How the Doctor Who and Sherlock mastermind is digging into Audrey Niffenegger's timey-wimey stuff for HBO.

If anyone was going to adapt Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling 2003 novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, it makes sense it would be Steven Moffat — the man who, alongside Russell T. Davies, helped reinvigorate the Doctor Who franchise and get a new generation obsessed with time travel.

The novel has been adapted to the screen before, in a critically maligned 2009 film starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. But now in a series for HBO, Moffat is trying to honor the book he fell in love with so much that he even loosely based a Doctor Who episode, "The Girl in the Fireplace," on it.

The Time Traveler's Wife follows Clare (Rose Leslie), a girl who meets a mysterious man, Henry (Theo James) one day near her home and ultimately comes to learn that he is a time traveler she will eventually fall in love with and marry. The story chronicles their romance and the challenges of being married to a man who has no control over where or when he might suddenly hurdle through time.

We called up Moffat to peer into the future and see what he might have in store for us when the series comes to HBO in 2022.

Time Traveler's Wife
Theo James and Rose Leslie
| Credit: Macall Polay/HBO

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know that you loved the novel The Time Traveler's Wife so much that one of your Doctor Who episodes was inspired by it. Just what was it about the story that captured your imagination?

STEVEN MOFFAT: It uses the prism of time travel to brilliantly rearrange the details of an ordinary, yet very successful, love story. We often do tragic love stories and we often do divorces and we all do the story of how people first got together. These are the things that fiction tends to favor. The thing that we never ever write about is one of the most common phenomena in human history — the perfectly happy marriage — because they're not very dramatic. Audrey was taking the details of a happy, successful, absolutely monogamous, absolutely mutually nourishing relationship and made it interesting by just adding time travel. It's extraordinary how seldom anyone writes about that. Divorce isn't a mystery. You know why that happens. Why the hell wouldn't it? Heartbreak isn't a mystery because you know how that happens too.

Given that love, did you really actively pursue this project? Were you perhaps interested in the film and then thought, "Ah, well, there goes my chance?"

Well, it wasn't really like that. I read the book and loved it. It wasn't long after it came out. I remember saying to Russell who was running Doctor Who at the time, "We should do a Doctor Who story like that." And so, I did, which was "The Girl in the Fireplace." But all I'd done in Doctor Who was use the wonderful, fantastical element of an out-of-sequence relationship. That's not really doing The Time Traveler's Wife, that's running with one of the ideas from it. In terms of the film, by the time I had read the book, the film rights were gone. At that stage, I wasn't in the position to be the person who wrote it. Although, I remember thinking about it back then, and my immediate instinct was a TV show. A film is too short. If you know the book, it rambles a bit because it's not a jeopardy-driven, plot-driven piece. It's a prose poem about love, longing, and loss. It doesn't shrink well into the three-act structure of a conventional movie. If you reduce it to what happens, you've boiled away everything that's interesting about it.

We did chase it. When I was coming off Doctor Who back in the day, three or four years ago, my co-exec on that said, "I've been looking into the rights for The Time Traveler's Wife, and I know where they are and I think we could get them." And I was very interested.

Why does time travel as a concept appeal to you so much?

Non-linear narrative appeals to me massively. I've always written nonlinear, and when people have taken me to task for always writing things in the wrong order, I always say, "What's the right order? Is your memory in sequence?" The story of our lives in our head is in a jumble of the wrong order, so what is the right order to tell a story? And if the story of your own life is non-sequential, who are you to dictate that any other story should be in what is notionally and incorrectly called the right order?

The time travel functions very differently from Doctor Who. How did you work out the parameters for the series?

It bears no resemblance to anything I've done in terms of time travel before. Doctor Who loves time traveling, and mainly it's just the bus seat they get on to arrive at their next adventure. Here, Audrey is saying to her reader, "Keep up. This is the story of a man living his life in the wrong order, and I'm not necessarily going to tell it in the right order." What I admired as I read it is the fact you have to lean forward into the book and keep up. Make an audience pay attention and they will be rewarded. So, I went with the Audrey principles of it, really. We're not going to make it easy for you. You are going to pay attention.

Why were Theo James and Rose Leslie the right choice for you for Henry and Clare?

It was a simple matter of auditioning. With Clare, I said, "Look, it's got to be a redhead. She's a redhead in the book." For some reason, that is a detail you are not allowed to change. Sometimes in a story, some details don't matter and some do. James Bond can't suddenly be 006. Sherlock Holmes can't live in a street other than Baker Street. These might seem unimportant details, but they're not. So, Clare has to be a redhead. The other hilarious thing I said was, "For god's sake we're a bunch of Brits taking on an American classic, so let's make sure that for once we cast a couple of American actors." We ended up, of course, casting a couple of Brits. But they were outstanding in their auditions.

Rose Leslie, it's a tricky part, Clare, because she's not at all passive. But it would be easy to make her seem passive. She has to be quite aggressive and not really completely okay with the fact that she's been strapped to a timeline that she cannot alter. She has to actually rebel against it. In a sense, you have to be able to retain that strident sense of your own agency in the role. There were a lot of rather sweet, very good, but slightly passive players. And there was Rose Leslie's Clare, who was just totally in the moment. Somebody who lives utterly in the moment being told what's going to happen next by somebody who lives every moment at once, that's a potent and at times fiery combination. She is just strikingly right, and it's not that easy to do. Clare is the main character. It's not about the time traveler, but about the time traveler's wife.

Right. And Theo?

I think he's going to really shock people with just how good he is, because he has to play several different Henrys. He has to play this sort of not particularly likable, but rather charming punk Henry that she first meets from the library who's such a disappointment to her. And he has to play the wise elder statesman Henry that she turns the young punk into, but who's still a bit more devilish than he seems. We were just marveling today in the cutting room at the contrasts in his performance when he plays a scene with himself, which he quite often has to do. He can make himself a different Henry just in such small details.

You've certainly tackled love stories in your work before, but I would say this is the first out-and-out romance you've done. So, has that been a new challenge for you? How did you approach that?

It used to be all I ever wrote. I used to do rom-coms, but they were sitcoms. I find the politics of a romance, especially a romance that extends into a lengthy, happy marriage really fascinating. You put a man and a woman in the same life spot forever and it's never going to be boring. As I was saying earlier, romance tends to end at the altar. What I like about this is it's the far bigger, far more complicated, extraordinary, and moving story of what goes on once you live up to that promise you made in the heat of passion.

How did writing romantic connections like Rose and the Doctor or Sherlock and Irene feed how you see and write about Henry and Clare?

Rose and the Doctor was more Russell than me, but they're all fragments of a real relationship, I would say. Sherlock and Irene are two massively insane people who, if they had any sense would just go to bed and get on with it. But because they're nuts, they can't do that. They have to engage in a game of mutual torture. Now, that's a caricatured piece of what people are like together. There's an element of that in a relationship — the one-upmanship, the competition, the desire to make the other one prove that they care. All those things come out in an exaggerated, mad, operatic way with Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.

What we're trying to do in The Time Traveler's Wife, for all the fantastical setup of it is Henry and Clare themselves are quite real. There's never anybody else. There's never any thought that they might wish to cheat on each other or be bored of each other. There's none of that, and I found that fascinating because people always say, "It's hard work being married." I've been married to Sue [Vertue] for 20 odd years and it's the easiest thing I've ever done. I don't find it very hard work at all. I know what hard work is like. God knows it's not that. Yes, there's some promises you have to keep, but they're good promises to keep. I keep banging on about this book, but it's celebrating the one thing that fiction tends to disdain — the miracle of how unremarkable a successful, loving relationship is.

You mentioned how a lot of stories end at the altar, but the photograph you've shared with us is of Henry and Clare's wedding. So, can you tell me more about that scene in general?

We wanted that episode to just be joyous because there are some very sad and upsetting things happening. All that stuff is sometimes quite heartrending. There's the underlying doom. But we just wanted to do an episode that ended on an entirely joyous note.

How closely will your series hew to the novel?

I was watching it this morning and wondering what an absolute purist would make of this. There are places where we've altered things. There are more places where we've extrapolated a bit, taken something and blown it out and made more of it than it was there. Television proceeds as a series of short stories. Each episode has to be complete in and of itself. You need a little three-act story each week. So, sometimes, you have to move things around. I'm hoping that my own love of the book is such that we keep what matters, and we keep a lot of details correct that fans of the book will recognize. It tells the same story. I'm not going to change that. Sometimes, you see an adaptation of a book, and it just feels as though you chopped up the book into six hours and fed it through. I don't think that honors the original. You've got to really make it a beast that survives in its new environment, and television is a different experience from a novel. The thing I've always been very keen to say is, you're not correcting it, you're not fixing what was once wrong. You are adapting it to a new landscape; that's all you're doing. Hopefully, the television show feels the same as reading the book.

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