Movie Review: "A Wrinkle in Time:" Book & Film tell Different Stories

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Kathy Emmons

“A Wrinkle in Time” was the first book I ever loved. 

Written by Madeleine L’Engle in 1964, my father came across the Newberry Award winner in a Walden bookstore and presented it to me over a dinner in my third grade year, 1977.  I was entranced.  


The story of Meg Murray, a gangly, awkward middle-schooler would be pedestrian young adult reading if not for the world of cosmic battle into which she’s called.  The oldest child of two world-renowned scientists on the cutting edge of their field, Meg is grieving for her father who’s gone suspiciously missing after bending the space-time continuum in a manner previously untried and with a result unknown.   His absence in the family is acutely felt, and Meg’s subsequent floundering has led to verbal altercations and flagging grades, both of which don’t fit with the Murray family’s intellectual bent.  Meg’s mother is the anchor, running her lab, parenting Meg and her three siblings, and expectantly waiting for the return of her husband from parts unknown, while Meg’s youngest and unusually gifted brother Charles Wallace, loves her most especially.  It is this relationship between Meg and Charles Wallace that forms the strongest bond and carries both kids on a joint interstellar rescue mission.


“A Wrinkle in Time” releases today in film version worldwide, produced by Disney and directed by Ava DuVernay, previously nominated for the Academy Award (“Selma”) and winner of four EMMYs (“13th”).  With a $100M+ production expenditure, the film takes on this big story with big dollars, boasting Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaeling and Oprah as the three extraterrestrials (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which) who lead the children on their spacequest.  Also featured are newcomers Storm Reid (Meg) and Deric McCabe (Charles Wallace), joined by Levi Miller who plays Calvin O’Keefe, Meg’s classmate and fellow-sufferer, who exchanges the pains of middle school for a newfound friendship with the Murrays.

Book and movie, though, tell different stories. 

Soaked in the Biblical narrative of war in the heavens, the novel pulls back the corner on a contest between good and evil already in process.  The Murrays and Calvin are invited into the battle (of which the rescue of Dr. Murray is only a part), and the three Mrs. are their coaches, sages, and encouragers. Not only that, the angelic avengers are also ageless soldiers themselves, both armed and protected by the One who is good personified.  The characters — the Murrays, Calvin, and the three Mrs. — are all servants of this One, the warrior who is unnamed but is leading the charge against every evil thing in the universe.

The movie, like the book, depicts a growing, infecting evil — but strangely no Good personified.  Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are deified themselves, if only because a greater being goes unmentioned or unneeded.  The children, then, are bruised youth in need of self-actualization till they become capable of getting Dad back.  The universe waits for Meg to shed her self-hatred and embrace all that is fully her; only then will she find her father, bring him home, and love herself.

Not a bad story, but not “A Wrinkle in Time.”

There are many beautiful parts of the film.  The casting of Reid, McCabe and Miller is surprising, and glorious; their performances are sensitive and strong, each outstanding.  Reid and Chris Pine (Dr Murray) provide the single most authentically riveting scene in the film, when Meg first sees lost Dr. Murray after their space/time separation — the scene is worth the ticket price and brought me to tears.   Reese Witherspoon is delightful as the off-the-wall Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaeling is a winning Mrs. Who, and Oprah is Oprah.   

The film’s determination to avoid any faith themes at all is its greatest failure.  Ms. L’Engle was anything but conventional in her exploration of faith and utilized ecumenical voices, names, and perspectives in her novel.  Several of these carry over and are mentioned in the movie, with the exception of Jesus, who is left out of the script.  In his place, we hear of Shakespeare, Madame Curie, and Euclid who inspire, while the soaring prophecies of Isaiah that figure powerfully in the novel go unmentioned.  The movie becomes a fantasy world purposed by the noble love of family, and the somewhat less-than-noble love of self, elevated to universe-saving importance.

Of lesser consequence are the missing characters of the Murray twins Sandy and Dennys, and the alien nurse/therapist/mother figure of Aunt Beast (my favorite from the novel).  A stop-off planet’s flock of flowers is a lovely image, though Mrs. Whatsit’s transformation from human form to weird leaf-creature is a neutered version of the novel’s centaur-ish creature of glory; it adds little to the narrative and misses the majesty the book conveys.  The role of mathematics, which figures prominently in the book and provides a sense of order and comfort to Meg in her times of greatest challenge, was also sadly absent from the movie.  


Perhaps the thing I missed most is Mrs. Who’s final charge to Meg before she goes to retrieve Charles Wallace, who’s been overtaken by IT, the brain-like malevolence that stole her father.  

 

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” she states.  “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are.” (1 Corinthians 1:25-28)

She closes with, “May the right prevail.”

 

Commissioned by God in spite of (and because of) her faults, the novel's Meg is empowered to fight.  But without this towering commission and the framework it sets, the film’s Meg lacks a meta-narrative, and the viewer isn’t able to put her into a context that feels right.  Less a soldier for truth, Meg becomes a troubled teen searching for a way to accept herself, and it’s tough to believe that Meg Murray is enough to save her lost family, let alone navigate the universe.

 

3 stars out of a possible 5

Kathy EmmonsComment