“If it’s bad art,” Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”
Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is not religious in the same way as the beloved, faith-inflected sci-fi fantasy novel about three children — 13-year-old Meg Murray, her 5-year-old brother Charles Wallace and their 14-year-old friend Calvin — embarking on an interstellar quest for the Murrays’ long-absent father with the aid of three mysterious celestial beings. Still, the movie has a religious dimension of a sort. Like Disney’s last PG-rated sci-fi fantasy, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, A Wrinkle in Time can be seen as a kind of secular faith-based film, no less insistent and heavy-handed about its gospel of inclusion, respect and self-esteem than, say, last year’s The Shack with its own gospel of therapeutic faith. Whatever you think of the message, such ham-fisted art undermines it.
Here is a sentence I did not expect to write: The film’s portrayal of the otherworldly Mrs. Ws — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which — makes the depiction of the Holy Trinity in The Shack profound and numinous by comparison. The Shack had Octavia Spencer as God the Father (or Papa); A Wrinkle in Time has Oprah Winfrey as the formidable Mrs. Which. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are played by Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, respectively. Apparently if there’s a trio of unearthly, ageless personages assuming human form in order to guide members of our species on a journey of discovery, they will probably be played by a diverse trio of actors with an African-American woman presiding in some way. (A kind of Della Reese Principle?)
I can roll with that, and if I can roll with a movie imagining God choosing to appear to someone looking like Spencer (and I kind of can), I’m certainly willing to accept Oprah as — well, whatever kind of higher being this Mrs. Which is supposed to be. (The book explicitly identifies the Mrs. Ws as angels, but the movie never says what they are.) The problem isn’t exactly Oprah, Witherspoon or Kaling, though it isn’t exactly not them, either. The problem is that, for all the colorfully extravagant costume design and glittery makeup, their characters are at best whimsical but not really odd or and never mysterious or compelling. They barely rise to the level of kooky shtick, and engender no sense of higher wisdom or even emotional connection.
I had problems with The Shack, but at least when Spencer told Sam Worthington that he had no idea how much she loved him, I accepted that coming from her. Not only does Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit never tell Meg (Storm Reid) that she loves her (a line that in the book turns out to have crucial plot significance), I wouldn’t believe her if she did, since nothing we see of her manifests the slightest comprehension either of love or of Meg.
I loved DuVernay’s Selma, and I care about diversity and representation in cinema. L’Engle’s book has been important to me since childhood, not least because of the religious themes, though I’ve never been a purist for adaptations. A daringly reimagined adaptation can honor the original far more than a dully literal version. This version shifts L’Engle’s story, with its rural mid-20th century setting and white characters, to a diverse, contemporary L.A.-area setting (early scenes were shot in a middle-class Compton neighborhood). Meg is now the only child of an interracial couple (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her almost mystically gifted younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, of Filipino descent) is now adopted.
On occasion it seems the story hasn’t been rethought enough. In the book, when Calvin (Levi Miller) shows up near the Murrays’ remote house at night, Charles Wallace demands to know why he’s there. When the same line is uttered on an urban sidewalk in broad daylight, it makes no sense in that quotidian setting. Why shouldn’t Calvin be there? The whole movie suffers from that loss of atmosphere. It’s not just that the atmosphere is different; there’s just so little atmosphere of any kind. “Wild nights are my glory,” says Mrs. Whatsit in a line straight from the book, but it’s only raining; the book’s howling winds and perilous storm don’t make it to Compton.
Some things about the book are relatively unfilmable. The climactic manifestation of evil, for instance, works on the printed page, but it would probably look ridiculous and anticlimactic onscreen. Yet a fateful scene in which Charles falls under a malign influence that Meg and Calvin barely escape is creepy and dreadful in ways that could translate powerfully to film. Here it’s staged on a crowded beach, and it’s over before you know it.
There is exactly one exception: one of the book’s most unsettling effects, as the children arrive on the dark planet of Camazotz, they encounter an eerie suburban neighborhood in which children bounce balls in perfect union and rhythm, and respond to their mother’s calls to dinner at exactly the same time. This one faithfully reproduced sequence has not been rethought or updated; the neighborhood and the mothers’ wide-skirted house dresses would be at home in a literal period adaptation. Yet even here something important is missing: the maternal anxiety of the woman whose boy is dangerously, unrhythmically out of step. One of L’Engle’s themes is how society punishes misfits and oddballs, especially those with misunderstood gifts who haven’t yet learned to be comfortable in their own skins.
L’Engle’s Meg is an awkward misfit: angry, resentful and self-pitying; gifted, though not on her younger brother’s level. (Mr. and Mrs. Murray, both brilliant scientists, are also oddballs; only the twins Sandy and Dennys, dropped in the film, are normal.) Yet the filmmakers, burdened by the cultural import of a $100-million sci-fi fantasy starring an African-American girl, can’t bear for Meg to have real faults or to be anything less than a positive model for girls and children of color. So, instead of being a misfit, Meg is bullied by a clique of mean girls who leave her a note on the anniversary of her father’s disappearance suggesting that she should disappear too. Meg lashes out violently at one of them, but she’s only standing up for her little brother. It’s theoretically bad behavior, but the audience expects it — and it seems to impress Calvin.
The principal, a wholly sympathetic authority figure with nothing of the book’s prickly Mr. Jenkins but the name, tells Meg that she shuts people out and then wonders why they don’t like her, but we don’t see this behavior. Meg is constantly affirmed and reassured; except for Mrs. Whatsit, everyone keeps telling how talented and capable she is, if she would only accept it. Yet the film sells short Meg’s gifts by fearing the story’s intellectual underpinnings, where Meg’s gifts shine.
One of the book’s most memorable bits — a scene that expanded my mind when I read it as a boy, and still shapes my thinking today — involves an explanation of space-time and the idea of a tesseract: a folding (or wrinkling) of space-time via a fifth dimension to travel instantly between vastly distant locations. (“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”) A version of this scene was shot for the film, with Meg herself presenting the principle in class (complete with a plastic model of an ant taking the place of the imaginary ant in the book’s in-text illustrations). A scene like this could have showcased the side of Meg the filmmakers want viewers to see: brainy and academically capable. Alas, it seems this was too cerebral or something, and was cut. Now the idea of a tesseract is given a rushed explanation in a scene with Mr. and Mrs. Murray, and the key visual is only glimpsed in a computer animation in the background. How can filmmakers inspire young viewers if they’re afraid to ask anything of them? The finished film tries to highlight Meg’s gifts in a ridiculous invented action scene evocative of a young-adult apocalyptic survival movie. “It’s a physics thing,” she says modestly, but the stunt they’ve just tried is the sort of thing that only works in video games and movies that are too much like video games.
The need to present an affirmative image extends to Meg’s parents. I appreciate the warmly rendered early scenes with the Murrays all together before Mr. Murray’s disappearance. Yet for all her father’s apologies to Meg for having left her and the family, the film doesn’t dare to touch of Meg’s deep disappointment on being reunited with her father and discovering that he isn’t the all-powerful figure capable of setting all to rights that she’d built him up to be in her mind.
Kaling’s Mrs. Who still speaks in quotations, although her frequent biblical references have all been excised, and there are fewer classical and historical references and more Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda. She doesn’t come across as someone who has trouble verbalizing; she just says quotes for no reason. The dropping of the Biblical references is not incidental. When L’Engle’s Mrs. Who quotes 1 John — “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not” — that has thematic significance: The darkness, the Dark Thing, is strong, but light is stronger; this is not a dualistic, Manichaean story. The movie’s tagline — “The only thing faster than light is the darkness” — seems to reverse this: Darkness has a natural advantage. The line doesn’t appear in the book, and I doubt L’Engle would approve. (That the movie conflates the darkness — the Dark Thing — with It, which is merely a local manifestation of darkness on Camazotz, is just one more disconnect.) Compared to this, Disney’s Narnia films retained far more of the Christian milieu of Lewis’ stories.
The aversion to religion is nowhere more evident than in the rousing enumeration of the Earth’s great fighters against the darkness. In the book, Jesus is given the first place, though there are others: artists and scientists (Leonardo, Shakespeare, Bach, Curie, Einstein) as well as Christian and non-Christian religious figures (Buddha and St. Francis as well as Gandhi). The movie relegates all this to an afterthought, adding some racial diversity to the list (Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou) and dropping all the religious figures, definitely including Jesus.
“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” smiles Mrs. Who benignly, quoting Hamilton. Tomorrow-land, according to Disney, may be a utopia with all kinds of diversity, but it seems there’s only room for one gospel.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.