Skip the Book, Watch the Movie! Part II: The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenger) v. The Time Traveler’s Wife (Robert Schwentke)

For the same inexplicable reason that people—and by people, I mean women—loved The Help (which I refuse to link to), people loved Niffenger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Actually, these two novels have quite a lot in common. Shallow, cliched theme? Check. Stereotypical minority characters? Check. Check. While The Help is an absolute travesty, Niffenger fortunately has a little something up her sleeve that Kathryn Stockett seems to lack: originality. I had never read a book about a time traveler’s wife before. I mean, we know all about the time traveler himself, but what about the life he leaves behind when he goes off on his weird little excursions?

I will say that it is a quick, immensely enjoyable read. Time traveler Henry and his normal wife Clare are extremely likeable people with a bucket load of chemistry. When Henry goes back in time to visit the child version of Clare (which he does a lot, by the way), it’s this same likeability and chemistry that saves those scenes from falling into creepy territory. This, in fact, is the entire premise of the novel. If you’re expecting a sci-fi adventure, you will be extremely disappointed. Henry doesn’t travel millions of years into the future to discover a new race of people. Henry pops in on future and past moments in his life, the life of his wife, and his parents. At it’s core, The Traveler’s Wife is a love story and, for the most part, a good one about two people deeply in love with each other, desperately trying to make their marriage work. What The Time Traveler’s Wife shows is that falling in love is the easy part, it’s what happens afterward that requires all the work.

One of my problems with this book is the stereotypical and often redundant minor characters. For instance, the black friend who is likened to an alien (really?!), Henry’s Asian nanny, and the black maid who works for Clare’s family, could have easily been scrapped. But the biggest failing of the novel is that it takes a truly original premise and twists it into the same old cliched message women are spoonfed in every romantic comedy ever created (except maybe 500 Days of Summer): True love conquers all. Clare spends her marriage complaining about “staying behind” and having to “wait for Henry.” All this is forgotten by the final chapter of the novel, when Clare basically decides that “true love” is literally worth waiting or wasting your life away.

The Time Traveler’s Wife as a film isn’t really that much better. It has several flaws of its own, but it does at least boast an absolutely gorgeous score by Mychael Danna and a message that hasn’t been done to death. There’s also the added bonus of Eric Bana, who’s naked within the first five minutes of the film. Moving casually along, unlike the conclusion of the novel, the film’s conclusion is touching on several levels. Without giving too much away, Clare does not spend her entire life “waiting.” She makes that clear early on in the film, unlike novel Clare who says one thing and does another. Although the film is nowhere near flawless, the end is nothing short of perfection.

Skip the Book, Watch the Movie!

Here goes: The book is not always better than its film counterpart. There. It’s done. I’m sure that’s some kind of blasphemy coming from an English major, but it had to be said. To be honest, literature and film are such different mediums that it’s really like comparing apples to oranges, if you excuse the cliche. Occasionally, there will come along a book just begging for the big screen, and these are usually the stories with the most glaring flaws. I don’t know why it happens like that, but for whatever reason, nobody wants to adapt the really good stuff like “Song of Solomon” or “The Bluest Eye.”

Anyways, sometimes it takes a truly brilliant director to make an author’s vision come alive. Other times, all it takes is a fresh perspective to make a story resonate with a modern audience.  

Part I: Atonement

Atonement (Ian McEwan) v. Atonement (Joe Wright)

At 13-years-old, aspiring writer Briony Tallis damages several lives when she accuses her sister Cecilia’s boyfriend Robbie of rape. Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement is widely considered the British author’s best work. I wouldn’t know because I vowed never to read another McEwan novel after I put this one down. This dense, overly-detailed tragedy is not only a laborious read, but ultimately an infuriating one. Suffice it to say, it does not end well. This does not mean that McEwan is a bad writer. Far from it. He is perhaps too good a writer, and yes, that can be a bad thing. On the one hand, McEwan is unmatched in his ability to make characters come alive with just a few lines. He beautifully violates the writers’ golden rule: “Show, don’t tell!”

  Of the novel’s resident Christ-figure McEwan writes, “Some said that it was innocence, or ignorance of the world, that protected Robbie from being harmed by it, that he was a kind of holy fool who could step across the drawing room equivalent of hot coals without harm.” Bellisimo.

His descriptions, not just of the characters but of the world around them, are vivid and inspired. Too bad he feels the need to detail everything. For instance, McEwan takes pages—as in more than two—just to describe what Cecilia is wearing. At one point, he even has Cecilia look at vase, describes the vase, then proceeds to unravel her  entire family history (note: her grandfather living underneath an ironmonger’s shop has nothing to do with the rest of the novel). Superfluous details like these overload an otherwise genius story.

There will always be stories about writers, especially since writers are the ones writing stories. But you rarely find stories about the art of storytelling and its limits, if there are any. Atonement seems to ask to what extent does a writer get to play God? Without thinking, the answer might be there are no limits. After all, it’s the author’s story. Isn’t it? There may no real answer to this question, but several writers will tell you that at some point, the story begins to write itself.

It is for this reason that Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the acclaimed novel is not only brilliant, but commendable. He has never, even at his worst (*cough*The Soloist), been a heavy-handed director. He knows when guide and when to draw back and let the story and his actors blossom. Case in point, there is a twist at the end of the novel that was declared “un-filmable” by many of its fans before the film was released. Wright, however, pulled it off seamlessly. There is no fancy camera work in this scene, just a close-up of Vanessa Redgrave’s somber face and her penetrating gaze. No need to pan the camera around the room or zoom in on Redgrave’s eyes. The story speaks for itself.

Wright’s deft hand is what makes his film’s conclusion poignant rather than maddening.

 That said, the cinematography is indeed elegant. What’s more, Wright has the exceptional skill of composer Dario Marianelli in his corner. Marianelli thoroughly deserved the Academy Award he received for this beautiful, heartbreaking score. It’s hard not to fall in love with the wistful, romantic “Cottage by the Beach.” He also showcases a nice bit of wit with “Cee, You, and Tea.” (Think about it.)