Some Thoughts on The Time Traveler’s Wife

This post contains spoilers for the book and the film.

The other day I went to see the film version of my favourite book, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. I was expecting a more gooey version of the book, and was a little apprehensive about the treatment of disability, but I wasn’t expecting what I got.

The time traveller of the title, Henry, travels due to a genetic condition called Chrono-Impairment. He experiences this as inconvenient and unpleasant: he is pulled out of his daily life and often to quite painful times in his past.

In the book, part of the way Henry convinces geneticist Dr Kendrick that his time travelling is real by giving the latter information about his son, who is soon to be born. One of these details is that the son, Colin, has Down Syndrome. And just about everything said about him is along the lines of what Henry says just after the birth: ‘I’m sorry about Colin. But you know, he’s really a wonderful boy.’ Dr Kendrick’s reaction to his son’s ‘abnormality’ is less pleasant.

But Colin doesn’t appear in the film. There’s a part of my mind that was glad we missed what would surely be a nasty mix of okay and fail. But with his exclusion, we also missed the presence of half the disabled characters in the novel. And I know you have to make changes for film adaptations, and that’s fine. Though it’s curious how all the queer characters and most of the non-white characters were taken out for the film version, too… (Which is, again, good on the one hand because you miss all the painful stereotypes, but bad on the other as, you know, there are few non-white or queer people.)

But I said half the disabled characters, so let’s address the other one: Henry.

In the book, Henry gets hypothermia when he ends up time travelling to a park in winter. He loses his feet and spends the rest of the novel in bed, then in a wheelchair. In the film, only one of Henry’s legs is affected, and he keeps it. Both Henry and Dr Kendrick emphasise that he’s not going to be in the wheelchair for long, If it had just been Henry saying that, I would have thought, okay, that’s a reference to his knowledge about his premature death. But as Dr Kendrick says the same, and as Henry never stops using the wheelchair until his death, there’s no point in saying it at all. Except to reassure the viewers that Henry is not one of “those people” and this is just a temporarily blip, that is. It’s okay, everyone, don’t panic; Henry isn’t disabled.

Henry learns about his upcoming death (oh, time travel) not long before getting hypothermia. I am not a fan of the emotional line formed here; to me the emotional message, if not the letter of the thing, is that disability is a stage in dying, that disability is a kind of pre-death. Which, come on. Henry isn’t dying up until he is killed. In the book at least the particular importance of Henry’s needing to be able to run is explained (it has often been a matter of survival when he is thrust about in time) (though it actually isn’t in any of his travels following the loss of his feet). In the film, we just have abled to disabled to dead. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

But what I found most strange in the discrepancy between the book and the film was Henry’s attitude. In the book, Henry is largely miserable once he loses his legs. In the film, Henry is a Good Cripple. It’s a pretty big contrast, and again the film takes out emotional complexity and loses the opportunity to highlight the marginal.

But now we come back to Henry’s time travel, and here we hit some more complexities. Can we call our chrono-impaired hero disabled? Within the world of the text(s), Henry doesn’t appear to treat it as such, as best I can recall from both texts. But irrespective of whether Henry or those around him understand him as disabled, as viewers and readers we can draw out a fair few messages about disability. There are all sorts of nebulous ideas in my head on time travel as impairment, and Henry’s search for a cure, and the issues with Clare and Henry having a baby. To be honest, I haven’t settled my feelings on this. But here are some ideas in Time Traveler’s that slot into popular ideas about disability…

  • Let’s make it a super power!
  • Long suffering partner
  • Should we have a kid with this condition? Or would that be unfair?

… and some of the difficulties Henry faces…

  • His impairment isn’t known about or dealt with in everyday society and he has to keep it a secret. In fact, he is scared for his job. Scary invisible disability?
  • He is repeatedly arrested because of a lack of understanding of his condition.
  • He struggles to find appropriate medical care.

What else can you think of?

So the novel and the film versions of The Time Traveler’s Wife have problems in different respects. But I’m finding the differences between the novel and the film the most interesting of all.

10 Comments

  1. I think the different ways Henry and Alba treat chrono-impairment are interesting.

    Alba has parents who understand what’s going on and who give her the skills she needs to survive with CI, and in the book at least, she says she thinks time travel is fun. (There wasn’t that much Alba in the movie, so I don’t remember what she had to say about it.) Henry, on the other hand has to play catch up learning skills and is never as adept at it as he’d like. He views time travel as a problem, something to be fixed.

    I wonder if this is the difference between Social and Medical models of disability?

    On the other hand, it could be a message that Alba is okay because she’s optimistic and if Henry could just stay positive, he’d be fine.
    .-= Gnatalby´s last blog ..The Dumbing Down of Disability on Glee =-.

  2. I don’t know if I’d agree that it portrays Henry’s disability as a super-power. To me, that suggests some sort of ability to control it. Henry is completely at the mercy of his body, and while he does use it to benefit himself sometimes (like I do when I turn my hearing aids off when there’s a screaming baby on an airplane), he really has no agency. It’s science-fictiony, sure, but I don’t think it’s a “power.”

    I’ve read some criticisms of their desire to have a biological kid, but none from a disability standpoint. Looking at it through a disability lens, I like that they went there. I’ve always known there’s a chance that my hearing loss is genetic, and it’s been suggested to me by doctors that I could do genetic testing before having kids. But if I knew there was a 100% chance my kid would share my disability, I would still have one, and I don’t think it’s the least bit cruel. I mean, I’m here, I’m fine, and I didn’t even have the benefit of parents who shared and understood my hearing loss. So it was heartening to see Alba being just fine despite her parents knowing they were giving birth to a disabled child.

  3. Brooke, I really, really wasn’t criticising their decision to have a kid, if that’s what you’re thinking.

  4. Oh, no, not you! I think I worded my comment poorly, I was speaking of the critiques I read elsewhere in the feminist blogosphere. Plenty of people took issue with the fact that the book/movie glorified motherhood/having a baby, but no one took a stab at the disability elements of it.

  5. 🙂 Now that I am awake properly (it was the middle of the night when I wrote my last comment!) I just want to touch on something both you, Brooke, and Gnatalby brought up. I think a lot of superheroes in comics and films and such don’t really have control over their superpowers, it’s often a force within them that has a negative impact on their lives. Hmm, I guess it depend how you define superpower… also that’s a really cool idea about the models of disability, Gnatalby!

  6. I found the lack of, or rather presence, of legs in the film disheartening. The loss of his legs profoundly disturbed Henry in the book, and for good reason. He needed to run all the time, and that is what got him killed. One accident (materializing in a locked, freezing boxcar, getting hypothermia and losing his legs) may have led to a tragic accident (he was in the woods and people were hunting and he could not get out of the way). I say “may have” because it’s entirely possible that if he had both his legs and they both worked, he still would not have been able to run away fast enough to avoid the bullet, due to the usual confusion etc after traveling. I think that was the worst change they made for the movie.

    The “don’t worry; he’ll keep his legs” part was infuriating for two reasons. First, the obvious – it’s completely ableist and offensive as you noted. Second, it shows terrible, terrible adaptation skills. The only people who are worried he’s going to lose his legs are people who’ve read the book. There was NO need for the line at all. It broke the cardinal rule of screenplay adaptation – do not mention the stuff you’ve left out!

    If Henry had not lost his legs, and they had left that line out, then it wouldn’t have been so bad on both fronts. (Keep in mind, it’s entirely possible that the reason they altered the story was to avoid the tremendous CGI costs of taking away Eric Bana’s legs.)

    I have my problems with the novel and the movie, but I do think both do a tremendous job (Downs Syndrome stereotyping and fear aside) of showing that when disability is understood and accepted as a part of life, then life is much easier for the person with the disability, and for everyone around them.

    In the book, Henry is at first in the closet at work, and his frequent, unexplained and sometimes very inconvenient absences cause problems. Later, his co-workers learn the truth, and they are incredibly (perhaps unrealistically?) understanding. In fact, everyone who finds out about his time traveling is relieved when they find out, because they assumed it was something much worse, that he was a criminal or addicted to bad drugs or a violent, very mean guy. So in a way, it’s cool, because they all say, “Oh,well, that’s okay. He has a disability; he’s not a fill-in-the-blank.” There is (for Hollywood) some disability-acceptance happening there.

    I also loved to see Alba dealing with her condition with grace and confidence, because her parents understood and were helpful instead of being in denial about her disability and making things more difficult than they have to be. I’m trying not to think of my own adolescence, since that might lead to some bitter thoughts on that front.

    All in all, I think the book and the film are kind of neutral – there is bad and there is good, but they pretty well balance in the end

  7. @Chally: I’m glad you find it interesting! I was worried it was stupid and ill thought out. I’m a TAB person, so sometimes my thoughts on disability are not well thought out.

    One other big thing that bothered me from a feminist perspective about the movie adaption was that they might as well have called it The Time Traveler rather than The Time Traveler’s Wife. The book is set in Claire’s chrono-time, not Henry’s, the movie was almost entirely from Henry’s point of view.

  8. ‘I say “may have” because it’s entirely possible that if he had both his legs and they both worked, he still would not have been able to run away fast enough to avoid the bullet, due to the usual confusion etc after traveling.’

    As best I can recall, in the book he was shot just after materialising in mid-air, so it really wouldn’t have made a difference!

  9. Exactly – but there was a correlation drawn, or strongly implied, in both the movie and the book.

    Either way, if you figure he was shot because he didn’t have legs to run with or he was shot because he chrono-transported, it was some disability that killed him. You can read whatever you like into that, I suppose.

    If they’d really wanted to get into some analysis of disability, then the book and the movie woudl have gone deeper into Henry’s addictions and self-destructive behaviour, but meeting Claire is supposed to magically cure him of that, isn’t it?

    And here is where I wish I could turn off my analytical brain and just enjoy the lovely chemistry between the leads in the movie, becuase I thought they did a terrific job with the romance angle, and I need that escape every now and then.