This conversation discusses the plot of both Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time” and Ava DuVernay’s adaptation in great detail.
“A Wrinkle In Time” is a beloved classic for a lot of reasons: its heroine, the intrepid, difficult Meg Murry, its eerie depiction of a galaxy-conquering evil, and Madeleine L’Engle’s fabulous creations, including Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and the nurturing Aunt Beast. But it has also proved a challenging book to adapt. Alyssa Rosenberg and Christine Emba, both of whom read “A Wrinkle In Time” as girls, went to see Ava DuVernay’s adaptation and got together to discuss what worked, what didn’t and why — however it may feel when you’re in middle school — mean girls aren’t the galaxy’s ultimate evil.
Alyssa: You and I were coming back from “A Wrinkle in Time” last week, and we started talking a little bit about what stuck with us from the book when we read it. And I was wondering if you even remember when you first read it. Because I think I was too young; it’s one of those books that has sort of always been there in my brain.
Christine: I feel the same way, like — I could not tell you. I suppose it was in elementary school. It was the beginning of a long journey for me into Madeleine L’Engle’s work, but her universe has always felt real to me. Certain impressions from it stuck with me over time, and some of the values that she was trying to inculcate in the book persisted. One was the idea that girls can be powerful, that girls can be smart. Another was that sometimes people don’t feel comfortable with themselves, but you’re still valuable and able to do really exciting things. And also that the universe is large and full of mystery. And that much of it is larger than we are, or even could think of, which is both exciting and frightening.
Alyssa: The thing that I remember most about “A Wrinkle in Time” is actually less the protagonist, and less her father, but the dread of the book because the characters visit this planet, and everything is sort of terrifyingly uniform and totalitarian, and not in a communist sense but in a creeping conformity American sense. You have all these perfect housewives and their perfect children and these perfect businessmen and these perfect newsboys, and everyone is terrified that if they deviate even just a little bit, terrible things will happen — but terrible things that are expressed in these sort of bureaucratic terms. And it very much feels like an expression of 1962, when the book was published. I understand that “A Wrinkle in Time” is supposed to be to be a very empowering story, with this message about individuality and difference. But the thing that I really remember from it is the absolute fear of conformity and the grossness of the It. So I don’t think I came to the movie associating the story with this sense of wonder and empowerment in a way that a lot of other people do.
Christine: One of my takeaways when I read the book was about the power of the protagonist, but one of the feelings I associate with the book is fear. I found it pretty scary when I first read it, whenever that was! A sort of creeping dread and feeling of alarm is a big part of the book and also what makes it unique as a children’s book. It’s not really warm and fuzzy at all. And that was kind of weird about the movie — it turned it into a beautiful fantasyland with lots of bright colors, and that’s not the impression I had.
Alyssa: One of the themes of L’Engle’s books is always the process of becoming an adult. And frequently that involves the main character realizing that adults are fallible. In “A Wrinkle in Time,” Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin are traveling the universe trying to find Meg’s father. And when they do, there’s this shattering revelation that it’s not all right, that they’ve saved their father but their father is not going to save them, and not because he doesn’t want to, because he’s cruel or capricious, but he just can’t.
Christine: Adulthood is is actually pretty frightening, and you’re forced to do things you feel unprepared to do and would prefer to not be doing.
Alyssa: And you make terrible mistakes. One of the things that changes from the book to the movie is that in the book Meg’s father is part of this team of people investigating the idea of the tesseract. And that group draw straws to see who will try to tesser, and the first person who goes disappears and never comes back. And Meg’s father, Dr. Murry, is the second person to draw a straw, and he doesn’t particularly want to go, especially because he knows that there is chance that this could go incredibly wrong, but he does it anyway. And that doesn’t follow into the movie at all. In the movie, he’s just excited about the sense of exploration. In fact, no one believes him. And so he’s carrying out this experiment on his own for the love of science, which in some ways makes him a more interesting, self-absorbed character, but it takes away some of that adult dread and responsibility.
Christine: And it also, I think, makes the story more self-centered, more individual-centered than the book was. In L’Engle’s book, the concerns about evil, about light versus darkness — these are huge universal questions that, yes, have personal impact. Like, how do you love your family? How do you love your friends? But they are also questions for governments. How do you treat your citizens? Is nuclear warfare going to end the Earth in a veil of darkness?
Alyssa: There’s a sequence in the movie where the Mrs. W’s show the protagonists what the It is capable of doing. And you see this sort of cloudlike evil spreading throughout the universe. And then there’s this weird sense of anticlimax, because it turns out the It is making the mean girl who gives Meg a hard time in school diet and have bad self-esteem. The It is making Calvin’s dad yell at him about his grades. And you think, “Wait. This is what this galaxy-conquering evil is up to?” The It has the ambition to literally take over entire planets and then it makes people mean to each other.
Christine: And then everyone has to stop eating carbs. Which is a tragedy, to be sure, but I don’t know that an interstellar evil intelligence would be so unambitious.
Alyssa: I mean, there’s just this weird contradiction in how terrifying we’re supposed to find the It and how high the stakes are supposed to be, and what we see the It doing. And in a way it’s weirdly condescending to kids, because it suggests that the highest stakes in the world and that you can comprehend as moviegoers are the ones that affect you directly.
Christine: One of the things that I found interesting reading the book when I was a kid, and even thinking about it now, is that it was about children but they were dealing with huge questions — like the loss of a parent, the looming possibility of nuclear war, some sort of mass annihilation. I was aware of international conflicts and big scary things as a kid. But I also dealt with those fears, because that is what the world is like. I think that kids can handle the larger questions of the world. And this movie doesn’t seem to think that they can.
Alyssa: And one of the things that’s weird about the movie’s racial utopianism is that it actually flattens out the idea that Meg and Charles Wallace actually probably would be dealing with a lot of these issues. The movie’s desire to be intensely representative and to present this world that is sort of desirable, and not necessarily real, ultimately ends up cutting against the idea that kids can handle big things. Meg and Charles Wallace go to what has to be the only elementary school in the world that has a picture of James Baldwin on the walls, right? There are Women in Literature posters on the wall everywhere, there are pictures of Maya Angelou. And so in a weird way, Meg and Charles Wallace live in a world where a lot of these big issues have been resolved.
Christine: Seems like they live in a pretty wealthy, well-resourced neighborhood, too, whereas in the book, actually, their house is a falling-down farmhouse in the woods.
Alyssa: And Calvin’s family is neglectful and abusive. It’s not that he has this sort of high-powered father in nice business clothes who yells at him about doing well in school. His mother is mentally ill and neglecting the housework and beating his siblings with a spoon.
Christine: Right. And he’s poor. Which the movie sort of calls out to, because he really wants to eat all the time, but never explicitly mentions.
Alyssa: If you’re going to tell stories about children who are heroes and face up to things beyond their capacity, it’s weird to also remove a lot of the obstacles that would be in those children’s paths, and anxieties that they would probably feel about the world, because kids are citizens who are aware of things happening, too.
Christine: I think perhaps it’s easier to be a palatable major studio production that you can sell everywhere if you don’t talk about politics or if you don’t define what evil is except “Don’t be mean to your classmates.”
Alyssa: There’s also just more willingness to have ugliness and age exist in the book. In the book, only two of the Mrs. W’s are fully embodied. One is a floating pair of glasses sort of in front of a shiver, and the other two are old, eccentric-looking ladies.
Christine: They’re literally hags! I think the inspiration was the witches from Macbeth.
Alyssa: In the movie all of a sudden, they are Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah. They have a fantastic eye makeup, amazing lipstick, and there are all of these close-up shots on their incredibly elaborately made-up faces and hair. For a movie about self-esteem, it’s like the most powerful beings in the universe are basically wearing couture and have runway-worthy makeup.
Christine: One thing that I actually did like about the movie is that in many Disney shows, and shows about kids in general, the actors are kids, sort of, except they’re actually hot teens or small adults. (Why are all these kids wearing midriff-baring tops? There is no reason for that.) But in this movie, they all look their ages. I actually think that’s a step forward, just allowing kids to be kid-looking and not tiny, beautiful adults. But yeah, the transformation of the Mrs. W’s into beautiful demigods raises the question: Maybe the kids don’t have to be beautiful, but do we only respect beautiful figures? What does that say to us about representation?
Alyssa: It’s also interesting that the Mrs. W’s are played by these actors who have a certain amount of cultural authority. Reese Witherspoon has been a big independent producer and a big advocate for women being able to get out and direct and produce stuff. She put together and packaged “Big Little Lies,” which was a huge hit last year. Mindy Kaling is groundbreaking as an actress of South Asian origin. She has done a lot of sort of trope-breaking stuff in her work. And then Oprah Winfrey —
Christine: Is just Oprah.
Alyssa: She’s Oprah. It diminishes the strangeness of the characters and of the book as a whole.
Christine: As we’ve said many many times, “A Wrinkle in Time” is kind of a weird, dark book. But if you want to make it into a smash children’s hit, “weird and dark, also from a outsider director” may not play very well. And I wonder whether Ava wanted to go further into other questions and whether she was allowed to do that — either by her studio or by her own thoughts on what would play well. In the book, when they walk up to meet It where it lives, it’s very foreboding, grim — when I was reading the book, I was thinking a sort of old brutalist building — and they come upon this giant brain, basically. But in the movie they chose to make it really sparkly and colorful. They go to the beach. Why were these choices made? Was the alternative too scary for kids?
Alyssa: It’s an interesting question, because you know part of what they’re jettisoning in going to the beach rather than having that sort of brutalist architecture and these corporate functionaries is the whole idea of ’60s conformity, right? And that has just completely fallen away from the movie, along with the larger social implications. All these questions about Disney’s influence, what DuVernay thought would play well, etc., are really interesting. Also, directors who have not worked with CGI before often find it really challenging. It’s difficult to figure out how to calibrate appropriately, how to get the vision across that you want. In the book, Meg’s encounter with It is a mental standoff. In the movie, they gussy that up a ton so the It is a giant brain, and Meg and Charles Wallace are in-between It’s neurons, which wrap Meg up and whip her around. The image is much more of a typical third-act action-movie bit of CGI. But the horror of the scene is actually diminished.
Christine: The book does have a very interesting sort of visceral horror to it.
Alyssa: It’s body horror.
Christine: The book is also comparatively controversial, or it has been in the past, because Madeleine L’Engle is Christian but kind of a liberal Episcopalian. In the book, the Mrs. W’s talk about what evil looks like, and what “the light” looks like, and they use an interesting mix of theology and Bible verses and wisdom from other groups. One line that was particularly controversial when the book came out was where the Mrs. W’s talk about who “warriors of the light” are. They say Jesus, but then Einstein and Buddha, and then all these other figures. And parents apparently found that very offensive, to see Jesus lumped in with all these others. But in the movie they don’t even mention Jesus. They just mention scientists and, like, nice people in the world.
Alyssa: They do quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, though! This is a very good au courant movie.
Christine: Yeah, that was too woke for me. I don’t know if it’s if it’s sanitized down, if it doesn’t want to be controversial, or if it doesn’t want to invoke those big questions.
Alyssa: I mean, Christine, in truth, the greatest evil in the world is mean girls.
Christine: That’s true. The greatest evil in the world is feeling like you need to diet. Why are all the problems, all the big questions, so small-bore?