To celebrate my birthday last night, I used my MoviePass subscription to take in the Disney movie adaptation of one of the best-loved children’s books of the last fifty years or so, A Wrinkle in Time. How was it, and how did it compare to the book? Part of the answer to that involves looking at how the book was, too.
Wrinkled Electrons, Wrinkled Paper
If you’re interested in the book, Amazon has it in several different ebook editions. There’s the standard Kindle version for $6.99, a “movie tie-in edition” for $8.99 featuring an introduction by movie director Ava DuVernay and 8 pages of photos from the movie, and an omnibus edition of the five-book Wrinkle in Time Quintet for $24.84, which is what I bought.
Though it’s more than you’d pay for a self-published title, especially considering that the book is over fifty years old, I suppose $7 isn’t a terrible price for a major-publisher ebook that still has current interest. (Though you could save a buck and change over that if you’re willing to wait for the $5.61 dead-tree edition to arrive. Oddly enough, Amazon’s selling the movie tie-in paperback for a penny less, though the paper book’s recommended retail price is also $2 more.)
The existence of a separate “movie tie-in edition” ebook is interesting enough in and of itself, though I would tend to recommend just reading DuVernay’s introduction with Amazon’s “Look inside the book” feature and saving $2. Or, you could try to check the book out from your local library and save the whole purchase price—but given the amount of interest the new movie has awoken, you could find yourself on a wait list dozens of library patrons deep.
A Rich Reading Experience—Too Rich for Me
I never actually read A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I tried, but I simply couldn’t get into it. I finally returned to it earlier this week, in preparation for the movie. Upon rereading it with adult eyes, I could see why. The book is justly famous for a rich reading experience, but it was presented in a way that just didn’t appeal to me as a child. Long stretches of the story are nothing but dialogue or long descriptions of the characters’ internal state of mind, often repetitive and frequently focusing on characters’ emotional states rather than on anything actually happening.
As an adult, I can deal with that, but as a child I was more interested in straightforward, action-oriented narratives, with much more rapid pacing. It’s also possible that the book’s heavy use of Christian themes and mythology might have turned me off a little. (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Narnia books, either.)
The story of A Wrinkle in Time involves grade-schooler Meg, 6-year-old Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin meeting three strange women—Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which—who whisk them away on a journey across the galaxy in search of Meg and Charles Wallace’s absent father. Along the way they encounter a sort of blot on the galaxy, the Black Thing, which is reaching out to shadow planets (including Earth) with negative emotions. To rescue the children’s father, they must travel to Camazotz—a planet completely subsumed by the Black Thing—and face off against the planet’s evil controlling entity known only as IT.
The book’s relatively slow pacing, and the long time spent on addressing each individual thing that happened, might actually render A Wrinkle in Time more suited to a movie presentation than many other books of the same length. Since you can only present what you can show on screen, it’s easier to boil things down to the raw story beats when not all that many things happen. And of the series (or the first three books in it that it I’ve read so far), this book has the closest thing to a conventionally filmable story structure. It’s hard to imagine them making a movie out of A Wind in the Door, for example, involving Meg, Calvin, Meg’s grade school principal, and a cherubim trying to convince a mouse-like creature to evolve into a tree.
A Bumpy Transition from Book to Screen
A Wrinkle in Time has not had the easiest road to the screen, in part because it suffers from much the same problems as the Lord of the Rings books—until the advent of CGI, it simply wasn’t possible to represent on the screen all the things that could be described in words. But that’s not the only thing that got in the way.
The book is very much a product of its time. Apart from presenting its author’s deep Christian faith, it also partakes of the Cold War-era “red scare”—the fear of communism that made their way into many other works of that era, from Invasion of the Body-Snatchers to Alexander Key’s The Incredible Tide. And its depiction of children fighting against galaxy-spanning forces of supernatural evil was novel back then, but we’ve since seen dozens of books and movies presenting similar struggles–many of them heavily influenced by A Wrinkle In Time. (For example, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, which is much more to my liking.)
And there’s another problem that frequently affects fantasy and science fiction adaptations of books—descriptions that fire the imagination on the printed page don’t always translate well to the screen. That’s why, for example, the heroes from the first X-Men movie wore black jumpsuits instead of their familiar comic-book costumes—the colorful costumes would have looked silly on the screen.
And just as the book is a product of its time, reflecting the concerns and fears of people in that day, so is the movie a product of this time. We no longer fear communism so much since the fall of the Soviet Union, but we’re even more concerned about social and racial equality now. Thus, this movie casts the Murray family as mixed-race, with a black mother and white father, and Charles Wallace is now adopted rather than being Meg’s biological sibling. And, of course, the controversial nature of any such change means that the movie comes under fire from conservatives for having a social justice agenda.
The movie also drops a few characters—most notably, Meg and Charles Wallace’s more “normal” twin siblings, Sandy and Dennys, who were minor characters in most of the Wrinkle quintet, and major characters in others. One chunk of the story, involving a character named “Aunt Beast,” was entirely cut out. Some of the characters left in were changed almost beyond recognition: the “Happy Medium” was female in the book but male here, and Mrs Which went from a mostly-invisible presence who couldn’t enunciate very well to a giant Oprah Winfrey.
Another change involves a sequence in the book in which Mrs Whatsit changes into a winged centaur to carry the children to a mountaintop and give them their first glimpse of the Black Thing. In the movie, the centaur is replaced by a broad, flat, flying plant creature, looking like a cross between a slug and a leaf of lettuce—presumably because a centaur simply wouldn’t have worked that well on the screen, and the lettuce-creature provides more opportunities for CGI spectacle.
Something else the movie leaves out is, as one might expect, all the references to Christianity. There are no more characters singing hymns or quoting Bible verses, and the passage from the book in which a character mentions all the great warriors of light who’ve come from earth—Einstein, Gandhi, etc—makes it to the screen without mentioning a particular warrior of light named Jesus. It’s not exactly a surprise that would happen in this more secular day and age, especially in a movie made by Disney. Still, I imagine it might be a bit disappointing to some of the book’s fans—and to Madeline L’Engle herself, were she still around.
But some things were also added to the movie. For example, there’s an action sequence that takes place after the children’s arrival at Camazotz that was not in the book—but a movie like this thrives on action, and can’t be as slow-paced and cerebral as the printed story. Also, there was a new subplot involving a girl with whom Meg gets into a fight at school who also happens to be her next-door neighbor.
One unfortunate consequence of all these changes is that the character of Calvin loses a lot of his purpose in the story; in the book, his communication skills meant that he was important to understanding various alien entities they came across, but in the movie he was basically reduced to the part of a sidekick who vanishes altogether for the film’s climax.
But the changes that annoyed me most are the little ones. For the purposes of the movie, they merged the Black Thing, IT, and Camazotz together. Instead of the Black Thing being a region of space where various planets are, including Camazotz, now the Black Thing is Camazotz, and the evil force behind it is “the IT.” Not just IT, as it was in the book (perhaps because they didn’t want to be confused with that recent Stephen King remake?), but “the IT.” For some reason, that particular change just irritates me.
One of the things they didn’t change didn’t really work so well. In the book, Meg’s father jumps across the galaxy using the power of his mind (though the exact mechanics of it are left fairly nonspecific). So, too, in the movie does he travel using his mind—only it doesn’t really impress anybody when he tries to present this potential method of space travel to the government as a feasible thing. It was just a little hard to believe that anyone would even try to present an idea like that seriously, even if it did prove to work within the setting.
It’s Still a Fun Movie
For all the changes, the core of the story is still there. Meg still has a hard time fitting in at school, she and Charles Wallace are still whisked away, and they still have to journey to Camazotz to rescue her father from the clutches of IT. (Or, in the movie, “the IT.”) Meg still rescues her father and defeats IT in the same way. That’s more than I was expecting going in.
It might be best to try to enjoy the movie on its own merits. It’s still got the bones of a decent story, it’s got great performances by a number of actors and actresses, and it has some terrific special effects. Children will probably enjoy it more than adults, especially if those adults are big fans of the book. But given how much the book is a product of its era, and of the way L’Engle used words, it may not be possible to get any closer than this in a commercial movie adaptation.
Even if it’s only getting a lukewarm reception from critics, I doubt A Wrinkle in Time will bomb at the box office. I do have my doubts that any sequel they try to make would be even remotely recognizable, however. It might be best to let this just stay a one-off—though Disney being Disney, I have my doubts they’ll allow that to happen if this movie is at all successful.