Catherine Hand remembers that when she was 14, her father, Lloyd Hand, a longtime aide and chief of protocol under President Lyndon B. Johnson, asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She was sure, she said, she wanted to go into the entertainment industry. “Not the law?” he asked, possibly worried about the young woman’s prospects in Tinseltown.
Not a chance — Catherine Hand’s mind was made up, and in fact, she already had a project in mind. But it was only recently, more than 50 years after that conversation, that it finally came to fruition. Even as a child, Hand, now 65, knew she wanted to make a movie of her favorite book, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”
The movie, which premiered Monday in Hollywood and will hit theaters March 9, has uber A-listy credits, including Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay and actresses Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. Hand is a producer, and although her name might not be as familiar as the stars’, her family is well-known in Washington. Her mother, Ann Hand, is a jeweler whose designs are popular among the political set (her pins have graced some high-profile lapels on both sides of the aisle), and the Hands are a fixture on the city’s social scene.
Catherine Hand, who splits time between Los Angeles and Washington, has had an epic journey bringing the children’s book to the big screen that almost reads like a movie of its own. Among the highlights was her first encounter with “A Wrinkle in Time,” when a librarian suggested it to the then-10-year-old, who felt an instant connection to the story of a girl named Meg who searches through time and space for her missing father, a brilliant scientist who is being held captive.
Meg’s family lived in a big white house, and so did the Hands. Catherine had a crush on a gangly red-haired boy, just as Meg did. And then there was her family — like Meg’s father, Catherine’s father was often away. Like Meg’s mother, Catherine says, her own mother was beautiful. Catherine’s younger brother had a learning disability, making him different, like Meg’s gifted brother and sidekick, Charles Wallace. “There were so many details that were mirrored in my own life,” she says.
After being enthralled by the book, Catherine wrote a letter to her favorite filmmaker, Walt Disney, urging him to make it into a movie. She never mailed it, though, and when Disney died in 1966, Catherine made a promise to herself: She would get the mission done herself.
She finally got her shot years later when, as a 20-something aide to TV producer Norman Lear, she tried to persuade her boss to secure the rights. Lear said it wasn’t quite right for him, but Catherine persisted, and Lear signed off on her pursuing them herself. Then there was the first meeting with L’Engle at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the original World Trade Center. In the long elevator ride up, Hand says she was so intimidated by the meeting with her childhood idol that she felt like she couldn’t breathe. “I was a young woman,” she says. “And this was my first attempt to do a project on my own — and it was with Madeleine L’Engle.”
L’Engle eventually agreed to work with her, and the two women struck up a friendship that lasted until the author’s death in 2007. In 2003, Disney finally made the famous book into a forgettable TV movie that underwhelmed Hand, who helped produce it. “There were budget constraints, and that matters,” she said. “I watched the filming, and I just knew. I kept saying to myself, ‘This isn’t the dream.’ ”
She spent the next decade trying to get it remade and finally got traction with Disney executive Tendo Nagenda, who pulled in writer-director Jennifer Lee, whose animated movie “Frozen” had been box-office gold. “A Wrinkle in Time” had been one of Lee’s favorite childhood books, as well. Nagenda had wanted to work with DuVernay, who wasn’t familiar with the book but was intrigued. “All these pieces just came together,” Hand said.
And that’s how Hand came to stand on the red carpet of the movie’s premiere earlier this week (along with the film’s stars, as celebrities including Beyoncé also strolled the carpet), having what she called “an out-of-body, surreal experience.”
“In that moment, I knew, ‘this is the dream,’ ” she said.
Hand is circumspect about the decades of frustration. “It took this long because this was the right time for it to come out,” she said. “The biggest message in the book, the one that moved me all my life, is that darkness exists, but it can be overcome, and you can be the light that overcomes it. I can’t think of a better message in the world right now. When things are going really well, you might not resonate with that.”
And after all, it wasn’t as if she put her life on hold while she fought for “A Wrinkle in Time”: She raised three children, worked in the film industry and even had a stint as a political appointee when President Barack Obama named her deputy director of communications for the Office of Personnel Management.
But now that her childhood dream is fulfilled, isn’t there a little bit of a letdown? Not for Hand, who is already working on new projects, including a possible limited TV-series adaptation of L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles book series. “I’m in a very excited place,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Catherine Hand’s position at the Office of Personnel Management during the Obama administration. She was the deputy director of communications, not the deputy director of the federal agency.