Almost 20 years after Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling book, The Time Traveler's Wife, was first published, it arrives on the small screen for its second filmed adaptation: a six-part series that starts on Sunday (May 15) on HBO Max. It should never have been a movie.
The story follows Rose Leslie’s Clare and Theo James’ Henry, a couple whose relationship is made rather complicated by Henry’s condition, a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel frequently and unpredictably, leaving Clare behind as he goes.
The book, which has sold over 2.5 million copies, was optioned for a movie by Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment before it was even released, with Warner Brothers backing it with the promise of a lavish adaptation. Sadly, the adaptation turned out to be ill-fated. Stephen Spielberg and David Fincher expressed an interest in taking it on, but never did. Gus Van Sant was attached for a while and then left. Finally, Robert Schwentke, the man behind colossal turkey R.I.P.D and mangled action thriller Snake Eyes, was employed.
The resulting film, which starred Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, was a relative box office success, but a critical disaster and it does not hold up well. The reasons for this are multitudinous. The production took an age with endless reshoots and last-minute rewrites; the script is wooden and hammy and brings out the worst in the source material.
With that said, even a world-class director like Spielberg or Fincher would have struggled to capture the majesty of the book. We meet Henry and Clare at different points in their lives – the narrative jumping about in time constantly. Any film, even one where Schwentke had opted for a runtime a lot longer than the 107 minutes he decided on, would have felt rushed. HBO Max’s adaptation has six hours to play with, and, while reviews have not been glowing for the new take, they are a big step up from the movie, with this format suiting the structure far more.
This complex story doesn’t work as a movie, but back in 2005 when work began on the project, film was the only place for prestige storytelling. The place to attract the best actors, the biggest budgets and the biggest audiences was on the silver screen. It would have seemed inconceivable that it’d end up on television.
Now though, it’s a very different world, and with Netflix, Hulu, Paramount Plus and the myriad of other streaming services, stories can take as long as producers want them to.
That got us thinking. What other stories got mangled by a rushed movie adaptation? Which other books deserve another go with more time taken over the story, not crammed into a cinematic runtime? We’ve chosen five that we think deserve a miniseries…
It is mystifying how The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ended up as a film. Production didn’t begin until 2018, when the dawn of long-form television was well underway and costs were shared by Warner Brothers and Amazon, the parent companies of HBO and Prime Video.
Tartt’s novel is a huge, meandering thing that follows a young boy named Theodore Decker. His life is changed completely after his mother is killed during a terrorist bombing at a museum and a dying man convinces him to steal a famous painting, the titular Goldfinch, from the museum.
At a whopping 771 pages, the novel was always going to be difficult to condense into a movie-length narrative, but what made no sense at all was the baffling decision to do away with the novel’s linear structure and jump around in time instead.
In the end, the film was badly received, lost money and did no justice to the book. Perhaps in a few years’ time, it’ll get a Time Traveler’s Wife style revisiting – it’d certainly suit the material much better.
Detective stories have always been best told on television. The twists and turns, the red herrings and misdirection, it’s just suited to TV’s episodic nature. So why Jo Nesbø’s icy thriller The Snowman was crowbarred into a film is anyone’s guess.
On the surface, the film had a lot going for it. Michael Fassbender was snared to play Harry Hole, Nesbø’s troubled, unorthodox, and yet brilliant detective who he has taken through 12 bestselling novels. Hossein Amini, who'd adapted Drive so skillfully, was among the writers. Tomas Alfredson, who wowed with Let The Right One In and his new take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was in place to direct. Yet it turned out to be a complete disaster.
The narrative, which follows Hole as he tracks a serial killer who builds snowmen at his crime scenes, somehow manages to feel slow and rushed at the same time, while an excellent supporting cast that included Rebecca Ferguson, Val Kilmer and J. K. Simmons were completely wasted.
Riddled with plot holes, none of which are in Nesbø’s book, the film got a deserved kicking from critics and has a risible 6% on Rotten Tomatoes. Afterward, Alfredson blamed the heavily-condensed pre-production and rushed filming schedule, and he admitted that 15% of the screenplay remained unfilmed because there simply wasn’t enough time to do so.
Nesbø’s book series has sold over 50 million copies, and, on the page, Hole’s travails are gripping and primed for the small screen. He deserves a prestige detective series that suits the material, just as Lee Child was granted when Prime Video rebooted Jack Reacher. Make it happen.
The Girl On The Train
Paula Hawkins’ novel was a runaway success when it landed in bookshops in 2015, so much so that by the autumn of the following year, a movie was already in theaters.
The story chronicles the life of Rachel Watson, a divorcée struggling with alcoholism and broken by the end of her marriage, who aimlessly gets the train into London each day despite the fact that she no longer has a job. From the train window, she can see the house of her former husband Tom, his new wife Anna, and their neighbors Scott and Megan Hipwell; and she fixates on their lives. This fixation then gets very dark indeed when Rachel wakes up covered in blood and Megan is reported missing…
The film, which stars Emily Blunt, Luke Evans and Rebecca Ferguson, is perfectly serviceable, it’s just too short for the novel’s many twists to really pay off. The novel is also transplanted to New York, which robs it of a layer of grimy detail that brought a good deal to the narrative. A Netflix three-parter would have suited the material much more.
Live By Night
Prior to this, novelist Dennis Lehane had enjoyed a charmed life with the screen adaptations of his work. His novel Mystic River was brilliantly adapted, Martin Scorsese brought Leonardo DiCaprio to the party in his take on his psychological thriller Shutter Island, and Ben Affleck had stewarded a steely and powerful take on his novel, Gone Baby Gone.
So, when Affleck announced that he would be directing and starring in an adaptation of Live By Night, Warner Brothers must have been rubbing their hands with glee. Sadly, this one bucked the trend and ended up losing more than $75 million.
Unlike Gone Baby Gone, which is a tight thriller with a narrative that fits a singular offering, Live By Night is a sprawling story that tracks Joe Coughlin, an ambitious Ybor City bootlegger in the roaring 20s who works his way up to becoming a notorious gangster.
Packed with double-crossing, violent shootouts, car chases and great plot twists, the movie should have been top-notch, but the story felt too compressed and the pacing was off.
Choosing this format was a strange move, especially as Live By Night is the middle instalment in a trilogy of novels. Perhaps one day HBO will film all three as part of a grand series, that would be fantastic.
This final entry was going to be the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's highly-acclaimed 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, but thankfully a miniseries is in the works.
Instead, we’ve gone for a book from the man who actually adapted Never Let Me Go for the screen, Alex Garland, and his 1996 debut novel, The Beach. The novel follows Richard, a young backpacker in Thailand who decides to search for a legendary isolated beach untouched by tourism. After finding it alongside two new friends, the trio discovers that a community of backpackers lives there, shut off from the outside world to live a slow-paced life of leisure. It looks like paradise, but it turns out to be anything but.
Everything about The Beach looked like a sure-fire winner. The book had been a huge success, leading man Leonardo DiCaprio was the biggest star in the world after his role in Titanic, and director Danny Boyle was still basking in the glow of Trainspotting, but it didn’t work out. The adaptation was muddy and off-kilter and wound up feeling (no pun intended) shallow, with many of Garland’s themes lost in the jump from page to screen.
Tellingly, a TV spin-off from the book was in development. Boyle revealed in 2019 that Amy Seimetz, star and creator of The Girlfriend Experience, had written a new take on the story, set 20 years after the book. Where it’s at now, we don’t know…