When Steven Moffat read The Time Traveler’s Wife, he had just written his first episode of Doctor Who. Like millions of readers, the Scottish screenwriter devoured Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel about a reluctant time traveler and his long-suffering wife – and quickly borrowed the idea.
The result was The Girl in the Fireplace – a 2006 Doctor Who episode in which David Tennant’s Time Lord falls in love with King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. “It’s very similar in mood if not in detail,” says Moffat, who became the sci-fi series’ showrunner and also created the hit BBC dramas Sherlock and Dracula.
“It’s about an accelerated relationship, and I did it consciously – knowing that I was doing The Time Traveler’s Wife. Back in the days of Doctor Who, I was more interested in the time travel aspect than most people probably aren’t – I loved puzzles and time paradoxes.
Moffat didn’t realize the Chicago author had scolded her until she published a second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. “She has a character in the book who actually watches The Girl in the Fireplace on TV, so I knew she was onto me. At that time, I could be more obvious, so I made Doctor Who a woman – River Song.”
Played by Alex Kingston, River Song meets multiple incarnations of her alien husband-to-be – much like the evil-starred couple from The Time Traveler’s Wife meet at different ages.
Moffat finally met Niffenegger at the press launch for River Song’s final Doctor Who appearance and has now come full circle: He’s penned HBO’s version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which espouses his science fiction penchant. and prickly romantic comedies such as his pre-Who comedy Coupling.
He admits he’s “nervous” about comparisons to the novel and the 2009 film adaptation, which cast Rachel McAdams as the long-suffering heroine. “People are very invested in the book, and a lot of people love the movie.”
The TV show stars two Brits: Theo James as Henry, a librarian from Chicago who travels unwittingly through time, often passing by his younger self and his future wife Clare. She’s played by Rose Leslie, who made a name for herself as the free-spirited Ygritte in Game of Thrones and housekeeper in Downton Abbey.
“There’s a storm inside Clare, and Rose Leslie was the only person who understood it — who made it fiery,” says Moffat.
There was, however, a small complication: Leslie was very pregnant. “When we finished the last round of auditions, I said, ‘Literally, the only question we have here is, how do we handle childcare? We have exactly one Clare.’”
How did they handle child care? “I think Kit Harington would like a word,” he jokes. “He took care of the children. We tried to be as accommodating as we humanly could given the monstrously long hours and the size of the room. Harington is, of course, Leslie’s Game of Thrones co-star and real-life husband.
Although Moffat originally chose The Time Traveler’s Wife because of its title, it wasn’t the time-defying plot that he found compelling in the book. “It’s ordinary love seen in an extraordinary way,” he explains. “One of the hardest things to write about is a perfectly happy relationship because it seems kind of boring. But seeing it through the prism of time travel reminds everyone that love and loss are inextricably linked: love means loss.
“It reminds you that tragedy underlies every love story and that every day is precious. There is no bliss forever – there is bliss for a moment. I was reading it thinking, ‘How Can Henry handle the fact that he knows he’s going to die? Oh yeah, I know I’m going to die too – why am I relaxed?'”
Unlike Doctor Who’s Time Lord, Henry is not a superhero. “He can’t change the time; he is a victim of it. It’s not like Back to the Future – nothing is going to change. He has no superpowers.
Although set in Chicago, HBO’s version was mostly filmed in and around New York City. Moffat was only on set for the final week of the six-month shoot, partly due to COVID travel restrictions and partly because he was busy filming his upcoming thrillers Inside Man and The Devil’s Hour in Farnborough, both of which feature former Time Lords.
David Tennant is a vicar in Inside Man, which hits the BBC and Netflix later this year; Peter Capaldi plays a reclusive nomad in Amazon Prime Video’s The Devil’s Hour, which Moffat and Sue Vertue are producing. All three shoots had to be halted due to positive COVID tests.
“Honestly, I didn’t think we would get to the end of any of them. There were a lot of challenges, and a lot of the joy, frankly, came out of it. »
While waiting to see if viewers will fall in love with her take on The Time Traveler’s Wife, Moffat is already working on a follow-up: “I’m optimistic writing the second season right now.”
Is he a romantic? “I would like to think so. Are there really people who aren’t? There are 7.5 billion people in the world – they come from somewhere. I think there is still a certain enthusiasm for the subject.
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The Time Traveler’s Wife begins on HBO on Sunday May 15 and Sky Atlantic on Monday May 16. Find out how to sign up for Sky TV here.
You can also order the original Time Traveler’s Wife book on Amazon. For more, check out our science fiction page or our full TV guide.