A Wrinkle in Time, and Death of the Author

A Wrinkle in Time is a 1962 science fiction novel written by Madeleine L’Engle. It looks on the Murry family, more particularly Meg and Charles Wallace, whose father went missing years before the novel starts. Alongside local popular boy and a crush of Meg Calvin O’Keefe, they travel with the “Mrs”; Whatsit, Who and Which, to find their father by tessering, an ability to quickly travel across galaxies.

The novel is pretty celebrated and introduces children to a lot of intangible science fiction concepts in an engaging, mysterious and easy to read way. As most people know, it was recently adapted into a Disney movie, with Selma and 13th director Ava DuVernay helming it. I held off on watching it because I decided to read the book first, also some slight hesitation being a fan of DuVernay and hearing not entirely flattering things about this film. To my immense surprise, however, I…didn’t think it was that good. But I didn’t hate it like a lot of other people did.

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Part of that is most likely because I also decided to watch the 2003 TV movie as well, also produced by Disney. Seriously, no matter how bad you think DuVernay’s film is, this movie is so much worse. The acting is pretty atrocious across the board, the staging is local amateur theatre club level.  I know this was 2003 on a TV-level budget, but that still doesn’t excuse how bad whatever Mrs. Whatsit turned into was. The 2018 movie added and removed shit for no real reason, but there is literally a chase scene that adds exactly nothing and seems to only be there to pad out the runtime. As stupid as the Happy Medium scene is in the new version, it’s nowhere near as unbearable as the 2003 one (also they’re both made male while the character is female in the book, for whatever reason). I guess the new movie lucked out because it won’t have L’Engle publicly trash the thing like she did this one (she died in 2007)!

Most of all it removed a lot of the thematic and out there elements of the story. For years it was thought to be unfilmmable, so making tessering way less of an out of body experience or downplaying how weird and detached the places they visit makes sense from a logistical standpoint. But removing the overt religious and scientific elements were interesting. The novel is an attempt to marry Christian ideas with science; Charles Wallace is basically Jesus, the Mrs are angels, stuff like that. Love saves the day in a rather overt and obvious way, which is a huge value of Christian doctrine. The 2003 film downplays the ethereal nature of the Mrs, and it makes Charles Wallace less of a weird, gifted genius. The problem is more that this movie doesn’t really replace it with anything. The 2018 film, however, removes the Christian overtones, but does replace it with something.

Here, there’s more of a New Age-y, spiritualist self-affirming vibe going on. Meg doesn’t need to rely on her love for her brother to save the day like in the novel, it’s more about loving herself and allowing that to make her feel the love of everything around her. Things are a lot more colourful, and the weirdness is seeped back into the Mrs’, but slightly altered. Like, Mrs. Who speaks in quotes in the novel, but it’s not her only method of communication like it is in the 2018 movie. Mrs. Which doesn’t have a set form in the novel, but they made her enormous in the film, stuff like that.

Now, I cannot speak for the religious beliefs of DuVernay or screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell. It’s sometimes hard to broach exactly where the personality of a film stems from in comparison to a novel because the former is so collaborative in nature. Changing the focus of the story to be less faith-based and more emotionally driven makes sense, given how stories are broken down for present day audiences and emotions did play a huge part in the book. And they do play this up, with trippy colours and a way more relaxed tone than the novel had, a lot of it being fueled by more meditative parts than ideas of belief and light over darkness.

Whether this shift worked for you or not is entirely up to your own interpretation. But why I think it’s positive is because they went against the novel in a more independent, creative way. This is something I’ve railed on for years; doing your own thing with adaptations rather than just straight retellings. It’s not like in the 2003 version where they likely played down the Christian stuff to make the film more marketable, or the weirder stuff so they could make the damn thing. The changes here feel more personal and intentional, there is a point to them. They did their own thing, for good or for ill.

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Roland Barthes’ essay Death of the Author comes up a lot in defence of enjoying works from famous people who did horrible things, but that’s not actually what it’s about (and it’s something that irritates me, but that’s a different essay). Death of the Author posits that we should remove authorial intent from a work in order to get the best possible reading out of it; our own. I mean, this is a simplified as hell interpretation of Barthes’ essay, but it will do us for now. A Wrinkle in Time takes Death of the Author and applies it to  get something different out of a classic with 100 million dollars. I think that’s great!

Now, there is the fact that the author is, well, dead and not involved in the process, which cannot be said for a lot of other adaptations. Also, while a classic, these novels just don’t have the following others do to make people vitriolic with their changes. And I guess the one thing that’s really unavoidable is that the movie just really isn’t good. The effects feel either overcompensating or unfinished, Calvin if possible feels more useless here than he does in the novel, the scene transitions are wonky and nothing really has that natural a flow, the acting ranges from passable to ungodly terrible, it’s got horribly written dialogue where characters do not feel real, and it removes a lot of the more interesting science stuff and, rather than replace it with anything of value, just has these weird Silicon Valley-esque tech lectures and unwashed working out of garage genius garbling to get our insights. The Murrys eat, sleep and breathe science, and I just don’t get that from the kids at least. Like, undeniably, the book is better. i’d actually recommend reading it. I can’t, in good conscience, recommend checking this film out.

But this is an interesting case study, as we have two adaptations of the same novel. One is more faithful, but removes a lot of the spiritual aspects. The other goes entirely in its own direction, but replaces the spiritual aspects. Would you rather have a more loyal but forgettable work, or a messy one that goes completely in its own direction with the story, but is a hell of a lot more memorable? This is probably not the movie to make this stand on (and there are probably way better examples I can pull from-The Shining comes to mind), but I at least admire that they tried to do their own thing. Regardless of quality, I know which version I don’t strain to remember as much.

Though, no more giant Oprahs. I can live without those.

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