Badly wrinkled adaptation

by Ted Giese

A Wrinkle in Time (2018), directed by Ava DuVernay and adapted for the screen by Jennifer Lee (writer of Disney’s giant 2013 hit Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (writer of the screenplay for Bridge to Terabithia) is loosely based on the 1962 young adult/children’s novel by the liberal Episcopalian fiction writer Madeleine L’Engle.

The film centres on an awkward teen girl, Meg Murray (Storm Reid), and her younger extraordinarily intelligent brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Together with Calvin (Levi Miller), another teen from Meg’s school, they go on an intergalactic adventure to rescue their missing scientist father Mr. Murry (Chris Pine). Three otherworldly beings—Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey)—reveal to the children that Mr. Murry, who was studying the possibility of using mind power to physically travel through time and space, had not simply vanished, but had been trapped by an evil entity called “IT” on the dark and shadowy world of Camazotz. They further explain that this evil entity is a threat to the whole universe including earth. At one point, Mrs. Which tells Meg, who is challenged to be a “warrior”, that to rescue her father she will need to become one with the universe and one with herself. This makes the film not only a story about the love of children for their father and each other, but also a film about self-love and courage to face evil in the world and in oneself. Sadly, the film investigates both these themes rather poorly.

Adaptation is always tricky and DuVernay and her writers work hard to modernize the 1962 novel. One obvious change is the cast’s racial diversity, but the major impact is the removal of all overtly Christian elements found in the book. This however may not be a bad thing depending on the viewer.  Objectively removing these elements impacts fidelity to the original text and raises the question of whether the material removed is all that great in the first place. For decades many Christians enjoyed the fact that A Wrinkle in Time (1962) mentions Jesus and quotes the Bible. However, the book’s Christian elements are not completely faithful to historic Christian teachings about salvation in Christ Jesus alone. In the end the book espouses a Universalist position of salvation and gets wrong both who Jesus is and the nature of His work of salvation.

L’Engle is quoted as saying, “All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones.” This contradicts Jesus’ words from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” While she includes Jesus in her book He’s on a list of humans who have “fought as warriors” against the evil of darkness in the universe. Included are people like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid and Copernicus. The film version adds Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler, and Maya Angelou and removes Jesus. By the end of the book and film, Meg is also enshrined in this list of great warriors. In the book she doesn’t win her battle by being perfect but by embracing her faults; in the film her victory likewise comes from self-acceptance, but it isn’t her anger that beats the evil IT but her love for her brother. Again, this is both better and worse. The change is both unfaithful to the book yet better than the book in terms of a lesson about confronting evil. Likewise, removing Jesus from the list of warriors against evil is both unfaithful to the source material but simultaneously better because most Christians don’t want to see Jesus as an equal in a list of historic figures; He is above any such list.

In addition to removing the reference to Jesus the film also removes all the book’s biblical quotes. This changes L’Engle’s story from a liberal mainline protestant religious fantasy novel for children into, at best, a secular humanist fantasy film for children where Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are no longer celestial beings in the category of stars in the heavens (Judges 5:20, Job 38, Psalm 148:1-3) and guardian angels. Without an explicit reference to God, they are simply, as Mrs. Which says, “part of the universe” like Meg and anything else.

Casting Oprah Winfrey to play Mrs. Which adds a complication to the film as Oprah brings her own baggage and personal branding to the role. She is revered by a legion of fans as a sort of guru of the new-age non-Christian/Gnostic-Christian pantheistic self-help ‘religion’ of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. By casting her as Mrs. Which, the head of the divine-being triumvirate, she is further “deified.” At best Oprah, like L’Engle, is a Universalist famously denying the “possibility” that Jesus is the only way to the Father saying on one of her talk shows that, “One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way [and that] there are many paths to what you call God.” Casting her in an adaptation of a book that teaches the same idea is going to be an issue when courting a Christian audience for the film.

In the end, Lee and Stockwell’s script and DuVernay’s direction remove any sense of mystery or wonder.

With the conspicuous absence of Jesus and Scripture and the conspicuous presence of Oprah the whole issue of Universalism is brought to the forefront for Christians. If removing Jesus and Scripture from the film was done to take a religious and spiritual conversation off the table, the addition of Oprah in the way she’s cast puts that conversation back on. For viewers genuinely unaware of these issues the film will simply come across as a trite secular humanist yarn.

In the end, Lee and Stockwell’s script and DuVernay’s direction remove any sense of mystery or wonder. The adaptation is also unkind to men. Mr. Murry and Calvin are given less to say and less to do as compared with the book. Oddly, the adaptation also throws science under the bus. Many readers enjoyed the frequent and important role of science in the book’s unfolding narrative. The film downplayed this by excluding scenes involving and referring to Meg and Charles Wallace’s mother’s laboratory where Mrs. Murry works as a scientist.

Technically speaking the film is also below par for this genre. While audiences expect a high calibre of special effects, A Wrinkle in Time (2018) is uneven. Some scenes are visually interesting and well executed; others are extraordinarily boring and green-screen CGI shots are poor.

A Wrinkle in Time has a lot in common with The Golden Compass (2007) another failed adaption of a young adult/children’s novel. Both films jettisoned their larger ideas to appeal to more viewers leaving core fans in the lurch. Both A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass are the first books in a series. The Golden Compass film franchises never took off; will A Wrinkle in Time likewise fail to launch? Will viewers get a book-to-film adaptation of L’Engle’s second book in the series A Wind in the Door (1973)? In it’s opening weekend A Wrinkle in Time placed second place behind Disney’s MARVEL Studio film Black Panther (2018) which in its fourth week in theatres made almost $10 million more than A Wrinkle in Time in it’s opening weekend.

Theologically L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962) is not as good as C. S. Lewis’ first book in the Narnia series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) neither is DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (2018) as good as director Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). In his final Narnia book, The Last Battle (1956), C. S. Lewis veered into the same Universalist territory L’Engle embraces which DuVernay’s film works to secularize. This issue never became a problem for The Chronicles of Narnia film franchise as the series stalled with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) and likely won’t make it to The Last Battle (1956). Perhaps this new film will assist readers of L’Engle’s books to reconsider her theological ideas in the light of Scriptural and historic Christian teaching on the person and nature of Jesus and His work of salvation. Parents should be cautioned that some moments in the film involving Charles Wallace come across as mean-spirited as the result of choices made in the adaptation.

However well-meaning Disney and DuVernay may have been in their desire to bring A Wrinkle in Time (2018) to the big screen, the final product is simply a B – Grade film, lacklustre, mostly glitter with no substance—with a few exceptions. Acting is uneven and there is poor chemistry between actors. For a film about love and bravery it turns out neither fully loving its source material nor proving courageous in its execution of L’Engle’s story. This is an instance where poor fidelity to text ends up being an overall good thing as the film will likely inspire a few new readers to pick up the book series but will fail to inspire further film adaptations.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian LutheranReporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.


One response to “Badly wrinkled adaptation”

  1. Beverley says:

    Thank you Ted for another insightful review of a movie I will not bother to see. I follow your reviews and admire your work and insightfulness. Please keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Posted By: canluth
Posted On: March 22, 2018
Posted In: Headline, Movie Review,

More Resources