Wrinkling a Classic Novel
When it came out in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time was a very significant novel. Finally there was a children's' fantasy story explicitly aimed at outsiders, with one such social outcast being the protagonist. It also can’t be understated the significance of the book being heavily female driven, with a mostly female cast, and written by arguably the first great woman writer in the genre, Madeleine L’Engle. The book has a really strong story, a ton of creativity, unique ideas and concepts, and memorable characters. But it does have a few issues, such as some poor dialogue, dated characterization and science, and the most rushed ending of any novel I’ve ever read. The key to adapting it into a good movie is discerning the elements to keep true from the ones to eliminate or update, while still making it accessible to a fresh audience. Ava DuVernay’s big budget film for Disney is quite problematic in that regard.
Four years after her scientist father (Chris Pine) went missing, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are contacted by a trio of supernatural beings called Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Together with a neighbourhood boy Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), the children are whisked away by these women on a quest across the galaxy to find their father.
If you’re a fan of the book, you probably won’t enjoy this movie. While it does follow the basic story mostly, it’s full of details it gets wrong and adds unneeded doses of action and comic relief. For me the biggest disappointments are the absence of the effective imagery, dark atmosphere and chilling mood of the planet Camazotz, the misrepresentation of a number of characters, and the cutting of the important scene where Mrs. Whatsit actually explains what a wrinkle in time is. It’s also completely expected yet still unfortunate that the film eliminated the Christian references and the religious overtone as much as it could. Though it’s not hugely important that Mrs. Who quotes the Bible or that her faith is an aspect of Meg’s character, L’Engle’s fascinating theology is rather notably ingrained in the novel’s identity; and its exclusion can’t help but feel a little like censorship. And that’s coming from a non-Christian.
Disregarding what it leaves out from the novel, this movie still has plenty of problems. Most of the plot holes aren’t in the book, and in fact exist because of certain changes. The science behind the tesseract is never discussed except in broad strokes, the threat of the darkness isn’t explained, and the nature of Camazotz is very confused. The characters jump around a lot from world to world, at least one completely unnecessarily, and there are plenty of choices characters make that they have to backtrack from in order to keep the story moving. Most notably is the arc of Charles Wallace, who’s especially different from his book counterpart and very underdeveloped; which really harms the movie in its final act, where nothing of his actions and behaviour makes any semblance of sense. His relationship with Meg too, vital in the original story, is almost nonexistent until forced into the climax. It doesn’t help that the acting for this character is very bad. Miller’s acting as Calvin isn’t a whole lot better.
But Oprah would make for a great Mrs. Whatsit and Witherspoon could feasibly pull off Mrs. Which. Insofar as they’re playing the opposite parts, Oprah is passable, though given more screen-time than her character needs allotted, while Witherspoon is purely comic relief. Kaling’s not great and her character’s quirk is often written badly, but she’s trying. All the adults are -as is apparent in Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performances. Andre Holland has a minor role as Meg’s principal. There’s not much of value to Zach Galifianakis’ Happy Medium (who curiously, was originally female), and Michael Pena plays a villain who in the context of the movie is almost completely pointless. Honestly both the best performance and closest interpretation of their book character comes from Storm Reid, who really does a good job conveying an awkward girl flung into a heroic journey. She’s really a character you can get behind, and is believable in her convictions, which makes the rest of the films’ failings all the more disappointing.
The films’ visual effects are way overused but definitely pretty in some places. The worlds look fantastical and unusual enough. However some of the choices are questionable, like Mrs. Which appearing giant for no reason, and Mrs. Whatsit’s transformation at one point being somehow both imaginative and unintentionally hilarious. The act of “tesser-ing” too is severely underwhelming given how it’s built up and how it’s the central concept of the story. I wasn’t expecting the movie to utilize so many songs, some at very inopportune moments too, distracting heavily from the plot.
Though its aspirations and message are noble, A Wrinkle in Time can’t support its own grandeur. It’s a film very concerned with impressing you through creativity, splendid visuals, and reaffirming basic universal themes, but isn’t especially invested in story, character, or maintaining many of the aspects of the novel that drew so many fans over the decades. Ava DuVernay is a great director; however she clearly isn’t entirely interested in A Wrinkle in Time itself as much as what it could represent, and it shows. I never thought I’d say that the cheap 2003 TV movie of A Wrinkle in Time (starring a fantastic Alfre Woodard as Mrs. Whatsit!) would be the better film version next to a Disney theatrical release helmed by the director of Middle of Nowhere and Selma; but that’s the arcane Madeleine L’Engle world I appear to be trapped on.
A Wrinkle in Time is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Moose Jaw