getting cancelled is its self-awareness, with Henry openly acknowledging these concerns. Claire, too, openly acknowledges that she grew up loving an adult Henry, and that her personality and sexuality have formed around him. While the word ‘grooming’ hangs in the air, the show does little to fix the situation and ends up romanticising it instead.
Their relationship as a whole reads as toxic and unbelievable. The show exaggerates Claire’s dislike of immature, young Henry, perhaps in an attempt to remove Claire from the image of the traditional, obedient wife who waits around for her husband to come home. Her reaction to learning about his ex-girlfriend is much more extreme in the show than in the novel. Considering that Rose Leslie has played independent, self-possessed and almost unhinged characters in the past, I assume that casting her as Claire was an attempt to give her more agency in the show. The unfortunate side effect is that the relationship between young Henry and Claire in present time is arbitrary and underdeveloped. There is a sense that the two only bear each other’s company because they know they are married in the future – so they might as well stick around. There is the explicit suggestion that Henry has yet to become the perfect husband that six to eighteen year old Claire fell in love with, and, in fact, adult Claire will turn him into this perfect husband.
“Claire’s personality and sexuality have formed around an adult Henry”
While the idea that partners aren’t made for each other but become better for each other throughout their relationship is one I fully endorse, this isn’t quite the point that comes across. When Henry first meets Claire, they are not right for each other at all, but Claire turns Henry into a decent man. The idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to turn her partner into a decent human being is detestable and harmful. What’s worse is that at the end of Episode 5, Henry spontaneously gets a proper haircut and decides that from now on, he will be the perfect husband whom Claire needs and has been waiting for. In fact, he is no longer young Henry at all, but the other Henry whom young Claire fell in love with.
While initially I suspected that the show may be inviting viewers to see Claire and Henry’s relationship critically, official responses from the cast and producers to grooming allegations have removed the benefit of the doubt. Instead of acknowledging the implicit toxicity and discomfort many have felt at watching Claire and Henry’s romance, the responses have suggested that viewers should not be concerned over grooming at all. After all, Henry was already married to Claire when he travelled back to meet six year old her, and so he never intended to make young Claire fall in love with him; as such, there can’t be any grooming involved, and the unconventional order in which their relationship developed is just an unfortunate side effect of time travel. The truth of the matter will perhaps be decided with the question of whether or not grooming is necessarily tied to intentionality.
“The series relies on outdated tropes that pit female characters against each other”
Regardless, it cannot be denied that the show has made many viewers uncomfortable; not only through the controversial relationship it depicts but also with its soul-wrenchingly awkward writing. I realise that it’s an adaptation, but the series really could have done without the outdated tropes that pitted female characters against each other and idealised horrible life decisions made in the name of love. In many places it’s unclear if the bad writing stems from the novel or from the screenplay itself. The acting isn’t bad in itself and the production too is decent. But some of the lines that these actors were forced to say – the only thing giving me the strength to return to it was the knowledge that by writing this, I may be able to keep some of you from having to go through it yourselves. It was entertaining at times, but most often it was physically painful. I was looking forward to seeing Rose Leslie and Theo James on screen together but any chemistry they might have had was mercilessly destroyed.
There was one thing that went well, and that was the time travel. As someone who wrote their undergraduate dissertation on the philosophy of time travel, I can confirm that almost everything was logically accurate. Only the randomly time travelling objects, not present in the novel but added in the show, didn’t make any sense. While it’s unclear exactly what the physics behind time travel might look like, there’s no logical consistency to objects randomly travelling through spacetime without any force acting on them – whatever happened to Newton’s first law of motion?
All in all, I only recommend watching this if you are looking for quick and easy entertainment, but make sure you have a high level of tolerance for cringe. Perhaps it’s just too difficult to make a decent show out of problematic and outdated source material while staying true to it throughout.