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.