Standing in an alpine meadow, three children look around them in wonder. As we follow their gaze, we could almost expect Julie Andrews to crest the hillside declaring that the hills are alive. Except the grass is a little too green, the lakes a bit too intensely aqua. This isn’t Austria. Instead of the Alps on the horizon, curiously curved peaks rise finger-like through the clouds. Stranger still, enormous orbs—there must be hundreds of them—drift above the landscape like hot-air balloons. Yet, attached to the ground with vine-like tethers, they can’t be balloons. They’re verdant, covered with vegetation, some even topped with lakes. Then suddenly, the children realize that the hills are indeed alive—alive with yellow and fuchsia orchids, stemless and sentient, swarming to greet them, giggling and chattering. “Where are we?” the youngest child asks.
They are, of course, in another world, the planet Uriel, in Ava DuVernay’s masterful, just-released-and-much-anticipated film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Award-winning children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time.
The best fantasy films and fiction take us to new worlds that help us better understand our own, worlds that, because they are not limited by the boundaries of the probable, give artists the freedom to intensify their characters’ experience in a setting of the possible. Wrinkle, L’Engle said, gave her the opportunity in a story to explore “questions about the universe which the theologians weren’t answering.” Her exploration has given us a powerful coming-of-age story, but it has puzzled—and drawn the censorious ire—of some. As Katherine Paterson observed in her introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Wrinkle, “In our world, there are the scientifically minded that scoff at the stories told by the religious and the religiously inclined who refuse to accept the theories of modern science.”
DuVernay has done what every translator of a classic work aspires to do. Oh, hers is not a literal translation. Such translations, stilted and wooden, never work. They’re painful to listen to, painful to watch. Imagine Dostoevsky or García Márquez translated by Google, or, if you’re really feeling masochistic, dig up clips of the mini-series of “Wrinkle” produced by ABC in 2003.
DuVernay’s film is anything but painful. It’s an energetically imaginative delight that captures the essence of L’Engle’s novel. Visually brilliant and fast-paced, the film streamlines the novel’s plot, adding backstory to show viewers scenes that the print version narrates in the most minimal terms, and editing out elements that would bog down the pace or that would be virtually impossible to film. For example, instead of simply being told that the children were being bullied at school, teased by peers and misunderstood by adults, we get see the scenes unfold; we get to identify with the characters and feel the emotional impact. Then, too, DuVernay avoids the pitfall of trying to portray the creatures on L’Engle’s Ixchel, a planet inhabited by grotesque, but beneficent creatures. L’Engle’s point is that exterior ugliness can be paired with interior beauty. Such a point may work better on the page than on the screen, particularly when the alien in question is a tall, faceless, tentacle-covered creature with four arms. In the 2003 mini-series, these creatures looked and sounded like Chewbacca’s cousins, undermining the seriousness of the scene because of their comical visual dissonance. DuVernay cuts the scene, but preserves a crucial element—an episode of tension between Meg and her father—by integrating Meg’s petulance and anger into other scenes of the film.
A Wrinkle in Time has a lot going for it. It resonates with readers in part because L’Engle patterns the novel on what anthropologist Joseph Campbell terms the monomyth of our civilization—an archetypal quest story. In his famous Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes the pattern in terms that could, except for its gendered language, be a synopsis of L’Engle’s plot:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
What L’Engle added to this plot was a female protagonist and a healthy dose of science, both of which stretched the boundaries of children’s publishing at the time. The protagonist, Meg Murry, enters the story like many a protagonist in young adult fiction. She sees life as unfair; her scientist father is missing in space; her classmates bully her and her younger brother, Charles Wallace; the townspeople join her teachers in gossiping about her father’s disappearance; she’s unhappy with her looks, feeling very plain in comparison with her attractive and successful scientist mother. Meg’s greatest desire is for everything to be okay, for her family to be normal, and for her life to be like everyone else’s.
What Meg discovers is the value of her peculiarity and the nefariousness of normalcy. She and Charles Wallace, along with Calvin O’Keefe, a friend from school, are led across the universe on the quest to find the missing Mr. Murry. Their guides are three quirky guardian angels, known to the children as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. (In the latest film, these guides are played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey.) The interplanetary journey reveals the moral battle that is being waged across the universe. Planets and stars alike are under attack by what the novel calls the Black Thing, a malicious darkness that absorbs goodness and light by sending its tendrils of evil across the light years of space.
L’Engle uses Camazotz, the planet where Mr. Murry is imprisoned and a planet wholly under the control of the Black Thing, to exemplify the nature of evil in her universe. Camazotz, which looks a lot like the suburban America of the 1950s, is under the control of a disembodied brain called IT, and evil, Meg discovers, manifests itself as absolute conformity—her desired normalcy on steroids. In the driveways of identical houses, children skip rope or bounce balls in eerie unison, stopping only when their mothers, each wearing similar print dresses, simultaneously emerge to call their children for supper.
In the events that follow, Meg learns to value her faults—her anger, her stubbornness, and her quirky independence—to counter the forces of conformity, but most of all she learns to exercise an expansive kind of love that involves both taking risks and taking responsibility for her actions. In a passage of the novel that engendered controversy in some Christian circles, Mrs. Whatsit lists other heroes in the battle against evil: Jesus, Euclid, Copernicus, DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Einstein, Curie, Schweitzer, Buddha, Bach, and Beethoven—all figures who changed the world through their creativity and nonconformity.
Since its publication in 1962, L’Engle’s novel has inspired generations of readers, a reality that added several degrees of difficulty to DuVernay’s task of creating a visual language elastic enough to depict L’Engle’s universe. She not only had to envision the several planets to which L’Engle sends her questers, she also had to please L’Engle’s very loyal fans.
L’Engle herself noted that “the book has meant different things to different readers, and that it has even meant different things to the same reader at different times in his or her life,” a fact that Catherine Hand, the film’s producer, cites as one reason that it took decades for studio writers to come up with a satisfactory screenplay. No script can make every viewer happy.
That fact is evident in some of the early reviews. Writing for The New Yorker, Richard Brody complains that the screenwriters elided the book’s “overt religious references,” as well as “the book’s most conspicuous and dramatic elements of science,” not to mention the novel’s “elements of social science,” complaining in somewhat mind-boggling terms that DuVernay’s Camazotz, the story’s dystopia and planetary manifestation of evil, lacks the book’s imaginative vision, reducing it to an “adulteration of the novel.” We can only guess that what Brody wanted from the film were additional scenes of synchronized behavior from the citizens of Camazotz to underline the theme that conformity as a manifestation of evil. Brody is correct in noting that the film does not include the biblical quotations uttered by the aphoristic Mrs. Who; it also omits Cervantes and Goethe, among others, replacing them with quotations more accessible to a mainstream audience.
Those biblical quotations, however, contributed very little to the theology of the book; its theology is embedded in the plot. According to L’Engle, the mention of the name of Jesus or the quotation of the Bible doesn’t make a book a Christian book; what’s important, rather, is the attractiveness of the world of faith created by the characters and the plot. Does the story, L’Engle would ask, invite the audience to identify with moral action? My guess is that she would say that the film does exactly that.
DuVernay’s sensuous use of color, her captivating special effects, and fast-paced cuts make time fly, but her changes to Wrinkle also make the story tighter. She makes Charles Wallace an adopted child, a surprise to L’Engle fans, but a thematically brilliant way to develop the mathematical connections between identity and love. Both Charles Wallace and Meg, played by Deric McCabe and Storm Reid, discover that a mathematically improbable number of actions and events have conspired to bring them together as a family and to prepare them for their crucial roles in the events of the story.
Disney’s offer of the director’s chair to DuVernay inevitably attracted the industry’s spotlight. She was the first African American woman to work as the solo director of a film with a budget north of $100 million, and among only four women in the history of film to be given the opportunity to work with a budget that high. Her casting, moreover, signaled her fresh take on L’Engle’s classic and further raised viewers’ expectations. In a cover story last December, Time reported that DuVernay’s first vision for Wrinkle involved faces, not planets, that the director imagined Meg with brown skin and her guides to be “black, white and someone who wasn’t either.” DuVernay told Time that she “wasn’t just casting for actresses,” she “was casting for leaders—icons.” Kaling, Witherspoon, and Winfrey bring a quirky winsomeness and depth to their portrayals, and the young Reid—passionate, skeptical, and accessible—plays Meg perfectly.
The diverse cast extends L’Engle’s story, opening it for broader audiences. Both Winfrey and Kaling said that as children they hadn’t encountered Wrinkle—it didn’t show up in their neighborhoods. The film will, no doubt, play in those neighborhoods and many others. Yet DuVernay has done much more than add brown faces to the story.
DuVernay’s Wrinkle presents the same major theme as L’Engle’s—the power of love to triumph over evil. But is the love that’s celebrated in the film the same kind of Christ-like love celebrated in the novel? Is it a lesser, more sentimental love? Is love simply a word, as Charles Wallace declares when he’s possessed by the evil IT?
Because of the Disney imprint and Winfrey’s involvement in the project, some viewers may find it easy to leap to the conclusion that DuVernay’s love is an easy, feel-good emotion coming from these two magic kingdoms of popular culture. They’d be helped on the way to that conclusion by the clunky and didactic scene near film’s end in which DuVernay has the three guardians summarize Meg’s accomplishments, jarring viewers by having Mrs. Who break character, drop her habitual quotations, and speak directly to Meg.
However, DuVernay’s craft throughout the rest of the film gives the careful viewer a nuanced and resonant sense of love, one that matches that of the novel. It is love, after all, that gives Mr. Murry the proper frequency to develop the tesseract, the deep and passionate attachment that he accidentally observes in Mrs. Murry’s crooning of a lullaby to the newly adopted infant Charles Wallace. It is love—Meg’s stubborn and ardent love for her father—that enables her to redirect Mrs. Which’s tesser to Camazotz from the intended target of earth. It is Meg’s love for Charles Wallace that empowers Meg to rebuff her father’s caution and to risk her life in the inner sanctum of evil in order to rescue her younger brother.
This is A Wrinkle in Time’s answer to the problem of evil in the universe. It’s an existential one. Evil manifests itself in small actions—moments of jealousy, anger, fear, and hate that grow exponentially if not confronted. The book and the film demonstrate that it’s up to each of us to counter evil with the kind of risk-taking, passionate love that is the one thing that can defeat it.
Donald Hettinga is a professor of English at Calvin College. He is the author of Presenting Madeleine L’Engle.