A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

This ambitious film adaptation of a ground-breaking children’s sci-fi novel was faithful to the book in fits and spurts, and in some ways it was better. Still, I agree with the box-office receipts on this one: not a winner.

I’m biased towards the book because I read it growing up and remember it vividly. Since screenplays can’t accommodate as many details as even the shortest of novels, liking this movie was going to be difficult in any case. That being said, the movie has some real flaws, about which, more below.

See below for some comparisons with the book and a list of reviews as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet for A Wrinkle in Time

Opening Image
Meg alone in her room on a stormy night.

Set up
Meg and her adopted little brother, the precocious Charles Wallace, live with their mother in Los Angeles. (The twins, Sandy and Dennys Murray, do not exist.) Their father, a scientist who became a laughingstock when he revealed that he believed in teleportation via tesseract, disappeared four years ago. Charles Wallace gets bullied at school because he’s “different” (he has selective mutism; he only speaks in certain contexts), and Meg gets bullied at school because she misses her father and can’t focus on school stuff.

Catalyst
Mrs. Whatsit pops in one day and tells Mrs. Murray that the tesseract is real.

Debate
Charles Wallace takes Meg and her new friend Calvin to see Mrs. Who (who’s under a quilt depicting a star). Adventures lie ahead.

Break into Two
Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which arrive in Meg’s backyard and announce that they must all go off together somewhere by tessering to find Meg’s father, Dr. Murray.

Fun and Games / B Story
The kids arrive on some other planet, ride on a leaf, and glimpse some kind of evil thing called “the it”. I think we also learn more about Meg’s relationship with her father and brother via flashbacks.

Midpoint
The group tessers somewhere else. Tessering is more upsetting to Meg than to the others, a circumstance which itself is upsetting. Meg tries to “find a balance”, but struggles. The Happy Medium reveals that her father is on a planet called Camazotz, which is under the control of “the it”. The children’s guides advise them to return to Earth and make a plan, but in the middle of the tesser, Meg yanks them all to Camazotz by sheer force of will.

Bad Guys Close In
The guides give advice and depart Camazotz, leaving Meg with a pair of magic spectacles and reminding her of her faults. The landscape changes suddenly, and Charles Wallace is temporarily separated from Meg and Calvin. In the midst of some violent chaos that calls to mind the destruction wreaked by the Nothing in The Neverending Story, Meg cleverly finds a way she and Calvin can hitch a ride on a flying tree stump. Reunited, the trio visits a street where all the children bounce balls in unison, or get scolded for noncompliance (as in the book). Then, suddenly, they’re at a very non-dystopian-looking beach being offered sandwiches. A man with red eyes flatters and makes off with Charles Wallace.

All is Lost
When Calvin and Meg catch up with Charles Wallace in a boringly empty room, he taunts his sister cruelly. He has been overcome by “the it”.

Dark Night of the Soul
Meg uses the spectacles to find a staircase to a room where her father, Dr. Murray, has been trapped for years. How will they ever escape, though?

Finale
“The it” starts to take control of Calvin, Meg, and Dr. Murray, who treats Charles Wallace like the baby he remembers, with predictable results. Meg’s father tessers away, taking Calvin with him. Though he tries to take Meg too, she again refuses to leave a family member behind. There is no trip to the world of Aunt Beast. Meg remains on Camazotz to rescue her brother. She confronts him in the midst of a network of diseased, connected brain neurons, and overcomes “the it” by loving Charles Wallace for who he is, not in spite of his faults and her own, but because of them. Now she can tesser gloriously. Tessering works because love is a frequency, a vibration that can connect any two points in space (but not time, as in Interstellar).

Final Image
Family members reuniting in various combinations.

A Wrinkle in Time: Movie vs. Book

It is a dark and stormy night. Meg leaves her attic bedroom and goes to the kitchen, where she finds her little brother, Charles Wallace. In the book, Mrs. Murray also appears in the kitchen, and the three of them welcome a mysterious visitor who knocks on the door seeking shelter from the storm. In the movie, the scene gives us some background information on the family and then ends. The mysterious visitor wanders into the family’s living room the next afternoon, wearing a dress made out of the stolen bed sheets mentioned in the book. That’s creepy and weird, but not nearly as intense. A change for the worse.

It was jarring for me that in the movie the family lives in a city. In the book, they live in an old farmhouse with a disused dairy. I have a strong image of a house in the middle of a huge, empty field with nearby woods where the kids walk the dog. In the sequel, there’s a star-gazing rock like the one in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, only bigger. A house where neighbors look down from their windows into your backyard just doesn’t feel the same. There’s a glorious, quiet emptiness in the book; Meg has ample space and time to grapple with her inability to fit in at school. The movie has more of a frenetic, claustrophobic feel.

You never know what kind of performance you’re going to get from child actors. Charles Wallace is maybe too young to seem authentically cruel in the finale. The actress playing Meg does a decent job. The boy playing Meg’s romantic interest, Calvin, is suitably adorable, though sadly not a redhead as in the book.

The adult characters included a trio of witches played by Oprah, Reese Witherspoon and an American actress of Indian descent named Mindy Kaling. I was underwhelmed by much of their dialog and overwhelmed by their outlandish and constantly changing costumes and makeup, Oprah’s in particular.

It irked me that the evil entity referred to in the book as “It” was referred to in the movie as “the it”. However, transforming It into a natural consequence of unkindness, a kind of cloud we contribute to when we’re mean, was genius. The enemy stops being a monolithic fantasy villain and becomes our neighbors, possibly even ourselves on a bad day. That made the narrative more complicated and confusing, though, because movies need an actual antagonist to appear in a showdown with the protagonist. Tomorrowland, another not-great kids’ sci-fi movie, is about the struggle between hope and fatalism, but, to its credit, it has Hugh Laurie as the villain.

In the book, Camazotz is bleaker. I imagined Camazotz as a stark, grey-green 50s dystopia that operates more mechanically than the cities in Orwell’s 1984 or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. A Camazotz consisting of a series of brightly colored natural, man-made, and CGI environments in impossibly rapid succession is no substitute. We have no sense of place even when we’re not tessering from planet to planet.

In the book, the man with the red eyes doesn’t move, doesn’t kidnap anyone, barely even talks. That’s what makes him a scary henchman; he just sits there and thinks at you, hypnotically suggesting that you comply with the wishes of a literal “master mind” as revolting as it is powerful. In the movie, when Charles Wallace has to stand in for the intangible villain, we don’t want to hate him, so the scene doesn’t play out the way it would if it involved a giant throbbing brain.

In the movie, Meg’s white father and black mother adopt Charles Wallace, who looks vaguely Asian and is played by an American of Filipino descent. This change in the backstory makes Charles Wallace particularly vulnerable to “the it”, since he is in danger of feeling like he’s not really part of the family, despite their love for him. In the book, Charles Wallace is vulnerable because his intelligence makes him overconfident, and in the movie that’s still the case.

Calvin is a popular boy, but he too is vulnerable because he has an abusive father. In the book, Calvin’s secret sorrow is that he has a poor, uneducated, unattractive, shrewish mother. I think this detail was changed because a shrewish woman would have clashed with the female empowerment vibe of the rest of the movie.

Meg, of course, is also quite vulnerable. The movie is more than a little didactic; there’s nothing subtle about the messages of self-acceptance. I approve of the messages themselves, but the inspirational impact of the movie is dampened by its overall lack of consistent quality.

The scene that most made me feel I was watching an unworthy production was one in which Meg must literally “find a balance”. The characters are all in some kind of cave, standing on extremely fake-looking wobbly orange crystals balanced precariously over some kind of void in the home of the Happy Medium, a reclusive male seer who is apparently Mrs. Whatsit’s boyfriend (?!).

I’m glad the director strengthened Meg’s role, because in the book, stuff mostly just happens to the central character. On the other hand, the resulting story is a completely different story, and I was actually pretty happy with the original, thank you very much.

In the book, Mrs. Whatsit becomes the supremely dignified and majestic winged centaur that’s depicted on as many of the book covers as the hippogriff in book three of the Harry Potter series. If you were making a movie of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, would you randomly change Buckbeak into something that looks like a cross between a leaf and a flying carpet? No, you wouldn’t.

If you want to tell a fantasy story about a girl who rescues a beloved family member using a bunch of emotional pseudoscience, why not just write your own? T.A. Barron did! His debut novel Heartlight is a thinly disguised Wrinkle in Time omage. It’s also terrible, so forget I mentioned it. Go read A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet instead.

Reviews of A Wrinkle in Time

The reviewers seem relentlessly kind. Nobody is eager to criticize this well-meaning movie. And yet, they do.

  • AV Club likes the “everyday evil” montage as much as I do, identifying it as a moment of “honesty and grace” among moments of “clumsiness”.
  • Insider says the narrative fails because L’Engle’s Christian messages were removed. Vox agrees.
  • The Guardian says the film is a “sparkly mess” but has an important message: “Accept and celebrate yourself – only then will you be able to defeat the luminous cosmic tentacles of evil.”
  • Roger Ebert calls it “the Platonic ideal of a mixed bag” and says the film veers between “doomed love story to coming-of-age romance to knockabout comedy to high-minded philosophical odyssey”.
  • The New Yorker says the book was ever so much more subtle and beautiful.
  • The Verge gives it a lot of credit, but calls it too strident not to be a disappointment.
  • Forbes says critics don’t like it now, but kids who become critics when they grow up just might, because that’s a pattern we’ve seen before.

Children deserve better!

The Atlantic seems to be saying that the movie isn’t very good, but since it was made for children, that’s okay because children won’t notice anyway.

Whenever people say things like that, it makes me really angry. How else do we develop artistic taste if not by being exposed to quality art? Children need good fiction even more than adults do.

Saying bad fiction is okay for kids is like saying unhealthy food is okay for kids. They like it, so who are we to say they should eat like nutritionally savvy adults? We’re the savvy adults, that’s who, and we’re failing in our responsibility if we don’t try to give kids the best we’ve got.