There are a number of “essential reading” books that I feel like everyone and their mothers read as a child that I simply never got around to:
- Of Mice and Men
- The Giver
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
- A Series of Unfortunate Events
- Etc. Etc. Etc.
Over the years I’ve tried to rectify this by catching up on some of these stories – with much success. Reading them transports me back, momentarily, to a simpler time in my life, when my greatest concerns were math homework and trying to figure out how I could possibly watch three shows that aired at the same time on different channels in an era before Netflix or even DVR. However, even though I didn’t read many of these beloved books that “everybody read”, I usually knew what they were. I had heard the titles and the knew the general premises.
So color me surprised when I came to know of a film being made that “everyone” had very high hopes for because –
- it was a giant Disney tentpole movie that was
- being directed by a very high profile director, and
- was based on a beloved book
… and I had absolutely no idea what the hell they were talking about.
A Wrinkle in Time is a 1962 science/fantasy novel written by Madeleine L’Engle. The book won the Newbery Medal, Sequoyah Book Award, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. The story centers on a young girl named Meg Murray, who traverses through time and space to find her missing father. After three cosmic beings inform Meg that her father is trapped on another planet and battling against a dark force called The IT, Meg becomes desperate to bring her father home, certain that he will find a way to protect Earth from the Dark Thing (the source of all evil in the universe). Accompanying Meg on this journey are her younger brother Charles Wallace, and a popular boy from her school, Calvin O’Keefe.
The book has spawned two film adaptations, both by Disney: a 2003 television film directed by John Kent Harrison, and a 2018 theatrical film directed by Ava DuVernay. For the purposes of this review though, I will only be comparing the novel to the most recent theatrical release.
So how do the two compare – storytelling wise that is? How does a story with such a complicated and intricate universe, yet an extremely simple message, translate to film?
The short answer is, it struggles. But the reason why is quite interesting.
A Wrinkle In Time (1962 Novel)
Broken up into 12 chapters, A Wrinkle In Time has a very easy to follow, 3rd person narrative and a linear format. We rarely, if ever, follow any plot-lines in which our main character, Meg, is not directly involved in or privy to. As a reader, the exclusive, almost laser-like focus on Meg ensures that we do not forget who the main focus of this story should be. This simplicity in storytelling is absolutely essential given who A Wrinkle in Time‘s intended audience is.
The book constructs a simple adventure story with some pretty complicated subject matter – melding astrophysics, fantasy, and more than a few liberal Christian and political overtones. For example, Camazotz, the world they must rescue their father from, is a world where all must conform. “Equality” and peace are achieved by giving up individuality and submitting to one large CENTRAL Central Intelligence bureau. As an adult this reads as a very clear anti-Communist message, but because it is written with children in mind, it is presented quite succinctly as a celebration of individuality — a common theme in children’s literature.
Likewise, it’s characters also espouse a very pro-science, pro-intellectual message that serves to accentuate (rather than disprove) it’s Christian overtone. Character’s like Ms. Who will quote Shakespeare, Einstein, and Corinthians all in the same breath while explaining how the universe works. In fact, the three Misses are described as both spiritual and cosmic entities.
Yet despite all of these complex ideas, the message is still extremely simple. Fight against evil. Fight against conformity. And the greatest power in the universe is love.
I feel that it is this simplicity and this relatively inoffensive approach to the subject matter that made A Wrinkle In Time so successful. Though, I’m sure a story that names Jesus side by side with Buddha and Ghandi as “warriors of light” and showcases spiritual entities working alongside crystal ball wielding “witches” to save the universe, is likely to get the book banned in some households – the story is still inoffensive enough. It also doesn’t attempt to use it’s abstract concepts as an opportunity to mold an abstract story. There is no jumping through time, no flashbacks or flash forwards, no sudden narration changes, no distortions that the reader must re-interpret. It follows a very clear plot structure and moves through each setting quickly before the reader can become fatigued by it.
A Wrinkle In Time (2018 Feature Film)
Released in March of this year, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time is the company’s second attempt at an adaptation of L’Engle’s work. However, both this feature film and the tv movie were both ill received. This is not uncommon when a book is adapted, however the reasons why they failed to capture the magic of the novel is interesting – at least to me.
Like the novel from which it’s based, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, tells the story of Meg Murray as she sets out to rescue her missing father. This version stands out in a number of ways from the novel by a few artistic changes they decided to make. The setting is more contemporary, Meg is far less opt to whining and crying, they did away with her other “normal” siblings, and diversified the Murray family by making it multi-racial and having Charles Wallace be an adopted child. They also chose to do away with Charles Wallace being able to read minds and Calvin’s lesser supernatural abilities.
With a run time of just under 2 hours, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time takes full advantage of it’s large budget, utilizing well known actors, music, and impressive visuals capable of bringing life to the imagery described in L’Engle’s book. Unlike it’s source material, the film utilizes flashbacks to establish the Mr. Murray character as a father and as a husband. I believe this is done in an attempt to get the audience to connect with him, so that we will want to see him rescued. Also, from a practical standpoint, it makes sense to get as many scenes as you can with a high profile actor. No point in paying for an actor with name recognition and not utilizing them.
The film relies heavily on it’s use of contemporary music and bright expressive colors to convey emotion, since it cannot use prose. This is a good way to get around this issue, although the choice to use contemporary music with lyrics, risks dating the the film in the future and alienating those that aren’t fans of that particular genre.
However, the standout feature of this film is it’s use of computer graphics. A Wrinkle In Time boasts an impressive budget and it shows. Aesthetically, the film was extremely bright, whimsical and beautiful. Visually, it looked like a film meant to stimulate younger viewers.
The film keeps the simple themes of it’s source material – fight against evil, and love is the greatest power in the universe, but adds a few of it’s own while ditching the non-conformity message in favor of a more universal “self-love” message. It also completely ditches almost all religious imagery and references to the bible. These would have also been strategic decisions, as a company as large as Disney would need the film to be easily accepted oversees, where such messages would be less well received.
Why The Movie Failed To Impress
Though I’m sure that these changes (as well as many others) might have upset fans of the books, I feel that the film’s struggles were far greater than that. After all, the t.v movie was more faithful but also bombed critically. Why then, is Disney 0 for 2?
Many would say that the issue is length. This is often a criticism of book lovers when they see their favorites adapted to screen. They complain that too much was left out and changed. And while Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, did leave out a lot of things in the book, I don’t believe that was it’s problem. The story is very simple, all things considered. It is the sociological, political, and scientific theories presented in the story that are complex. Yet, the film does adequately touch upon them.
Others would say that a change of message is the issue in an adaptation like this. The omission of the Christian themes, and the more universal and commercial nature of the film would certainly turn off some viewers. Novels are typically the brainchild of a single author, but feature films are more collaborative, relying heavily on the director’s interpretation and the studios wishes. As such, the themes of films versus those of their source material can change drastically. However, I do not believe this was the films issue either. For the most part, the themes and focus were the same, if not a tad watered down. The world the Murray children travel through and live in, in the Disney film are reflective of the world we live in now – which is different than the one L’Engle wrote. Families look different and our societies change. In a time where so many families are made up of people who are not related by blood and do not necessarily look like each other, there is no problem with propping up a a girl’s unyielding love for her adopted little brother as a force capable of bending time and space. In a time when many kids are are far more aware of the effects bullying can have, there is no problem with deciding that a message of self love and empathy (even for people who treated you badly) is more important than a thinly veiled anti-Communist message.
If I had to say what the biggest issue is – I would say… it’s the book.
This book took me longer to get through than any young adult book ever has. One of the reasons for this is because I started by listening to it on Audible. However, by the third chapter, I couldn’t take it anymore. Meg just sounded like the most annoying whiny character ever. I’d find myself spacing out, my brain getting caught in a particular descriptive line, my imagination running wild for a moment – and suddenly returning to the story only to realize I had no idea what was going on. And the way the dialogue of Ms. Which was delivered, with that suuuppper slooow reeeadinnnng… I just couldn’t. It annoyed me. Believing it to be the choice of narrator, I decided to switch to a physical copy instead. Once I was reading at my own pace and able to take all the breaks I needed, I enjoyed the story much more.
Immediately, I started watching the feature film and, like with the audiobook, I started spacing out immediately. Although they were for very different reasons than the audiobook, I found myself spacing out and ignoring the same spots! I had even more grievances than I did with the book and took note of them. The kids acting, Calvin’s unnecessary presence, the half hearted attempts at humor…
But then, as I was compiling my notes I started to wonder, would the film have been better if they had simply retold the story verbatim? My answer was a very quick, no. It would be just as confusing, just as cheesy, and just as boring (if not more so).
A Wrinkle in Time is a story that works because of the medium it’s in. It works as a story to be read and absorbed at your own pace or told as a story to a child in an interactive fashion.
While all stories must change when introduced to a new medium, not all stories translate – even when it seems like they should. The universe created in A Wrinkle In Time, screams to be translated into a visual medium, but I don’t think it’ll ever make a very good movie.