A Wrinkle in Time Awakens the Inner Child in Us All
Madeleine L’Engle had a lot of trouble selling her little book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” back in 1962.
Publishers didn’t “get” her story’s unique blend of quantum physics, children’s adventure and spiritual parable. But she wasn’t writing for them, she was writing for her children and grandchildren. “You have to write the book that wants to be written,” L’Engle wrote later. “And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Ava DuVernay approached her film version of A Wrinkle in Time similarly. In a short introduction before the theatrical version, DuVernay instructs the audience to “Embrace the inner child in you … Sit back, relax, and be a kid again.”
“A Wrinkle in Time” follows Meg Murray (Storm Reid), a bright but awkward 15-year-old girl who is depressed after the disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine). Meg’s principal (André Holland), mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and other adults have told her it’s time to move on, but her little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) tell her not to give up hope.
The three Mrs., celestial beings who can tesser (“wrinkle” time and space to travel to other planets and dimensions) also tell her to not give up hope and help her begin the journey through space and time, light and dark, to find her father. Reese Witherspoon is the chirpy, cheerful Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling is the serene Mrs. Which, who only speaks in quotes from other people (2018 updates to her quotes include Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda), and Oprah Winfrey is Mrs. Who, the wisest and most powerful of the three. It did not take a lot of suspension of disbelief to buy Winfrey’s performance as a goddess-adjacent being.
DuVernay’s film is, to be frank, at times “difficult for grown-ups” too. People who loved the “Wrinkle in Time” series when they read it in middle school are aware of the difficulties of adapting the 160-page novel because it’s a study in contradictions. Its scope is at once huge (the entire universe) and small (the inner turmoil of a teenage girl). The themes are both difficult (quantum physics) and simple (light versus dark, good versus evil). Some school districts have banned the book for being overly Christian, while others have banned it for showing how science and theology can coexist.
DuVernay’s film hits some of these inherent contradictions and misses others. The Christian themes of the book aren’t present, but a lot of the science is gone too. A scene that is featured prominently in the movie’s trailers explaining the “wrinkle in time” with a string and an ant toy is absent; the only thing left in the film that explains the titular wrinkle is a PowerPoint graphic behind Chris Pine’s head in a flashback scene before his character’s disappearance. The Mrs. explain the tesseract sometimes in passing, but are more likely to not really explain anything by saying that the universe works in “mysterious ways.” It’s not that the film has to be “Interstellar Jr.,” but it’s disappointing to see the film dance around the opportunity to show children the wondrous world of physics, especially considering most of the audience is little girls, who need STEM representation in media.
Other opportunities, however, were handled beautifully. Reid is convincingly angsty and awkward as Meg, though sometimes the movie “tells” us she’s awkward rather than “shows” us. McCabe is fantastic as the precocious Charles Wallace, striking a balance between wise and filled with childlike wonder. Miller does as much as he can with his Calvin character, ostensibly chosen by the Mrs. for being “diplomatic” in theory, but who in practice doesn’t really do much but pine for Meg. As the movie went on, however, I realized this flaw in Clavin’s character wasn’t a bug but a feature. Calvin joins the ranks of hundreds of love interests who don’t do much beyond make googly eyes at the hero, only this time the genders are swapped. Plus, I can’t be too mad at Calvin’s favorite compliment, “I like your hair,” referring to Meg’s beautiful, natural biracial corkscrews.
My adult self had a few other qualms with the movie. Pop song cues are used strangely, at times speaking over the characters onscreen. For every breathtakingly beautiful CGI scene, there’s one
that’s blustery, dark, and murky, as if to remind you that you are watching a very expensive Blockbuster movie. The movie is overly cliche, as some critics have written, but the eyes of a child who hasn’t seen hundreds upon hundreds of movies yet are forgiving. For hardened adults, sometimes cliches and stories hitting familiar beats are comfortable. But more to the point, those same critics don’t seem to be complaining that “Star Wars: A New Hope” was specifically written to hit every step of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
But when I initially walked into the theater, I was pleasantly surprised by how many children there were in the theater. Several area Girl Scout troops were at my screening (and then sold cookies after the movie was over). Because, at the end of the day, “A Wrinkle in Time” is not really a movie for me. It’s for girls who dream of saving the universe, of traveling space and time and arriving to each planet in a new regal outfit and glittery makeup more fabulous than the last. (Seriously, Sephora, get on that “Wrinkle in Time” makeup line, you’ll make a killing.) It’s for boys, who have a framework in Calvin for properly supporting a female leader. It’s for adults whose inner children are begging them to turn away from the scary, tumultuous news cycle and let the light in.
As L’Engle wrote, “A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” And sometimes that book’s movie can serve the same purpose.