By the 1970’s, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962) was a staple in youth literature throughout North America. As an adult in 1977, I fell in love with it while doing research for the Children’s Literature course I taught. Considering that it was published in the pre-internet/social media era, this modern fantasy was arguably as popular with young readers in the 1970’s and 80’s as J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series was with millennial youth. In 2003 Disney turned it into an award-winning made-for-television film, and now, 56 years after its inception, a new version of this classic has at last arrived on the big screen. I couldn’t wait to see it, and did last weekend.
Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is the gifted oldest daughter of two brilliant astrophysicists who are developing theories about the origins and nature of the universe. When we meet her she’s an angry middle-school misfit, tormented with self-loathing and grief over the unexplained disappearance of her beloved father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. Meg’s only joy is her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), a precocious genius and telepath whom she deeply loves and fiercely protects from bullies.
The story takes off when Charles Wallace introduces Meg and her new friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) to his strange new friends—Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Like the benevolent Mother Goddesses they symbolize, these beings have come to Earth from somewhere in the cosmos to help Meg and Charles Wallace rescue their father from imprisonment by the evil shadow known as IT. Traveling across a wrinkle in time and space called a tesseract—a new theory being developed by Meg’s mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but as yet unproven by her—they are transported to the dark planet Camazotz where they rescue Dr. Murray but lose Charles Wallace to the evil. The timeless message of this story is conveyed by the way Meg saves him from the gathering darkness.
Almost everybody who reads a book before seeing the movie says the book was better. Unfortunately, I think this holds true for A Wrinkle in Time. Like dreams, we always prefer our own inner images to those of others. Nonetheless, there is much to love about this film.
For example, the child actors are remarkable. Storm Reid is pitch perfect as Meg. At times, her depiction of an array of confused and conflicting feelings brought me to tears. I’ve been there. Levi Miller as Calvin is a natural at portraying a wounded boy who hides his secret sadness beneath his earnest, inherent kindness. And Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace is a constant surprise and delight. Sometimes the youngest children, like eight-year-old Brooklynn Prince of the Oscar-nominated film, The Florida Project, are uncannily confident actors because they’re still too delighted with the imaginary world of “let’s pretend” to be self-conscious about it.
Once the travelers reach Camazotz, the costumes, sets, makeup, and auditory and visual effects are gorgeous and highly imaginative, but for me, unsettling and too much. Almost annoying. I would have preferred a more subtle palette with less in-your-face, technologically contrived color and pizazz! And as much as I admire the actresses who play the triple Mrs.’s, (symbolic of Hecate, Greek mythology’s three-faced goddess guide through the underworld), they are too young and glamorous for me.
Madeleine L’Engle described Mrs. Whatsit as a frumpy, bumbling and eccentric old woman (who morphed into a young and beautiful white winged creature that was part horse and part manta ray), Mrs. Who as a plump little woman in enormous spectacles, and Mrs. Which as a coldly authoritative black-robed, beaked-nose witch with a broomstick who had difficulty materializing into human form. In the film version none of them is remotely old or witchy. Mrs. Whatsis is a gorgeous young redhead and Mrs. Who an exotic, raven-haired beauty. And the majestic Mrs. Which is a stunning Queen of the Cosmos with a glass-beaded unibrow, glittering eye shadow and lipstick, a shimmering, constantly changing wardrobe, and impossibly thick blonde-white hair….. I quite envied her hair…..
Yes, the costumes and makeup are gorgeous and highly imaginative, but for me they don’t work. It’s not that I dislike what today’s highly sophisticated technology can do—after all, it made Star Wars, Avatar, and The Shape of Water possible. But too much of it detracts from the story and makes it difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief, an attitude essential to the full enjoyment of a fantasy like this.
Despite this, the story and characters are as moving and inspiring in this film as they were in the book. Meg’s wounded but indomitable will, Charles Wallace’s belief in his inner knowing, Calvin’s desire to help, and the determination of the three Mrs.’s to conquer evil with good are deeply familiar, soul-satisfying themes. Most satisfying of all is the way Meg saves Charles Wallace. By loving him. It’s the same timeless message about how anyone is ever really saved from the world’s darkness. Love is the one power evil doesn’t have, will never have. Knowing that love conquers all, we can endure anything. Even a highly anticipated film that doesn’t quite live up to our expectations.