Like and Equal are Not the Same Thing


So, I watched the ABC/Disney special showing of A Wrinkle in Time yesterday.

As a fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s work and a member of an active L’Engle mailing list, I’ve been aware of this movie for about three years. Many L’Engle fans were not looking forward to the production. For the three years the movie has sat on a shelf; there have been rumours of reshoots, and what was once a two-part, four-hour mini-series morphed down to a single three-hour movie. This did not lend people with much hope.

Over and above this, many L’Engle fans were offended by the film’s existence. I suspect the spiritual quality of L’Engle’s writing leads to many viewing her work as sacred. Combined this with Disney’s notorious reputation for dumbing down projects and you can see why a number of people wrote off this movie before it started. I have to admit to such leanings, even though I knew I was jumping the gun.

Late in the novel (and in the movie), Meg Murry says, “like and equal are not the same thing.” I think this perfectly describes what happens when a movie is created out of a book. Books and movies are two different mediums, wherein one (books) are subtle and internal, and the other (movies) are limited to more overt and external exposition. The result is two separate but related projects that should be considered in near isolation to each other.

Consider the changes that the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (one of my favourite movies) had to make to the Lord of the Rings book trilogy (one of my favourite books) in order to function as a film. The movie’s most controversial step, in many people’s eyes, were the changes that were made to Faramir. In the books, after talking to Frodo and Sam and seeing the ring, Faramir basically lets them go. In the movies, Faramir is tempted by the ring, pulls Sam and Frodo far from their course to Osgiliath, and only after almost losing the ring to a Ring Wraith does he realize that he has to let Frodo and Sam go.

Faramir was a noble character in the books, who resisted the tempting qualities of the ring that swamped his brother Boromir. However, in the books, the ring’s tempting qualities are subtle, and that subtlety does not transfer well into film. Therefore, director Peter Jackson made the threat of the ring overt. Everybody, including Aragorn, is tempted to some degree by the ring. If you’ve already spent a movie and a half overtly displaying the threatening character of the ring, only to have Faramir say “I would not pick up this thing if it lay by the wayside”, you undercut the work of the previous four hours.

Disney, who doesn’t have Peter Jackson’s deft and subtle hand (yes, I am aware of the irony of the statement) has even less hope of capturing the subtleties of L’Engle’s original novel, and that is a strike against the movie. However, the measure of success for any film adaptation should not be how well it keeps to the letter of the novel, but how well it keeps to the spirit. The first two Harry Potter movies are good examples of films that keep close to the letter of the corresponding novels, but which fail to live up to the spirit.

Compare the book and movie versions of The Chamber of Secrets and the key scene where Dumbledore asks Harry for an explanation and Harry refuses to say what he knows. In the movie, it appears that Harry is afraid that admitting what he knows will get him into trouble. The movie lacks the book’s subtlety wherein it is clear that Harry doesn’t trust himself and that he thinks he might actually be behind the attacks. Unfortunately, the director is not adept enough to bring this across on film, and by sticking to the letter of the book, he is unable to come up with an alternate way of bringing this key character/plot element to the foreground.

That being said, there are plenty of other reasons a movie adaptation might succeed or fail and we won’t know until we watch it. So now that I’ve seen A Wrinkle in Time, what do I think? After some thought, I find the movie to be… adequate.

The Wrinkle in Time movie hits most of the notes of the L’Engle novel correctly. Young Meg Murry is a troubled teenager who hates herself. Her otherwise comfortable family life is ripped apart when her father disappears while working on a top secret project. As she and her family struggle to cope, they are visited by the supernatural character Mrs. Who, who tells them not to lose hope, and who tels Meg’s mother that there is such a thing as a tesseract.

Although the plot follows the format established by L’Engle’s novel, there are changes and there are embellishments. Meg Murry doesn’t have her glasses. Dr. Alex Murry is inexplicably named Jack. Intriguingly, when the movie gets around to Calvin, Meg and Charles Wallace talking with Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit about the key figures of human history who have fought back the darkness, Jesus is conspicuously absent from the list. There are nice touches that enhance the original, such as having dark parallels of Calvin, Meg and Charles Wallace appear in the dark suburbia of Camazotz, but changes really start to come fast and furious in the final confrontation on Camazotz.

In the novel, Meg Murry goes back to try and free Charles Wallace from the control of IT, described in the book as a giant brain under glass. In the movie, the Man with Red Eyes fills most of IT’s role, suggesting that the filmmakers didn’t feel comfortable having an animatronic brain and a six-year-old carry this key scene with Meg Murry. Although this is an example of the movie producers playing it safe, the change is understandible and (somewhat) forgivable.

The movie does make one key violation to the spirit of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing. While Meg recovers from her injuries after Charles Wallace is lost to IT, she comes to the inevitable decision that only she can go back to save her little brother. In the book, this decision does not come easily, and Meg has to be convinced (literally kicking and screaming) that the decision is the right one; that although nobody will force her to go, she is the only one who can go.

This depiction of weakness and fear giving way to courage and strength is the climactic scene of Meg’s character, but it seems that Disney did not want to to put this in front of an audience used to kids saving the day in the face of incompetent adults. Instead, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who propose to send Meg, Calvin and Dr. Murry home (promising to “take care of Charles Wallace themselves”), and Meg has to lobby to be sent back to Camazotz on her own. It doesn’t strike me as realistic that someone as small as Meg could convince beings as powerful as Mrs. Which that she should be sent in where higher beings fear to tread, but it is par for the course in a feel-good Disney flick. This violation in particular has L’Engle purists frothing.

A Wrinkle in Time is saved by the performances of Katie Stuart and Gregory Smith as Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe. Katie in particular lends such weight to Meg that it is easy to forgive the cosmetic changes to her character, including the fact that glasses are gone, and that Katie is too cute for Meg believably hate herself or her looks. Gregory Smith does not have Calvin’s red hair, but he believably captures the spirit of a young man swept up in events beyond his control, and the chemistry he has with Meg is straight from the books and very well realized.

Which is good, because the rest of the acting ranges from adequate (in the case of Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit, who had far more star power than the children and who should have given us more than what they gave) to downright embarrassing (Sean Cullin’s Happy Medium made me leave the room). Also, while Katie and Gregory manage to power through some terribly earnest and “awe-inspiring” incidental music, and while Meg can defeat IT and the Man with Red Eyes, Katie Stuart herself is helpless against the Evil Hand of Disney (tm) which forces her to mount a convenient flight of stairs and give an inspiring speech to the befuddled peoples of Camazotz to tell them that they’re now free.

So, overall, the Wrinkle in Time movie has a strange mix of good and bad elements. It keeps to the spirit and the letter of the novel about half the time, and about half of the changes do manage to work. The movie is far from the quality achieved by The Lord of the Rings; it even ranks below Harry Potter, but I think the overall effect is something most viewers should enjoy.

I must admit, I’ve had discussions with a few L’Engle fans who haven’t put the Wrinkle in Time movie in the proper perspective. For them, the mere presence of this Disney movie has now ruined the original novel, because they fear that the Wrinkle in Time movie will be seen as “the real thing”. Balderdash. The good thing about movie adaptations is that they are just that: adaptations. They exist separate from the books and are thus not a threat. It is not as though the movie writers get to go back and rewrite the original novel. Just as those who threw up their hands over the changes The Lord of the Rings movie made to the Tolkien novels will still have the original novels to go back to, so too will offended fans of the Wrinkle in Time book.

In the few cases where the Disney movie has, in any way, supplanted the original novel (see Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins), it only did so because the original movie was so effective that it stuck in the popular culture. In this way, L’Engle purists should feel no threat: the Wrinkle in Time movie is nowhere near that good.

I have also noticed that, in the weeks leading up to this release, the number of people who have come to this site looking for more about Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe (and finding this site). These people are not looking for the movie specifically; they’re looking for fan fiction and they’re looking for more information about the book itself. This suggests to me that the movie has spurred interest in the characters and in the book itself. So, the movie may have brought the book to the attention of a new generation of readers. If this is so, then the movie has had a benefit, and it can be forgiven for its many missteps.

On the other hand, I’ll be paying attention to the other projects Ms. Katie Stuart has been in… The Magician’s House anyone?

Further Reading

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