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“A Wrinkle in Time” failed to capture L’Engle’s story. | Flickr

“A Wrinkle in Time,” it seems, is meant to be a book — and nothing more than that.

Last month I warned fans in a Col­legian review of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” that Disney’s movie adap­tation would dis­ap­point if it departed from the foun­da­tions of the book and swapped a story for a soapbox. When “Wrinkle” director Ava DuVernay’s film pre­miered March 9, the movie proved me right. All its razzle dazzle couldn’t com­pensate for the weak plot, under­de­veloped themes, and severe didac­ticism that replaced the thrilling tale and pow­erful themes of the book.

I don’t always find it helpful to assess a movie by com­paring it to the novel or play or work that inspired it. But DuVernay’s “Wrinkle” didn’t just deviate from L’Engle’s book. It totally defiled it. DuVernay rushed L’Engle’s clear but dense plotline, skimping on important scenes to incor­porate pointless mon­tages that showed off pretty visuals. The Christian themes upon which L’Engle built her novel were scrubbed from the film and replaced with empty sermons on self-love and self-con­fi­dence. Oprah Winfrey’s char­acter, a celestial guardian, lit­erally hangs in the sky as a shim­mering, larger-than-life hologram as she tells the story’s heroine to stop doubting herself.

The book, a staple in the canon of eighth and ninth grade lit­er­ature, so often delights the ado­lescent stu­dents who make up the majority of its audience. And the story remains gen­erally intact on the silver screen: A self-con­scious middle school girl, Meg Murry mourns her father, who dis­ap­peared four years ago when he tessered (traveled through time and space to another world) and never returned. In her grief, Meg turns to bel­ligerent behavior, and only her little brother, Charles Wallace Murry, can comfort her. Meg and Charles Wallace stumble into adventure with their friend Calvin after they meet the “Mrs.” — a group of celestial beings named Mrs. Which (Oprah), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese With­er­spoon). The children and their guardians set out to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace’s father and defeat a being of supreme evil along the way.

The plot suf­fered in the movie, however, because DuVernay focused so heavily on her special effects. The movie raced through scenes that needed to establish the story. The audience was left won­dering why, for example, Dr. Murry (Chris Pine) left his family for an exper­i­mental and poten­tially fatal leap into another uni­verse when he seemed to adore his wife and children. DuVernay left out L’Engle’s legwork, which explained that Dr. Murry and his wife decided he could embark on the gov­ernment-led project, despite the risks. 

The movie also failed to address Charles Wallace’s intel­li­gence. Actor Deric McCabe stumbled through Charles Wallace’s lines, which were far too com­pli­cated for a child actor. With such a per­for­mance, Charles Wallace came off as an incredibly obnoxious know-it-all, rather than a sweet boy genius. When IT, the afore­men­tioned being of supreme evil, pos­sessed Charles Wallace, his suf­fering gen­erated little sym­pathy, nor did it suffice to explain why Meg unleashed bravery unknown even to herself to save her little brother.

Because DuVernay nixed the novel’s Christian ele­ments, she couldn’t incor­porate the novel’s dom­inant theme of self-sac­ri­ficial love. She instead pushed a message of self-love, which, of course, isn’t nec­es­sarily wrong. It just doesn’t make for a good story, espe­cially since DuVernay didn’t sell the theme well. L’Engle care­fully pieced together the idea of self-sac­rifice before the motif exploded into the essence of the book at the plot’s climax. She threaded Bible verses into the speech of several of her char­acters — Mrs. Whatsit even recited Isaiah 42:10 – 12: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhab­i­tants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice…let the inhab­i­tants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the moun­tains. Let them give glory unto the Lord.” 

It’s no sur­prise, then, that Meg realizes she can rescue Charles Wallace from IT’s grasp by sac­ri­ficing her own life to secure his.

DuVernay’s version isn’t as seamless. Meg struggles with self-doubt, the Mrs. teach her about self-con­fi­dence, and she then saves Charles Wallace because she believes in herself. Exactly how she manages to defeat the universe’s origin of evil (which had dom­i­nated an entire planet and inspired every bad thing that had ever hap­pened on planet earth) is not addressed. Meg simply enters IT, somehow extracts Charles Wallace from his pos­sessed state, and returns with him to the Murry’s backyard moments later.

This poor pre­sen­tation is perhaps why the movie’s major themes feel like didac­ticism. While L’Engle bril­liantly con­jured her book’s raison d’etre from thought­fully sequenced groundwork, DuVernay blasted her solution of self-love over and over and over. The Mrs. chastise poor Meg, crippled by an awk­wardness inherent to her age, when she can’t believe in herself enough to perform the tasks she needs to do. Without this self-love, she couldn’t tesser or see into the future. But after enough pep talks from DuVernay’s favorite celebrities, she shone with con­fi­dence.

It’s not a sur­prise that L’Engle’s Chris­tianity didn’t make the final cut of “A Wrinkle in Time.” It is dis­ap­pointing, however, that DuVernay had to butcher the story to make a movie that burst with stunning visuals, plot holes, and didac­ticism. 

Here’s some good news, though. Film­makers have tried many times to make movie worthy of “A Wrinkle in Time.” They might try again. And hope­fully, they’ll learn from DuVernay’s mis­takes.