A New ‘Wrinkle’

What to think of the film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time? Rebecca Wanzo and Laurie Maffly-Kipp exchange ideas about the the book’s leap to the big screen in wide-ranging discussion. Spoiler: these scholars give the edge to the book.

The film A Wrinkle in Time premiered to much ado in early March, no doubt attributable to its powerhouse creators — director Ava DuVernay and stars Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling — and its distinction as a staple, in book form, of American classrooms for decades. Madeleine L'Engle first published her science fiction novel in 1962, eventually writing four more stories featuring its characters that now constitute her Time Quintet: A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986) and An Acceptable Time (1989).

We asked two scholars whose work touches on the film’s themes (and fans of the book!) to tell us more about the adaptation from page to screen: Rebecca Wanzo, associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies and associate director of the Center for the Humanities, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp, the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor in the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and director of the Program in Religious Studies.

Wanzo and Maffly-Kipp discuss the film’s religious elements, portrayal of science and approach to race.

Rebecca Wanzo Laurie, did you read it when you were young? One of my thoughts was that the adult me didn't care for it, but that I think the 8-year-old me would have loved it. And what was your perspective as a religion scholar? There was a lot of discussion of religion being removed. When they named the people who fought evil in the book, Jesus was the first person named, and he was not mentioned in the movie. At the same time, I think the idea of good and evil and a savior still carried the moral claims of the novel.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp I read it multiple times as a child, and loved the book, yes. I was braced for the movie being less overtly religious and more glammed up (Oprah's eyelids, in the trailer, were a huge signal that a makeover had occurred). The book is very conceptual, with lots of focus on mathematics and physics, and it would have been difficult to translate that to the screen. But as a result, I was just distracted by the CGI and the snappy interjections among the female triad. What came through to me was simply the self-affirming "love yourself for who you are." Not a bad message, but drained of the braininess and philosophical expansiveness (including Christianity, but also others) that made the book so exciting to me. As for Meg: my understanding from the book was that her awkwardness was more a self-perception than objectively true, so it pained me to see her tripping (although I suppose that is one way to narrate internal hesitation) and looking, well, awkward. Also, her mother in the book (again, from my recollection) was a brilliant, dedicated scientist in her own right — and we didn't ever see her working (except in flashbacks with the father) or talking to her kids about math, philosophy, etc. I also thought the plot itself got lost in the moments of fluff (flying around on Reese Witherspoon transformed into a giant lettuce leaf?). I had imagined the women as much earthier, since the language and imagery L'Engle uses to talk about them is much closer to animal life than to beauty queens — and Aunt Beast, the great mammal/human/healer, was entirely cut out of the plot. In sum: part of my disappointment involves simply a different visual interpretation of the book. And part is an objection to the Disneyfication — and trivialization — of beauty, love, etc.

Rebecca Wanzo This is why memory and what de Ceteau might call "textual poaching" is fascinating. Meg's mother is a scientist but she is just as much an enigma in the first book as she is in the film. We don't see her doing any science; the film actually shows more of that than L'Engle does. As for Meg — it was, in contrast, very important to me as a kid that she was awkward. She was bullied, her teachers didn't think much of her, so it clearly wasn't just self-perception. So, when her mother and Calvin see her as special, it suggested to little awkward girls that there could be a better future (for some of us, at least!). I also think the race bending in terms of Meg's looks has particular relevance here. I know many white friends who have had issues with curly hair, and all you have to do is watch a teen makeover movie and curly-hair-to-straight is the universal sign of becoming beautiful. But "I like your hair" to black girls has a different resonance, I think. The self-love plot thus might be both a Disneyfication and given a thicker meaning with blackness?

Laurie Maffly-Kipp I wish more had been done to tease out the racial complexities of the casting decisions here, as you suggest. As for Meg's general awkwardness: yes, a universal internal experience, to be sure. Whether she is objectively more awkward (brainier, yes, and difficult with teachers because of that) is an interesting question that gets entangled here with the racial dynamics in interesting ways. As for self-love: my objection is that the plot not be reduced to self-love. It was the collective dimension — the coming together of the community of wise women and other creatures who nurture, nourish and nudge Meg along — that was de-emphasized, IMHO. Not to mention the self-sacrificial themes — you go after Charles Wallace not simply because it is a journey of self-discovery, but because it is also through self-sacrifice (of the right sort, not the conformist, fascist sort mandated on Camazotz) that one realizes one's full potential. As for Meg's mother: I may be misremembering the extent of her science (a comment you framed in a theoretically interesting way!), but it was the commentary on physics and philosophy that stuck with me. It may well have been more telling than showing — true of the book in general, and the reason it has been notoriously hard to film.

Rebecca Wanzo The science piece truly was not captured at all. My favorite of the series was actually A Wind in the Door, and I was always more drawn to biology than physics. I wonder if a filmmaker would have an easier time capturing the science of that book, which was focused on biology. The community of women idea is interesting — the "Mrs" characters don't work well for me. I wonder if part of it is that Oprah's decades-long brand of "love your best self" can't be dissociated from what's going on here? I thought the conformity moment was one of the best in the movie but not well-integrated. That's part of the self-love piece to me — Meg seeing herself as valuable and having worth was part of what gave her power. So, I don't see it as reduction per se to focus on self-love but not as conceptually rich theologically and cosmically as it is in the books.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp Agreed! This is making me want to reread the whole series!