What makes a great story? What makes it worth the telling?
I’ve been thinking a lot about those sorts of questions this week in the wake of A Wrinkle in Time, the movie, and where and why it went wrong.
Wrinkle’s lack of creative and commercial success may seem, on the surface, a bit mystifying. Disney’s been telling stories for literally generations, and it knows—arguably better than anyone—how to reliably tell a good one. The movie’s creators, from Director Ava DuVernay on down, are talented folks. The cast is strong, the visuals are excellent and many of the messages are really worthwhile. And they based the whole work on a beloved, award-winning classic children’s book by Madeline L’Engle.
But the movie still fell short, in my opinion. Lots of reasons for that, but the biggest was quite simple: The creators misunderstood L’Engle’s original story.
When you read A Wrinkle in Time, you’re struck by its unexpected complexity. It does a lot of narrative lifting in its 200-plus pages, feeling both whimsical and weighty, completely original and wholly traditional. It’s a book of paradoxes, in a way. Among those paradoxes we find L’Engle’s own passions for both science and spirituality. While those who know L’Engle’s work well know that her brand of Christianity wasn’t always orthodox, she unapologetically called herself a Christian, and her sense of faith seems to flood every page. A Wrinkle in Time namechecks Jesus, quotes Scripture often and acknowledges that even its super-magical trio of “Mrs.”—Mrs. Whatsit, Who and Which—are serving an entity far more powerful and, yes, holy than they.
In the book, when Mrs. Whatsit makes a stunning transformation into a creature far different and more beautiful than what she’d been ( an old lady dressed in sheets), Calvin bows low before the magnificent being.
“Not to me, Calvin,” Mrs. Whatsit tells him. “Never to me.”
This sense of God was critical to L’Engle’s sense of craft. In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, L’Engle writes this:
… As I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.
I think that’s telling. Christianity was, for L’Engle, not just a critical part of the story, but an inescapable part of the storyteller.
We live, obviously, in a more pluralistic age today than when L’Engle first published Wrinkle in 1962. Inclusion is the buzzword of the day. And perhaps it’s only natural that the makers of this new cinematic Wrinkle would want to be more inclusive—to expand the book’s reach to people of all faiths … and those who might not have faith at all.
Screenwriter Jennifer Lee offered these revealing sentiments in an interview with Uproxx before the movie’s release. In speaking about Wrinkle’s overt Christian ideals, she said:
In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements. In a sad way, some of the other elements are more important right now and bigger—sort of this fight of light against darkness. It’s a universal thing and timeless and seems to be a battle that has to keep being had.
I think that sounds, perhaps, more extreme than Lee meant it to sound. I don’t believe that the folks who made this movie had any inherently anti-Christian bias. I really don’t. Plenty of people who came from a place of deep Christian faith participated in making this film, too. But it does appear that its makers generally wanted to make Wrinkle more “universal” than the book was. More inclusionary. And (a bit oddly) they did so by including a bunch of quotes from other religions that weren’t in the book while eliminating those that were.
But here’s the thing: For all of its Christian elements, A Wrinkle in Time has never been exclusionary. People of all faiths have enjoyed the book, just as non-Christians can enjoy and appreciate C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Just as I can appreciate works by pagans such as Plato or secularists such as Kurt Vonnegut. What these writers believe is part of who they are and, as such, critical to what they write.
Listen, translating beloved books into compelling movies ain’t easy. It’s a very rare book that can be slapped up on screen as-is. The change in medium demands certain changes to the story. Lee admits as much in her Uproxx interview: “ … I recognize how challenging it is and I knew, ‘don’t try to be the book,’ and don’t be afraid to try to evoke the feeling of the book. But in a way that speaks to audiences today or gives it that freshness that you feel when you read it for the first time.”
But there are changes and then there are changes. Folks who want to translate someone else’s stories to new audiences have to understand what resonates about those stories in the first place.
Those who come with a reverence for the source material seem to have better luck when they try to retell those stories: Peter Jackson was an admitted J.R.R. Tolkien wonk, and his The Lord of the Rings movies made nearly $3 billion (and scads of Academy Awards, too). No one would accuse the Marvel Cinematic Universe of slavish fidelity to the source comics. But Universe overlord Kevin Feige understands why people love Iron Man and Captain America: He honored Marvel’s hardcore fans while bringing legions of new fans into the fold.
What happens when you miss something critical in the story? Just ask Zac Snyder, when he had Superman snap a bad guy’s neck. The blowback was not pretty.
A Wrinkle in Time, the movie, seems a little like a Snyder/Superman moment. In its effort to make the movie more inclusionary, it missed part of what made the book so special—and why L’Engle was moved to write it in the first place. The very elements that Lee apparently found exclusionary, L’Engle believed were universal and timeless. To not see that is to lose sight of L’Engle herself, and the tale she wanted told.
I’d like to think that A Wrinkle in Time, the movie, may prove to be a cautionary story itself—something that Lee and other creators may remember down the road: You don’t have to copy the story. But you do have to honor that story and respect the original storyteller.