Hollywood’s Infidelity to Literary Adaptations: The Time Travellers Wife…

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Cinema has adapted stories from novels, dramas and myths since its inception in the late 1800’s.  Everything from Shakespearean drama’s to romantic novels have been translated into film in various ways using a range of techniques to re-tell the narratives in a more effective way, using point of view shots, narrative techniques, mise-en-scene, editing and music.  The making of a film out of an earlier text is as old as the apparatus of cinema itself, as over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals.  Literary texts are not visual tools so film adaptations have been known to bring stories to life through the use of these techniques.  Literature is an important medium along with storytelling, and film producers have been aware of this, battling over the film rights to many literary works that become popular either in academic areas of discussion or mainstream society.  Shakespearean adaptations, mostly made by the BBC, have stayed true to the original stories, understanding the need to change the narrative is absent, giving Shakespeare’s expertise in writing, possibly, the most famous tales of tragedy, love and comedy ever written.  Other novels have not been so lucky, as the film rights have been bought by Hollywood film producers who simply wish to portray the most sell-able story, usually the love story.  One such novel is ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ (Niffenegger, 2003) written by Audrey Niffenegger.  I will be analyzing how Hollywood adapted the novel into a screen medium (directed by Robert Schwentke), the narrative techniques employed in both novel and film and whether the film and original text had the same impact on readers/viewers.

Niffenegger’s original story was a mixed genre book comprising of science fiction aspects coupled with traditional romantic practices. The basis is simple: a man (Henry) suffers from a medical disorder that causes him to jump through time, where he meets his future wife (Clare) as a young girl.  The couple then begin a relationship and attempt to cope with the constant and unstoppable time traveling while simultaneously waiting for the moment when they meet in real time.  The initial vulnerability of passing through time and finding himself naked in somewhat random places in time causes Henry a great deal of stress. Suddenly naked and in public places, Henry has mastered the art of picking locks and pockets in order to adjust to where he is. This adds a shadowy survival aspect to the character, “When I am out there, in time, I am inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself.  I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides”.  Henry travels due to a genetic condition called Chrono-Impairment and he experiences this as inconvenient and unpleasant.  This unpleasantness is expressed thoroughly in the book and causes Henry to become a gritty, unhappy character before he finally meets his future wife.  He questions the causes of his problem and the effects it has on him “After about five minutes of swearing and shivering and hoping to hell you can disappear, you start walking in any direction”.  The film version (Schwentke, 2009) of Henry however had numerous flaws as many typical Hollywood adaptation screenplays of a novel do. Much of Henry’s irate and edgy behaviour in the novel was left out and he was less angry and more accepting of his problematic time traveling endeavors.  The violence was also toned down, possibly to ensure a friendlier rating, as an encounter with a teenage boy and a gun was completely cut from the story.  This was most likely due to the need for Henry to be a like-able character, therefor, much of his bad habits were completely left out of the film.

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From the first pages, the book establishes itself with a non-traditional, non-linear plot structure. The narrative of the story is from two perspectives; that of Henry and Clare alternately, with many of Clare’s narration portrayed through the pages of a diary.  It achieves the illusion of distance and depth through a series of episodes that don’t appear to be framed into a coherent plot.  By the end of the novel though, the plot becomes linear and consistent. Schwentke on the other hand created a more linear plot in the film, portraying the relationship from the beginning to the end, with only a few jumps in time to portray significant scenes that surrounded the relationship.  The decision to create a more typically straightforward plot is common of Hollywood films, as the confusion surrounding a non-linear story could hinder the viewer’s experience.  It also depicts the narrative as a simple love story, while the literary version was a confused, often erratic, portrayal of a woman coping with a husband who jumps through time uncontrollably.  In an attempt to create the typical Hollywood film of love conquering all, important aspects of the book were left out of the screenplay, as they would undermine the romance between the two protagonists.  Such cuts included secondary characters and their interactions with the protagonists, incidents of infidelity, the continuous problems they encounter with trying to conceive and the fatality of Henry’s time traveling which leaves him an amputee by the end of the book.  Each of these aspects created a well-rounded, complete story in the novel, and portrayed the story realistically, giving each character certain incidents that they would have to deal with both physically and mentally.  The film did not portray these events or characters, largely due to the fact that it would spoil the fairy tale love story of two people destined to meet.  It creates the illusion of the perfect couple, rather than portraying the realistic struggles of two people in love.

The original text deals with many psychological issues that surround both Clare and Henry with which the film does not.  There are techniques available in order to bring these issues into the film without disturbing the visual elements, such as voice-overs, however this was not used in the film, creating the impression that the story is one dimensional.  Schwentke chose not to include the deeper psychological aspects of the story and instead added less meaningful changes such as their daughter’s abilities to control her time traveling.  Henry also challenges his (dis)ability in the novel as he consults with various doctors and professionals in a hope to understand and control his travels.  He self-medicates, gets numerous tests done and tries every medical treatment he is given in an attempt to control his life: “On an EEG, I have the brain of a schizophrenic” .  The confusion that surrounds his problem with staying in the one time, and the erratic behavior it conjures is symbolized even more through the literary devices such as the non-linear narrative and for-shadowing which were both found in the original text, and not the film adaptation.

One of the most harrowing experiences expressed in the novel is the loss of Henry’s feet due to a jump in time that left him, naked, in a snow storm.  After spasmodic accounts of the aftermath Clare states “Although Henry is right here in front of me, he has disappeared”  suggesting his loss of self as he copes the loss of his feet which left him disabled.  The internal anguish he suffers turns him into, yet again, the angry and miserable man.  Yet, this is toned down in the film adaptation as although he does get hurt in the snow storm, he does not lose his legs.  He is left in a wheelchair but is a much happier disabled man.  The contrast is huge and again the film takes out important emotional complexity and loses the opportunity to highlight the insignificant aspects of the couple’s life, compared to Henry’s time travelling.  This is highly common in Hollywood films.  The emotional impact due to the loss of Henry’s legs leaves him devastated in the original text because of the disastrous effects it has on his ability to ‘run and hide’ when he travels through time.  Without this consequence in the film, the emotive impression is lost in Henry, who is now still seen as the traditional ‘attractive’ hero of the tale portraying society’s notions of beauty.  His doctor states that he will not need the wheelchair for long and that his disability won’t have a long term affect, again, restricting the characteristic of the novel that literally changed Henry’s life and caused him to become completely debilitated.  In not portraying this facet of hugely important information, the ending to the film is perceived like many other Hollywood films, not wanting to damage the appearance of the protagonist/hero.Picture 4


Although the story has an unhappy ending with the inevitable death of Henry, both mediums tell a different version of events.  In the novel Henry dies a tragic death in the arms of his wife and daughter.  After his passing Clare finds a letter written by him explaining that someday in the future he will meet her again “Until then, live, fully, present in the world, which is so beautiful”.  She thus spends the rest of her life waiting for Henry to appear one last time, which inevitably happens when she is an old woman.  In stark contrast to this hopeless ending, the film adaptation first attempted the unhappy ending and tested it on audiences before the film’s release (Wilson).  The test audience did not enjoy the realistic unhappy ending, thus Schwentke altered the ending in order to keep audiences happy.  Instead of Clare waiting years to catch a glimpse of Henry, he appears in a meadow in front of their daughter, who sends her friends to tell Clare that Henry has materialized.  Clare runs to the meadow and the film ends with the couple sharing a kiss, in typical Hollywood fashion.  The change in the conclusion directly represents the need for archetypal Hollywood endings and implicates that Hollywood itself is primarily concerned more with ratings than with accurately re-telling an already established story.  Dudley Andrew states in his book ‘Concepts in Film Theory’ (Andrew, 1984) that theories in film adaptations are concerned mostly with “fidelity and transformation” (Andrew, 1984), that is, the transforming of a story from literary to visual modes and how loyal to the original the latter would be.  He continues “the task of adaptation is the reproduction in cinema of something essential about an original text” (Andrew, 1984).  The ‘essential’ features of ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ are the science fiction aspects of time travel and a relationship between the time traveller and his wife, whom he first meets when he is in his thirties, and her in adolescence.  These essentials are certainly present in the film as Andrews also states “The skeleton of the original can, more or less thoroughly, become the skeleton of the film” (Andrew, 1984).  The ‘skeleton’ of the initial story is portrayed in the film, however, it is portrayed as the whole film, with nothing “more or less” (Andrew, 1984).  Schwentke did not “transfer the original story to film as closely as possible” (John M. Desmond, 2006), as the basics of the story were not expanded, therefor, the film is simply the bare essential of the original story, giving evidence of a one dimensional nature intended to purely entertain masses.

The medium of film has been used to bring literary texts to life, and some are greatly anticipated if the text itself was a big enough success.  Niffenegger’s debut novel ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’  quickly become a global success, and so the film adaptation was anticipated for almost a decade.  The translated story has many alternations, as the original was a chaotic non-linear narrative while the film was constructed as a linear text.  These alterations are highly common among Hollywood films, along with simplification, as they are marketed to international audiences.  They require simple, often predictable plot lines, and as the original text of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’  was quite the opposite, much of the content was either deleted or distorted in some way.  In conclusion, while there are stories/narratives aptly translated into film, many bestsellers have been bought by Hollywood producers/directors in order to simplify and distort the narrative to appease and satisfy large audiences.  The clichéd ‘happy ending’ often associated with Hollywood films was inserted into Niffenegger’s text as her original ending was not deemed satisfactory.  Due to this and the numerous alterations to both the form and content, Schwentke and Hollywood alike, were unfaithful to the original text.

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Andrew, D. (1984). Concepts in Film Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

John M. Desmond, P. J. (2006). Adaptation: studying film and literature. University of Michigan: McGraw-Hil.

Niffenegger, A. (2003). The Time Traveler’s Wife. A Harvest Book.

Schwentke, R. (Director). (2009). The Time Traveler’s Wife [Motion Picture].

Snyder, M. H. (2011). Analyzing Literature-to-Film Adaptations: A Novelist’s Exploration and Guide. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Wilson, S. L. (n.d.). A Series of Down Endings. Retrieved 04 06, 2013, from http://www.Pajiba.com: http://www.pajiba.com/trade_news/the-time-travelers-wife-ending-changed.php


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