When I saw that a movie had been made, I was nervous but hopeful. A Wrinkle in Time is a complex, intellectual, and philosophical novel. It was quite famously rejected by many major publishers because its subject matter was believed to be too advanced for a young audience. It’s a book about faith, God, physics, and the fight for good. And it’s written for children. I think that just about anyone would have a hard time fully realizing it on film, but I also think that a faithful adaptation of it would be incredible. In a rare interview with Newsweek in 2004, Madeleine L’Engle had this to say about the movie:
NEWSWEEK: So you've seen the movie?
Madeleine L'Engle: I've glimpsed it.
And did it meet expectations?
Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.
And I’m here to tell you that Madeleine L’Engle was absolutely right. (About so many things. That interview is amazing.) It took me three sittings to get through this entire movie, because I had to force myself to keep watching it. When I finally made it through to the end, I had catalogued over a hundred differences – both major and minor. I feel like I boomeranged from one end of the spectrum (Holes) to the other (this… "film”). My list is long and frenetic, but I’m going to do my best to put it all together here. I figure I’ll start with the small stuff and end with the stuff that made me want to find the original of this movie and burn it.
a) What better place to start than the book’s famous opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night”? This may not have been the first book to open with that line, but I’d argue that it’s the best. The movie, however, opens on a calm and clear night.
b) Mrs. Murry’s liverwurst and cheese sandwich (which she eats in the kitchen on that dark and stormy night) becomes a PB&J.
c) Fortinbras (“Fort”) the Llewellyn setter/greyhound mix becomes Fort the German shepherd.
d) Mrs. Whatsit gains the ability to transform into a crow, and she can also rearrange t.v. static into her own image and speak through it. Her famous pink stole? Nowhere in sight.
e) The Happy Medium is a man, baby. He also has a river full of glow worms that feed on laughter and he loves to watch America's Funniest Home videos on his crystal ball.
f) Aunt Beast looks like the missing link.
I had to shut off the movie right there and take a break. Every true
Madeleine L'Engle fan knows that "Dennys" is actually pronounced like
h) It’s dangerous to tesser (a form of dimension-bending space travel) alone in the movie – Mrs. Whatsit urges them to hold hands lest they become damaged – but in the book she says the opposite. The tesser itself, described by Meg in the book as a sort of unmaking and reforming, becomes a psychedelic CGI river monstrosity.
i) And speaking of CGI monstrosities, there’s Mrs. Whatsit’s centaur form – a CGI so hideous that the movie poster designers (quite wisely, I think) decided to turn it into a pegasus and pretend it never happened.
“She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of braces. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair, so that it stood wildly on end, and let out a sigh almost as noisy as the wind.”
"He looked very small and vulnerable sitting there alone in the big old-fashioned kitchen, a blond little boy in faded blue Dr. Dentons….”
“Tall he certainly was, and skinny. His bony wrists stuck out of the sleeves of his blue sweater; his worn corduroy trousers were three inches too short. He had orange hair that needed cutting and the appropriate freckles to go with it. His eyes were an oddly bright blue.”
"Mrs. Murry’s flaming red hair, creamy skin, and violet eyes with long dark lashes, seemed even more spectacular in comparison with Meg’s outrageous plainness.”
“The age or sex was impossible to tell, for it was completely bundled up in clothes. Several scarves of assorted colors were tied about the head, and a man’s felt hat perched atop. A shocking pink stole was knotted about a rough overcoat..."
“…a plump little woman…. She wore enormous spectacles, twice as thick and twice as large as Meg’s….”
Rarely comfortable in corporeal form, Mrs. Which often appears as a shimmer in the air.
2. Meg "Mega" Murry
This girl has been a fictional soul mate of mine for over twenty years. She’s blunt, impatient, and stubborn. She doesn’t quite fit in: not with her peers and not even with her own family. “You’re much too straightforward to be able to pretend to be what you aren’t,” says Mrs. Murry, describing a trait of Meg’s that I share. Meg is smart, but doesn't follow the school's prescribed methods of learning. In the beginning of the book, she’s been placed in the most remedial section of her class and is in danger of being held back. The other kids bully her about her odd family, but Meg doesn’t hesitate to fight back. When an older, larger boy teases her about her "dumb baby brother," she tackles him. Her “normal kid” brothers Sandy and Dennys admonish her, saying, “Let us do the fighting when it’s necessary.” But Meg doesn’t need anyone to fight her battles for her. In one of my favorite scenes, Meg goes head to head with the smug school principal, Mr. Jenkins, who insinuates that her father has abandoned the family. When he tells her to “stop bellowing,” she says, “I’m not ashamed of anything I’m saying. Are you?” She’s basically my hero.
And then there’s the Meg who lives in this movie. She’s a smarty-pants who shows up one of her teachers for making a mistake. The bullying is shown, but Meg goes up against a smaller, younger boy and is rescued from the fight by Calvin. Rescued! By CALVIN! In the conference scene, Mr. Jenkins comes off as a sympathetic, “just trying to help” type of teacher and Meg plays the unreasonable kid. She also apparently has a penchant for reciting the periodic table of elements when she’s upset.
3. Charles Wallace
Charles Wallace of the book is a child savant. He’s four years old and not yet in school. He doesn’t speak to anyone outside of the family and he seems to have powers of perception beyond those of a normal person. When Meg asks him if he can read their minds, he says: “I don’t think it’s that. It’s being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inad-inadvertently.”
In the movie, his extra perception is lamely boiled down to plain ol’ telepathy. His intellect is lamely packaged and presented with little vignettes of encyclopedia reading and Boggle skillz. He’s aged by two years and is already in school (and struggling). The actor who plays him is super cute, but he just doesn’t capture that “old soul” quality that the real Charles Wallace has in spades. Also in the movie his role in the universe is played up – he’s THE CHOSEN ONE.
4. The Mrs. W's
This is one of my biggest disappointments. In the book, these three badass billion-year-old beings appear wise, compassionate, and eternal. In the movie, I am sorry to say that they are cheesified to the max. Mrs. Whatsit sounds like a self-help book - "you are angry as well as afraid and THAT IS…GOOOD.” Mrs. Who has a crazy/trilling voice and moves like a creepy velociraptor, and Mrs. Which is re-cast as the cynical naysayer (which she never was in the book). Suddenly she hates children and resents their presence. Suddenly she can't...understand these...complex...human... emotions. Two of my favorite scenes in the book, where the three W's give Meg, Calvin and Charles "gifts" before they go into battle are almost completely cut out or cheesed beyond all recognition (CHEBARed).
5. Mr. Murry's Disappearance
In the book, Jack Murry has been gone for almost eight years. He and Mrs. Murry are scientists, and before he went missing they worked together on many projects, including the mysterious tesseract. It is understood by Meg and her mother that he was working for the government, but the agency that he was working for maintains that he’s just away. Meg fears that he’s never coming back.
In the movie, voice over Meg informs us: “Dad left us, no word, just left,” and we later learn that he's been gone for only one year. Meg tells Calvin in another scene that they’d hired a private investigator with no result. Mrs. Murry seems to have no idea what the tesseract even is. She’s shown performing fruitless internet searches of the word.
In the book, Meg and Calvin have a sort of instant connection (not to be confused with instalove). There are some wonderful scenes where they open up to each other and form a partnership. In the movie, there is just one cringey scene after another. Calvin and Meg make doe eyes at each other, Calvin and Meg stutter-flirt, Calvin tries awkwardly to find a place for his hands on Meg's hip (while they're centaur-ridin'). And then Calvin throws out this little gem to Meg: "There’s no one I’d rather be held hostage with." Romance isn't dead, people. It's ironic, because Calvin of the book is gifted with words and diplomacy. Calvin of the book also kisses Meg at the end, whereas lame Calvin of the movie begs off.
In the book, Camazotz is a rigidly structured place. Any deviation from IT's control is punished and corrected. The children play at the same hour each day and no one is allowed to be different. In the movie, all of this is true. But then they went and added a few things: eternal darkness, sand storms, dank cellars with exposed pipes and fluorescent lighting, snakes with glowing eyes, and also...a movie theater.
The encounter with the man with red eyes is also similarly exaggerated: the complex mental battle that I loved in the book is replaced by a smoking chasm, flying bodies, and mortal peril.
8. Faith and Religion
And now I finally come to the MAJOR changes. Yes, all of that from before was just chump change compared to what I have to say now. But first, I'd like to treat you to another excerpt from the interview with the brilliant Madeleine L'Engle:
Good heavens, no. It's a challenge: I dare you to believe in God. I dare you to think [our existence] wasn't an accident.
Many people see faith as anti-intellectual.
Then they're not very bright. It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity."
I am not a religious person. I generally avoid Christian fiction at all costs, and yet I would say that this book undoubtedly fits within that category. But that doesn't matter, because what Madeleine L'Engle was actually writing about here is faith - faith that just happens to grow within Christian scenery, but that nonetheless is universal. She shows this so brilliantly - in Mrs. Murry's dogged belief that her husband will come home, in Calvin's calm deference to his "compulsions", and in the Murry family's acceptance of Charles Wallace for who he is. It's "a willing suspension of disbelief"; it's the acceptance of the idea that "just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist." Madeleine L'Engle quotes the bible freely, and when the Mrs. W's name famous human fighters of the dark, Jesus is the first name to come up (and then they also mention many others, including Bhudda and Einstein). And that's okay! As Meg realizes while on Camazotz, "Alike and equal are not the same thing."
Needless to say, everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) that I love about this aspect of the book is completely destroyed in the movie. Mrs. Murry is fearful and nervous, going so far as to forbid Meg and Charles from speaking to Mrs. Whatsit. Calvin's compulsions are explained away. The movie is pared down to a ridiculous "we're all okay" type lesson with no nuance. And when it comes time to name famous human fighters? Jesus is not mentioned. Every overtly Christian reference is removed in the movie, which strikes me as a very "Camazotz-ian" white-washing of this book.
And after that looooong post, I've lost the ability to discuss just how atrocious that ending was. So instead of organizing my thoughts into complete sentences, I will instead "treat" you to the end of my list:
92) She has a knife?!!
93) And…she can throw knives??
94) Where’s the giant brain? I was promised a brain.
95) Not so fast, Meg. Not so fast.
96) PUNCH OF LOVE!! Damn it, even though it was super cheesified, I still got a little choked up. Damn it. And theeeeere’s the giant brain.
97) It’s as big as a house!
98) Aaand now they’re freeing everyone. So lame.
99) AND NOW SHE’S GIVING A SPEECH. MAKE IT STOP.
100) OMG NO. NOT THE BOY. NOOOOOOOOOO
101) The basketball will cure them all! It’s a basketball of love! And the sun is rising! Huzzah!
102) "It was Meg. She saved us." Lame.
103) OH NO THERE’S AN EPILOGUE. Worst ending line ever.
And as final treat (real one this time), check out this amazing comic from Faith Erin Hicks: a brilliant adaptation, when compared to this movie.