It’s somewhat odd to talk about A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the classic novel by Madeleine L’Engle. It is loud and imprecise and soft, and those are all things it wants to be—a movie categorically made for children and tweens. But it is at the cost of all things the book was about, which was a surprisingly dark tale about death and conformity and faith.
This begs an interesting question of what is critical in an adaptation. Many have thought—and correctly known—that L’Engle’s works wouldn’t translate one-to-one to a screen in anything resembling success. Her writing works in the theatre of the mind but falls out of the physical mouth like Picasso-drawn tetrominoes. Character quirks will almost too obviously are impossible to commit to real life without a distracting amount of awkwardness.
And that’s all true. But those are also some of the few components of the story that make it through untouched while the more complex themes were left by the wayside. It’s the clear consequence of the Disneyfication of an existing property, removing the overt Christian elements (thankfully, though this also excises the themes of just general faith), the parts about sameness (in a company that makes its money by extruding fans through mouse-shaped holes), and flattening of the validity of crises.
Personally, I detest comparisons between source material and adaptations. They stand apart because they belong to separate mediums, and ideally, they would embrace the strengths of their extant proscenium. (It’s kind of related to why I hate comparing originals and sequels/prequels.) But here, it’s worth noting because of what gets lost—what is given up for the sake of transliteration. After all, no two-hour movie is going to be able to encompass the same reach of a few hundred pages of taut writing.
Instead, what the movie does focus on is something more resembling the broad concept of confidence or generosity. Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a young middle schooler and daughter to astrophysicist Alex Murry (Chris Pine) and microbiologist Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She’s a gifted student but begins to turn to troublemaking in the four years since her father randomly goes missing amidst his research into folding and traversing space and time. This leaves her, her mother, and her adopted and genius brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) on their own to cope with the fallout of his disappearance.
Suddenly, one day, a stranger by the name of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) shows up in their house apparently as Charles Wallace’s guest. It’s odd, but nothing compared to when she and her compatriots Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) show up to whisk them and Meg’s surprisingly game classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) to an entirely new planet far, far away to look for Meg’s father. They are mostly stopped, however, by a darkness known as the It, an evil force that seems bent on destroying…anything?
It’s fairly ill-defined, and that’s ostensibly fine for what’s going on. It’s vaguely spiritual, it reduces complexity to the simple dichotomy of good versus evil, and it just wants to bop around from scene to scene like a hyperactive book report. It’s a shame because that premise is a rather tame conflict; we all know good is, well, good and good always wins. The It was originally a massive, unstoppable engine of homogeneity, a thing that wants to strip you of everything that is you and push you into a popsicle mold.
What is more identifiable for a teen than that? Fighting back against this lure—this seduction—of conformity. (Though it does burst through naturally via the impressively and gratefully diverse cast and production team.) Worry about nothing and everything is easy when everything inside of you is screaming to be yourself, compounded with the core fear of reliance on adults. Or rather, the realization that adults and authority figures can’t solve all of your problems and that you have to take charge yourself.
Granted, it touches on this, but only in the lightest touch. Meg’s “faults”—movie parlance for things that make her unique—only come up in the resolution. Specificity in acceptance is smashed down into this monotone refrain of something love-adjacent. It hammers home what feel like the most inconsequential anchors only to later reveal that it was all inconsequential. It generally just feels scared of believing in its audience—of reach its hand out for something grand.
And as said earlier, that’s what the movie is going for. The stunning visuals may land flat at times (Mrs. Whatsit’s, uh, leafy transformation) and the gags may furrow the brow (Mrs. Who’s inability to speak in anything besides direct quotes of other people) and the action may be uneven (that wall scene), but does it matter when the target audience won’t even notice? Obviously yes, but not to them or to the box office.
For those that it matters to, however, it comes back down to that question. The question that is begged by when an adaptation seems to eschew the best parts of the source and seems to yearn to tell a completely different story. Was A Wrinkle in Time the right property to adapt for what Ava DuVernay wanted to achieve? Probably not. And neither is what Ava DuVernay achieved worth watching.
Final Score: 5 out of 10