The Time Traveler’s Wife began as a book before being adapted into a movie, and now Audrey Niffenegger’s novel is getting the TV series treatment, courtesy of exec producer/writer Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) and EP/director David Nutter (Game of Thrones).
The HBO adaptation, premiering this Sunday at 9/8c, stars Theo James (Sanditon) and Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) as Henry and Clare, a couple whose relationship is tested by a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel.
When the project reached James, who read the book in his twenties, “I thought, ‘Oh s–t. Steven, David, HBO, The Time Traveler’s Wife. That’s f–king cool,’” the actor tells TVLine.
Leslie, too, was drawn to the series by “the nature of Steven’s writing,” the actress says. “The kind of lightheartedness, the kind of peppering of comedy throughout the series, really kept it interesting and entertaining to play. But also, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy for these two lovers, and as a result, I just thought it was a fascinating project to be a part of. There’s so many different avenues to explore for each character, not just because of the age range, but because of the extraordinary situation that Clare finds herself in by being one-half of a time-traveling couple.”
Below, the stars, plus Moffat and Nutter, preview five things you need to know about the adaptation.
THIS ONE’S FOR THE BOOK FANS | Moffat sent the show’s scripts to Niffenegger and would “talk her through the things I changed or why I was doing things the way I was doing, and sometimes she’d be silent, and then occasionally she’d get in touch,” he says. But overall, the ever-busy author was hands-off, telling Moffat, “‘What I want you to do — no pressure — is make a big hit like Sherlock or Doctor Who. I don’t want you to do what I tell you,’” he recalls.
A self-proclaimed fan of the novel, Moffat sought to remain faithful to the source material, even while adapting Niffenegger’s story to fit the structure of a weekly TV show. “It’s not about changing. It’s not about I picked up that book and thought I want to fix this. The book is perfect,” Moffat insists. And compared to the 2009 film that starred Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, the HBO series gets to dig deep into the book’s central themes. “I liked the movie and a lot of people love that movie,” Moffat says. “It takes us probably three episodes to nail down how the time travel really, really works and make sure the audience is confident with it. By which time in the movie, you’ve barely got any time left to lavish on what it’s really about, which is about being the time traveler’s wife and what the relationship is like, and above all, what is love like, what is good love like, which is the theme of the book, which it explores brilliantly.”
CHEMISTRY IS KEY | When it came time to read together for the producers, Leslie and James found themselves trying to create chemistry through computer screens, thanks to the pandemic. “The audition process was really strange,” Leslie describes. “I’ve never done a chemistry read via Zoom. The world that we were living in right then was December 2020 by the time that I got to the chemistry stage, and so very, very odd to try and kind of connect with someone on the other side of a webcam.” Thankfully, the stars had something going in their favor: a bit of shared history. “I told Rose she’d be reading with Theo James. A spark of interest kind of sparkled in her eye. I went, ‘OK, what’s that all about?’” Nutter recalls. “Then I realized that they kind of knew each other from Downton Abbey many years ago. I don’t even think they acted together. But there was some warm feelings between the two of them, and they were very positive. So I think that we felt and saw something kind of spark there and we paid attention to those first impressions, and it was really quite, quite special.”
ONE HENRY WAS MORE DIFFICULT AND MORE FUN | Of all the different ages at which James portrays Henry, the actor found the twentysomething version “the toughest because I didn’t want to overplay that he’s young and rambunctious. But at the same time, he needs to be different,” James says. For Leslie, however, playing opposite that particular Henry was the most fun. “[He’s] kind of frivolous and untethered and a nihilist,” the actress says. “And as a result, I just really enjoyed that because he’s just a bit of a prick, and it’s just rather fun to play off that, and there was a great amount of energy.”
IT HURTS TO TIME TRAVEL | Every time Henry is transported to the future or the past, he gets dropped, literally, with a big thump into that time period. “It was painful, and I had lots of bumps and bruises,” James says of filming those scenes. “I kind of wanted that in a way. There was some softer landings. I remember there was one that I pleaded with David to reshoot because I wanted every time…to feel like, ‘Ow! Jesus!’ This is not just a kind of fun romantic-comedy device where someone falls through time. It’s something where he gets really f–ked up. So yes, it hurt in real life.”
THE GROOMING CONCERNS | One of the points where the book has been criticized is the fact that an adult Henry repeatedly visits Clare when she is a child, raising concerns that he groomed her. “That’s not what the story is in the book or the film or the TV show. He’s married to her,” Moffat counters. “He meets her as an adult, he falls in love with her, he gets married to her and then he’s flung back in time, through no fault of his own, and is confronted with the childhood version of the woman he already loves. Even more so in the TV show version, he absolutely makes it clear that he’s just a friend.” Additionally, the Henry who visits young Clare is “a responsible man, so he has tremendously strict rules about this,” like that he will never reveal who he is to her in the future.
The two characters also have a conversation about who groomed whom in one of the episodes. “If one of them changes the other, Clare changes Henry,” Moffat adds. “Clare is exactly the same person as a little girl as she is when you see her in her seventies. Henry flows around Clare like a river around a rock. He makes himself the man she wants him to be because he loves her.”