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A Wrinkle in Time: A beautiful but flawed adaptation

The adaptation of a children’s book to the screen always causes its reader-audience some trepidation, and even more so when that book is a beloved classic. That trepidation is borne out with director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal–winning novel A Wrinkle in Time (Walt Disney Pictures, March 2018; PG), which opened in theaters on March 9th. Despite stunning visuals and a strong cast, the highly anticipated film ultimately fails to deliver the essence of the story that has captivated generations of readers.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, A Wrinkle in Time follows Meg Murry (Storm Reid), a bright but withdrawn girl whose scientist father (Chris Pine) has disappeared. Bullied at school, her only friend is her precocious little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), whose age belies his genius intellect. Along with Calvin (Levi Miller), a soft-spoken yet popular boy at Meg’s school, the siblings are recruited for a rescue mission by three celestial beings: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). The mysterious strangers teach the children how to “wrinkle” space and time and “tesser” across the universe to find Mr. Murry, who has been trapped on a distant planet by the malevolent IT.

I’ll start with the positive aspects of the adaptation: the film looks gorgeous. Saturated colors pop off the screen, and breathtaking New Zealand landscapes fittingly represent distant planets. The effect of tessering is suitably trippy — reality ripples like a painted curtain as our heroes pass through it to travel the universe. Clever visual touches, such as the precariously balanced rock formations on the Happy Medium’s planet and the literary quotes stitched into one of Mrs. Who’s costumes, abound. An eerie sequence on the IT-controlled planet Camazotz (in which a neighborhood of children stand outside their houses, bouncing balls in exact synchronized rhythm) is a pitch-perfect realization of the scene from the book.

The movie’s diverse cast mostly delivers strong performances. Storm Reid carries the film spectacularly as Meg, channeling her highs and lows with guarded intelligence and an inner fire. Deric McCabe plays Charles Wallace’s brilliance with a matter-of-fact cheerfulness. Once he is controlled by IT, McCabe struts around with little-kid brattiness backed by terrifying powers. As Meg’s father, Chris Pine conveys childlike enthusiasm for science and deep love for his family with equal skill. His reunion with Meg, when father and daughter finally, tearfully embrace, is a genuinely touching high point.

Diversity carries over to the Mrs. Ws as well, more distinct from one another on screen than on the page. Reese Witherspoon brings a flighty energy to Mrs. Whatsit, the youngest and most inexperienced of the three celestials. Mindy Kaling has an impish gleam in her eye as Mrs. Who, speaking only in quotations and gleefully choosing timely aphorisms for the right occasion (on the fight against evil: “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us. Miranda. American.”). Oprah Winfrey channels a fitting blend of regal command and kindness for Mrs. Which. All three appear in colorful, over-the-top elaborate ensembles and hairstyles that emphasize their otherworldliness, with a costume change for each new planet they visit.

Purists will recognize differences from the novel right away. For instance, Charles Wallace is Meg’s adopted, rather than biological, brother in the film. When Mrs. Whatsit shape-shifts to allow the children to ride on her back, the book describes her true form as a winged centaur, but here Mrs. Whatsit’s alien form resembles an undersea flatworm with an elfin face. The turban-wearing female Happy Medium of the book is here translated to a spacey top-knotted yoga guru (Zach Galifianakis). The Man with the Red Eyes (Michael Peña), who tries to ensnare the children to deliver them to IT, is a cold, calculating, yet sophisticated villain in the novel. In the adaptation, he becomes a sinister-but-cartoony game-show host with a garish beach-print suit, sunglasses, and Snidely Whiplash moustache.

But audiences expect some aesthetic and plot changes when a novel is adapted to the screen. The real test of an adaptation is how faithfully the movie presents the book’s story and spirit, and here is where A Wrinkle in Time falters.

The adaptation pads out superficial moments and cuts important plot points. (Blink and you’ll miss Aunt Beast entirely.) Several flashbacks with original scenes, most featuring Meg’s mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and father, slow the pace and don’t contribute much to the plot. A gratuitous action scene in which Meg and Calvin run from a tornado on Camazotz only delays the children’s confrontation with IT — which is in turn rushed.

In the novel, IT is able to trap Charles Wallace because, arrogantly, he believed he could delve into IT’s mind unscathed. But in the film, he is easily hypnotized when the Man with the Red Eyes starts rhythmically reciting the multiplication tables. The climax, when Meg and the IT-controlled Charles Wallace face off within IT’s giant, cancerous brain, is similarly shortchanged. The movie casts IT’s danger as simply temptation to give in to evil, ignoring the subtler threats of complacency and mindless conformity described by the book. Jarringly, the central concept of wrinkling space and time is barely explained, and those unfamiliar with the book may be left in the dark.

This film version of A Wrinkle in Time is certainly ambitious, buoyed by eye-catching imagery and strong acting. Moments of inspiration shine throughout, but in undercutting the story, the movie adaptation loses the most crucial elements of its enduring source material.

About Russell Perry

Russell Perry is editorial assistant of The Horn Book Guide.

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Comments

  1. This movie was pretty to watch, but the script was awful. I think the actors were fine, the kids were cute and fun to watch. There were a couple of really sincere deep moments where I wanted to cry. Overall the movie is fun.

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