Movie Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

November 7, 2009 in Movie Reviews

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I had been wanting to watch the big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife ever since I heard it was being made (it was actually optioned by Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt before the novel was even published).

It is such a beautiful book, taking a seemingly ridiculous, science-fictionesque premise to deliver a tragic love story that somehow works.  One of those rare stories that made the outrageous feel normal because the characters and what they felt for each other was so painfully real.

I’m glad to say that the film version, while not perfect by any means, is very good, capturing the essence of the relationship between Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana), a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to unintentionally and periodically time travel, and Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams), the girl he was destined to fall in love with.

Of course, the success of a movie like this depends largely on the performances of the leads.  When I first heard that Eric Bana was cast as Henry, I was sceptical because he didn’t appear to fit the novel’s description.  But as I watched him, it became clear to me that he was spot on for the role.  He captures Henry’s love, pain and fear so well in a wonderfully controlled performance.  On the other hand, it doesn’t matter who Rachel McAdams plays.  She is so sweet, beautiful and classy that it’s not hard to believe anyone will fall madly in love with her.

However, a person’s enjoyment of the movie may well depend on how much they can accept the time travelling premise.  If you find the idea stupid, then it’s unlikely you’ll give the film much of a chance.  I think it’s quite possible for someone, especially if they haven’t read the book, to get a bit confused with all the travelling back and forth through time.  It’s easy to put up your hands and say ‘this is all too silly’ and let it overshadow the central love story.  On the other hand, if you can overlook some of the unexplained holes in the logic and just accept the premise (a pre-requisite for sci-fi films), then you may find yourself absorbed in Henry and Claire’s complex relationship.  For me personally, it was the type of film where the flaws become easier to forgive because it knows how to tug the heart strings.

Keeping in mind that the novel is 546 pages and spans a lifetime, the film adaptation is surprisingly short, clocking in at only 108 minutes.  This naturally means that the film lacks the full emotional depth of the novel (few films can match the novel in that regard anyway).  In condensing the book to fit the screen, characters were cut, roles were reduced and subplots were canned.  Nevertheless, I believe this actually worked in the film’s favour rather than against it.  It kept the focus solely on Claire and Henry’s relationship, and prevented the story from dragging on too long, which it did start to feel towards the final quarter.  It would have been very easy to make this a 2 hour 45 minute-plus movie, but I applaud the restraint from director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) in keeping the running time manageable.  Trying to be truthful to the source material while keeping the film from being overlong can be a tough balance, but for the most part I think Schwentke and screenwriters Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) and Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) did a decent job in the circumstances.

Perhaps I am a little biased because I’m a big fan of the two leads, but I believe  The Time Traveler’s Wife is a solid adaptation of a novel that was extremely difficult to adapt.  Those who are fans of the novel will likely either love it or hate it.  As for newcomers to this story, I’m not sure, but judging from the number of red, watery eyes I witnessed stepping out of the cinema (including my wife’s), my guess is that more people than not will be moved by it.

4 out of 5 stars!

[PS: I was surprised that the film relied mostly on make-up and not technology to show the aging process (which, after Benjamin Button, we know can do an extraordinary job).  Unfortunately this means the physical transformations of the characters are not as pronounced as they could have been.]

Point of View

September 4, 2009 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing

The point of view of the narrative of a piece of fiction or novel is often a brain-crushing issue.

I subscribe to a newsletter called Ginny’s Fiction Writing Blog, and recently I came across a post entitled ‘First Person or Third for New Writers?’

I was surprised to see that the advice given to new writers is to write from the First Person perspective (ie, I did this, I felt this) as opposed to the Third Person perspective (ie he did this, she felt this).  Surprised because at the only creative writing course I attended, we were recommended to use Third Person in all our writing exercises, as we were told that it was ‘easier’ and caused less problems for inexperienced writers.  I have also read several books on writing which also suggested that newbies should start off with Third Person, and when they have built up more confidence, to move on to First Person.  That said, even when writing in the Third Person, when writing individual scenes, we were advised to stick to the perspective of a single person (as opposed to an omnipresent God-like narrator that knows what everyone is thinking and feeling).  It allows readers to relate more, we were told.

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Audrey Niffenegger told the story using two First Person perspectives

There’s actually a lot more than just the simple distinction between First Person (eg Twilight by Stephenie Meyer) or Third Person (eg Harry Potter by JK Rowling).  There are books that utilise the First Person narrative but using two separate characters (eg The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger), or even multiple First Person narratives (like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult).  Or there are books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which, on the face of it is a First Person narrative (told from the perspective of Death), but because the narrator watches the story unfold from afar, it reads more like a Third Person narrative.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with any style, as long as it is effective.  Out of all the styles described above, only the multiple First Person perspectives (ala My Sister’s Keeper) didn’t feel quite right to me.  It was just a bit too confusing having to jump from one character to another.  Even though each point of view was split into separate chapters, I felt like I could never get into the characters like I should have.  Rather than getting a better sense of what each character was like and how they felt, it ended up having the opposite effect.  Anyway, that’s just me.

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My Sister's Keeper used multiple First Person perspectives. Of course, it and The Time Traveler's Wife are now both movies.

So when it came time to decide on what perspective to use for my own fantasy novel, I struggled a lot.  As I always tend to try and put myself in the shoes of the main character, I started off believing that First Person would be most appropriate.    But the problem with using First Person all the way through is that the knowledge you convey to the reader is confined to a single person.  My antagonist also had a great story to tell, and I didn’t want to deprive my novel of his story.  So I started contemplating the idea of the shifting First Person perspective method, where I would tell the story from two views – the protagonist and the antagonist.  But that was still only two characters.  I also wanted all my characters to be fleshed out properly, for each one of them to have real emotions that they could convey to the reader.  But then I read My Sister’s Keeper and felt the multiple First Person perspectives didn’t work, so I scrapped that idea.  Then came the idea of interchanging Third Person narrative with First Person.  It’s been done before.  You tell the story in Third Person, and every few chapters you throw in one from the First Person perspective, written in italics.  It sounded good but was probably beyond my skills as a writer.

In the end, I went with what felt right.  Yep, I decided on Third Person, all the way.  I asked myself – what’s the most important thing here?  Of course, it was simply to tell the story in the most effective way.  I wanted to give the reader a good sense of each of the main characters.  I didn’t want to confine the view to a single person, or even two.  I also wanted exciting action sequences and battles told as though the reader was an eagle watching from above.  I wanted the novel to play out like a movie that would let the audience know what I want them to know, when I want them to know.  The truth is, you could probably do that with any of the narrative techniques, but as a new, inexperienced writer still learning the nuances of the craft, Third Person just made it a whole lot easier.