The wife of the time traveler started out as a book before it was made into a movie, and now Audrey Niffenegger’s novel is getting the TV seriescourtesy of executive producer/writer Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) and EP/director David Nutter (game of Thrones).
The HBO adaptation, which premieres this Sunday at 9/8c, stars Theo James (sand tone) and Rose Leslie (game of Thrones) as Henry and Clare, a couple whose relationship is tested by a genetic disorder that causes them to time travel.
When the project reached James, who read the book in his 20s, “I was like, ‘Oh shit. Steven, David, HBO, The wife of the time traveler. That’s freaking cool,'” the actor tells TVLine.
Leslie was also drawn to the series “by the nature of Steven’s writing style,” says the actress. “The kind of lightheartedness, the kind of comedy throughout the series made it really interesting and enjoyable to play. But there’s also an undercurrent of tragedy to these two lovers, and as a result I just thought it would be an intriguing project to be a part of. There are so many different possibilities for each character to explore, not only because of the age range, but also because of the extraordinary situation Clare finds herself in as 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 IS FOR THE BOOK FANS | Moffat sent the show’s scripts to Niffenegger and “talked to her about the things that I’d changed or why I do things the way I did, and sometimes she was silent, and then occasionally she spoke up,” he says. But overall, the always-busy author was calm, telling Moffat, “‘What I want you to do — no pressure — is make a big hit 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 tried to stay true to the source material even as he adapted Niffenegger’s story to fit the structure of a weekly television show. “It’s not about change. It’s not that I picked up this book and thought I wanted to fix it. The book is perfect,” emphasizes Moffat. And compared to the 2009 film, which starred Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, the HBO series delves deeply into the central themes of the book. “I liked the film and a lot of people love this film,” says Moffat. “We probably need three episodes to nail down how time travel really, really works and to make sure the audience is hooked on that. At this point in the film you hardly have time to deal with what it’s really about, which is being the time traveler’s wife and what the relationship is like and most importantly what love is like, what good love is like, that is the theme of the book it explores brilliantly.”
CHEMISTRY IS THE KEY | When it came time to read together for the producers, thanks to the pandemic, Leslie and James tried creating chemistry via computer screens. “The audition was really weird,” describes Leslie. “I’ve never done a chemistry read on Zoom. The world we were living in back then was December 2020 when I came onto the chemistry stage and so very, very strange trying to connect with someone on the other side of a webcam.” Luckily, the stars had something in their favor: a bit of shared history. “I told Rose she’ll be reading with Theo James. A spark of interest somehow sparkled in her eyes. I said, ‘OK, what’s this all about?’” recalls Nutter. “Then I realized they kind of knew each other Downton Abbey many years ago. I don’t even think they acted together. But there were some warm feelings between the two, and they were very positive. So I think we felt and saw a kind of spark there and we paid attention to those first impressions and it was really, really special.”
A HENRY WAS MORE DIFFICULT AND MORE FUN | Of all the different ages James portrays Henry at, the actor found the 20’s version “hardest, because I didn’t want to exaggerate that he’s young and boisterous. But at the same time it has to be different,” says James. For Leslie, however, what was most fun was playing with this special Henry. “[He’s] kinda frivolous and loose and a nihilist,” says the actress. “And as a result, I really enjoyed that because he’s just a little bit of a jerk and it’s just pretty fun to play on and there was a lot of energy.”
TIME TRAVEL HURTS | Every time Henry is transported to the future or the past, he is literally dropped with a big drop blow in this period. “It was painful and I had a lot of bumps and bruises,” says James of filming those scenes. “I kind of wanted that. There were some softer landings. I remember there was one I begged David to reshoot because every time I wanted to feel ‘ow! Jesus!’ This isn’t just some kind of funny romantic comedy about someone falling through time. It’s something where he gets really loopy. So yes, it hurt in real life.”
CONSIDER THE MAINTENANCE | One of the points at which the book has been criticized is that an adult Henry repeatedly visits Clare when she was a child and expresses concern that he nursed her. “That’s not the story in the book, the movie, or the TV show. He is married to her,” counters Moffat. “He meets her as an adult, he falls in love with her, he marries her, and then through no fault of his own is thrown back in time and confronted with the childhood version of the woman he already loves. Even more so in the TV show version, he makes it absolutely clear that he’s just a friend.” Also, the Henry who visits young Clare is “a responsible man, so he has tremendously strict rules about that,” he says that he will never tell her who he is in the future.
The two characters also chat about who groomed who in one of the episodes. “If one of them changes the other, Clare changes Henry,” adds Moffat. “Clare as a little girl is exactly the same person 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.”