When reviewing a film, I’ve always strived to avoid reading anything about it, so I can evaluate the film while untainted by others’ opinions. Today, however, that is no longer possible. In a world where people are starving in Venezuela, and innocent civilians are being slaughtered in Syria, the breaking news each week is the anticipated fortunes of the major films about to be released. So, simply by glancing at the recent headlines of news sites, I already knew when I entered the theatre that, in the eyes of many, Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time was a flawed film likely to garner disappointing returns. And while I’d love to play the contrarian and proclaim the film a masterpiece, I completely understand why it has disappointed those viewers. To be sure, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t an awful film, but it certainly is a dull film that only occasionally sputters to life and will regularly bore both children and their parents. Its issues paradoxically involve both the film’s fidelity to its source material – Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962) – and its efforts to reshape L’Engle’s story to match contemporary sensibilities.
Both novel and film tell the same basic story: twelve-year-old Meg Murry (Storm Reid), her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and new friend Calvin (Levi Miller), with the assistance of three mysterious women – Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) – embark upon a journey through space in search of Meg’s scientist father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), who has long been missing. But L’Engle bequeathed one problem to future adapters of her novel: she lacked a background in science fiction, and displayed little interest in the preliminary work of world-building; rather, one guesses, she made up her universe as she went along, so that her story lacks a sense of conviction. A particularly unfortunate moment comes when Mrs. Whatsit reveals that she had once been a star, who destroyed herself to combat the insidious IT – which simply seems silly. Thankfully, the film omits that detail, and while there remains an aura of unreality about Meg’s adventures, there was at least an effort to transform the sketchily described planet Uriel into a fully realized world, with varied environments and sentient flowers; also, instead of becoming a centaur, Mrs. Whatsit more imaginatively transforms herself into a sort of organic flying carpet. Further, to buttress the scientific justification for the story, DuVernay recruited a capable “Scientific Advisor,” renowned African-American physicist Stephon Alexander, who doubtless assisted in providing the film with updated language about “quantum entanglement” as evidence for the possibility of extra-dimensional teleportation.
Any screenwriter reading the novel will notice another challenge for any screen adaptation: L’Engle’s plot basically takes the children to a series of alien planets where they have extended conversations with various good and evil characters, which might be interesting to read but stultifying as a visual experience. So, predictably, screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have severely edited the chatter and added exciting new sequences where the children find themselves in desperate peril; and probably thinking that L’Engle’s enormous brain would seem insufficiently menacing, the film’s IT is depicted more as a mass of dark, threatening tentacles. And director DuVernay has tried to enliven the necessary infodumps with scenes of spectacular visual splendor that sometimes are awe-inspiring and sometimes aren’t. Charles Wallace is now an adopted child, not a natural child, and the film has excised some aspects of the story, notably Meg’s twin brothers Sandy and Dennys and her visit to the planet of the sightless, tentacled Aunt Beast and her alien cohorts – which deprived the film of a good opportunity for some striking visual effects, but did provide more screen time for Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling, who reappear in place of the aliens.(Frankly, I wish they had retained Aunt Beast and instead eliminated the character of the Happy Medium [Zach Galafianakis], another it-must-have-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time aspect of the novel that didn’t work in the book and doesn’t work in the film.)
Another alteration in L’Engle’s story will attract more attention than it should: while all of the characters in the novel are clearly Caucasian, DuVernay has made the Murrys an interracial couple; Meg, now their biracial daughter, is embarking upon her own interracial romance with the Caucasian Calvin; and their oldest helper, Mrs. Which, is portrayed by the African-American Winfrey. None of this has any impact on the effectiveness of the film, which should encourage more filmmakers to engage in this sort of color-blind casting. However, while striking a blow against racism, A Wrinkle in Time can be accused of another sort of discrimination: ageism. In the novel, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which all speak and act like elderly women, and their advanced age is confirmed by some descriptive language: Mrs. Whatsit has “a sparse quality of grayish hair … tied in a small tidy knot on top of her head”; Mrs. Who, when she finally manifests herself, appears as an old witch with “a beaked nose,” “long gray hair,” and “a bony claw” that “clutched a broomstick”; and the “plump” Mrs. Who depends upon “enormous spectacles, twice as thick and twice as large as Meg’s,” suggesting she is no longer young. But hey, the casting director must have thought, nobody wants to look at wrinkled old people, and actresses of a certain age have little box office appeal. So, of the three actresses cast in the parts, only Winfrey is actually in the appropriate age range, though she contrives to look like a woman in her forties, and while they are actually a bit older, Witherspoon and Kaling are made to appear like women in their twenties. All of this sadly suggests that only relatively young people can be useful in a crisis, and it also means that any number of excellent older actresses, much better suited for the roles, were unfairly overlooked in favor of more youthful competitors.
Overall, for people who love the novel (and I do not), all of these changes in the film will probably be only minor annoyances. They may be more disquieted, however, by the ways that Lee and Stockwell have significantly altered the message embedded in L’Engle’s narrative. Reflecting the concerns of the 1950s, when the novel was written, A Wrinkle in Time is primarily a fable about the evils of conformity – both the social conformity encouraged in democratic countries and the conformity imposed by Communist dictatorships. L’Engle further adds a Christian element to her argument, associating the acceptance of eccentricity with God and the insistence on uniformity with the Devil, who here takes the form of the sinister IT. Unsurprisingly, the film throws almost all of these themes out the window as unacceptable to modern audiences; for while people now embrace diversity in race, religion, culture, gender, and sexual orientation, and hence would never seek to force Christian values down their throats, they want people to conform to their enlightened, inclusive attitudes, and stigmatize those who do not. Hence, while the film retains the classic scene where Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin observe a neighborhood on the planet Camazotz where all the children are bouncing balls in unison, this is revealed to be an illusion, designed to entrap the visitors, and a subsequent, equally illusory scene of a crowded, chaotic beach additionally undermines the idea that the residents of Camazotz are being dragooned into robotic conformity. In fact, since the film’s version of the evil man with red eyes, Red (Michael Peña), is revealed to be a puppet, one isn’t even sure that Camazotz has any residents at all, other than IT and its prisoner Murry.
So, in this retelling of L’Engle’s story, what exactly is so evil about IT, if it isn’t an obsessive insistence on conformity? Why, IT is now seeking to damage the self-esteem of everyone in the universe. IT causes the possessed Charles Wallace to make hurtful remarks about Meg and her father, and its dark tentacles extend to the people of Earth, causing other teachers to be envious of new principal James Jenkins (André Holland), making Calvin’s father (Daniel MacPherson) verbally abusive, and inspiring the insecure Veronica Kiley (Rowan Blanchard) to bully Meg at school. Once free of IT’s sinister influence, though, they’ll all be nice people again. Herself afflicted with a sense of low self-esteem, Meg must be told again and again by everyone around her how amazingly wonderful she is, so that she will finally be confident enough to scare the bejeebers out of that nasty old IT and rescue her friends from its clutches. All of this is clearly designed to uplift and inspire all young filmgoers who feel put-upon, but one has to wonder how effective it will be, since this is exactly the same message that has been repeatedly presented to them in their classrooms, and they’re probably sick of it by now.
In addition, the screenplay of A Wrinkle in Time includes so many inspirational bromides along these lines as to become mind-numbing even for those who haven’t heard it all before. Even before the characters embark on their cosmic journey, audiences have already endured “Love is always there, even if you don’t feel it,” “Dad always told me to stand up for what I believe in,” “Don’t give up hope,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents – it’s how we use them,” “I am part of the universe, just like you,” and “How will you make it if you won’t even try?” To quantify the problem, while viewing the film I scribbled down a total of 22 uplifting comments, and I’m sure my hasty compilation was far from complete; a few of them don’t even make much sense, like the circular logic of “In order to be great, it isn’t enough to be right – you have to be great.” Still, some of the film’s portentous pronouncements do come directly from the novel, as L’Engle has Mrs. Who constantly communicate by means of familiar quotations.
L’Engle’s story – a daughter and son embark on a dangerous mission to rescue their imprisoned father – is perfectly suited for one of Hollywood’s favorite themes – the overriding importance of one’s family – so the film naturally replicates the way that Meg’s boundless love for her brother ultimately overpowers IT’s control, and adds to the story to emphasize her love for her father. The film begins with Meg’s fond memories of her loving father telling her “You found us, and we found each other”; Meg wears a locket with a picture of her father; and there is a new scene in which Meg defies the wishes of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which in order to continue searching for her father. Moreover, the novel indicates that Calvin will never get along with his parents, who “don’t give a hoot about” him and even lock him out of the house if he comes home late; but the film concludes with Calvin announcing, “I have some things I need to say to my Dad,” suggesting that a heartwarming reconciliation is in the works.
Unlike the novel, the film also has a strangely ambivalent attitude toward science. On one hand, as in the novel, both of Meg’s parents are scientists, and Mrs. Whatsit praises them because they “achieved something extraordinary” in figuring out how to instantly “tesser” from one planet to another. Yet there is also a remarkable moment when Dr. Murry laments that he had unwisely “wanted to shake hands with the universe” when he “should have been holding” Meg’s hand, and although Mrs. Who’s list of Earth’s “warriors” against IT does include Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, other names like Mahatma Gandhi and Oskar Schindler seem to better reflect her priorities, and early scenes in the film provide other clues about recommended role models: Calvin’s t-shirt identifies their school as “James Baldwin Middle School,” and we glimpse a picture of Maya Angelou and a copy of Patrick Deval’s American Indian Women (2015), celebrating the achievements of Native American women from antiquity to the present. In the book, I assumed that the returning Murry would immediately plunge back into his scientific work, accompanied by his wife, and that Meg would someday follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a scientist herself. But in the film, it appears, Murry plans to take a break from all that science stuff in order to spend more time with his children, and Meg is being encouraged to devote her life not to expanding our knowledge of the universe, but rather making other people feel good about themselves.
While I might offer other complaints, I should conclude by emphasizing, again, that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t an awful film. The acting and special effects are fine; the opening scenes briefly but effectively convey the sometimes painful experience of attending middle school; and the film improves toward the end, becoming genuinely moving as Meg finally starts to seem like a real person instead of a vehicle for inspirational messages. It was also heartening that I could detect no signs of anyone laying the groundwork of a sequel, as the filmmakers were clearly aiming to produce a one-of-a-kind classic like The Wizard of Oz (1939) or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), not the first installment of the Chronicles of Meg Murry. (And none of L’Engle’s own sequels, which don’t involve space travel, really seem suitable for filming anyway.) If the film isn’t really a classic, the ultimate reason may be that, contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think that its source material – L’Engle’s novel – is really a classic either; rather, the book might be headed for the fate of Rachel Field’s Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (1929), a once-acclaimed children’s novel that nobody reads anymore. And if DuVernay and her collaborators want to make another science fiction film for younger viewers, I would encourage them to forget about Madeleine L’Engle and undertake a survey of the expanding and ever-improving field of young adult science fiction, for they would surely find scores of novels that are far more suitable for filming than A Wrinkle in Time.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle
Starring Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, André Holland, David Oyelowo, Rowan Blanchard, and Daniel MacPherson
Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015), An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press, and the co-edited Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences (2018). His forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke, part of the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.