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A Wrinkle in Time is a sincere, inspiring blockbuster for tweens. Why doesn’t it trust them?

In aiming for Disney-friendly broadness, the film leans away from its source material’s weirdest — and best — parts.

Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time
Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time.
Atsushi Nishijima/Disney
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There are at least two ways to view Ava DuVernay’s new adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.

The first is as an inspiring, imaginative movie about growing into generosity and confidence, aimed at tweens. By that measure, A Wrinkle in Time succeeds, and even surpasses its peers — it’s just strange and sometimes visually striking enough to be unpredictable. Some of the images don’t quite hit the wondrous heights they’re aiming for (a creature that resembles a cartoonish flying lettuce leaf among them), but often enough, it feels fresh.

As a girl, I’d have identified with awkward, lonely Meg Murry, uncertain of herself, aware of her faults, and afraid to let others get too close to her. Storm Reid’s quiet, natural performance as Meg is genuinely affecting, a convincing journey from fear to courage.

I think if I’d seen the movie as a girl, I’d have wanted to follow in Meg’s footsteps — to be braver and kinder, and to understand how love pushes away fear. I’d also have experienced the kind of wonder I remember from watching movies like The Neverending Story, movies that upended the way I thought stories worked.

Chris Pine in A Wrinkle in Time
Chris Pine in A Wrinkle in Time.

But, as with Neverending Story, another way to view A Wrinkle in Time is as an adaptation. And for as much as DuVernay’s film is a lovely and good-hearted movie that delivers lots of eye-popping, imaginative awe, its status as an adaptation necessarily raises the question: Was A Wrinkle in Time the right source material through which to tell this story?

What’s in A Wrinkle in Time mostly matches the novel. But a lot was left out.

We have to ask this question because A Wrinkle in Time isn’t just some screenplay someone came up with; it’s based on Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved Newbery Medal-winning young adult fantasy novel, which was first published in 1962. Wrinkle spawned a whole series of sequels and generations of young fans (and some older ones too).

The contours of the film mostly match the novel. Meg Murry, age 13, is the relatable heroine — “angry and resentful and stubborn, prone to shouting and fistfights and flights of self-pity.” She lives with her beautiful, brilliant scientist mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her very average twin siblings (who aren’t in the film version), and her younger brother Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe), who is a precocious genius. She is constantly being told to act better and feels like a disappointment to her mother.

Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time
Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time.
Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

Meg’s father (Chris Pine) was also a scientist, but he disappeared without a trace years earlier, and nobody knows where he went. Then late one night (a “dark and stormy night,” the book tells us), a strange woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) shows up at the Murry family’s door, and amid sandwiches and tea, she mentions, in passing, that “tesseracts” are real. Mrs. Murry nearly faints at the news; her husband was working on research involving these shadowy tesseracts before he disappeared.

Soon, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s schoolmate Calvin — a boy with a rough home life who’s popular at school but considers himself an outcast — are on a journey to find Mr. Murry, led by Mrs. Whatsit and two companions, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). That journey leads them through the universe via “tessering,” which works by folding time and space in ways that make it easy (well, sort of easy) to bounce around to different planets.

On their way, they encounter a dark, heavy shadowy force called IT, which it turns out is evil itself. And the children realize they must fight IT, as other warriors from their planet have done in the past — people, the book’s characters say, like Jesus and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Bach, Buddha and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Euclid. IT seeks to reduce everyone to sameness so IT can control them; what fights evil, then, is acknowledging one’s own faults and loving others in spite of theirs. That lesson, Meg discovers, is hard to learn.

The story’s broad outline remains largely consistent between the movie and the book, but there are things missing that will disappoint die-hard fans of L’Engle’s novel. Gone are the “Aunt Beast” sequences, which are also where the book often quotes the Bible (more on that in a moment); Meg’s very specific knowledge of mathematics and the periodic table of elements has mostly disappeared, leaving her to explain to Calvin at one point that she saved their lives with “some physics stuff”; the Happy Medium, a woman in the novel, is played by Zach Galifianakis; and for some reason, Mrs. Who is only able to speak in self-consciously attributed quotations from humans, which begins to feel a tad hokey by the end.

And while a lot of the story’s creepy weirdness is still preserved, the nature of IT — for my money, the most frightening part of the book — is depicted in one scene but then largely ignored, which undercuts the whole enterprise.

The nature of IT has shifted in this movie, defanging one of Wrinkle’s most salient insights

In the novel, IT isn’t just an evil force that makes people experience “jealousy, judgment, pain, and despair,” as the film puts it. It’s a literal brain, described in the novel as “an oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded ... IT was the most horrible, the most repellent thing [Meg] had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind, or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.”

The brain seizes hold of people’s consciousness, and its result isn’t just to make them bad. It actually makes them all the same. It erases the differences between them and makes them operate by preset manuals. Evil manifests as a kind of ideological groupthink.

L’Engle talked about this in her Newbery acceptance speech in 1962 (published in some editions of Wrinkle), saying:

There are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe that we can help our children avoid by providing them with “explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.”

For L’Engle, the power of evil is not just to make us bad and angry and violent, but also to put us to sleep to what is going on in the world by controlling us — the way we live, the way we think, the way we desire — until we are all the same. And that concept does show up visually in a scene in the film (which appears in the trailer).

But for the most part, the film understands IT as fear that turns to violence and destruction, without a focus on the all-consuming sameness coming from a disgusting central brain. That element is there if you sort of peer between the lines, but it’s not foregrounded in anything approaching the way the book sees it.

Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, and Reese Witherspoon in A Wrinkle in Time
Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, and Reese Witherspoon in A Wrinkle in Time.

This is weird because in many respects, it feels like Wrinkle is constructed specifically to counteract a kind of homogeneity that can dominate movies like this. The casting, for instance, makes Meg biracial, Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Which black, Mrs. Who and Charles Murray Asian (he is adopted) — none of which is in the book, but none of which is substantially excluded by the book, either. Mrs. Who’s quotations are carefully drawn from sources all over the world, and she names the country of the speaker each time. The movie chooses to thwart traditional onscreen Hollywood sameness.

So losing the substance of what IT does feels like, at best, a lost opportunity for the film, and at worst, a misread of the story. Succumbing to IT makes life easier — “everything’s taken care of, in total, without options or alternatives,” Meg is told, and she’s tempted with a vision of herself as a more popular, smarter, prettier girl — but the result is just basically nastiness.

You can see how this would ring true with a teenager, but it’s nowhere near as chilling as the idea of everyone becoming the same, talking the same way, thinking the same way, without originality — the kind of thing that sounds a whole lot like high school.

Similarly, Meg’s deep disappointment with her father and her anger at his inability to solve things once he’s found has mostly disappeared from the story — but it’s that very experience, of discovering that adults can’t always fix the world and knowing you need to take charge yourself, that makes Meg’s journey in the novel so instantly recognizable to every young teen. (Reading those passages in the book, you can’t help but think of the teenage Parkland school shooting survivors.)

In the movie, Meg’s “faults” — one of the most important parts of the novel — are not so much her temper and her self-pity and her shortsightedness; now, her faults are more like timidity and being scared of heights and bullies.

It feels as if the film is afraid to let Meg be a real girl, afraid to unfurl evil’s true capacity and make clear the danger in fighting it. What’s left approaches the level of platitudes. “Love is always there, even if you don’t feel it — it’s always there for you,” Meg’s father tells her when she is small.

“We’re warriors who serve the good and light in the universe,” the Mrs. tell the children. Of tessering, Meg is told that “you won’t feel or see anything when you tesser until you become one with the universe, and yourself.” The children must become “warriors” who are “willing to fight the darkness and make a light for themselves to the world.” Their only conflict is between their own capacity for goodness and the shadowy darkness of IT.

Mindy Kaling in A Wrinkle in Time
Mindy Kaling in A Wrinkle in Time.

Contrast that with passages like this from the novel, in which Meg finally realizes why she’d been so angry with her father:

“I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be all easy and simple. … So I tried to pretend that it was all your fault … because I was scared, and I didn’t want to have to do anything myself—”

“But I wanted to do it for you,” Mr. Murry said. “That’s what every parent wants.” He looked into her dark, frightened eyes. “I won’t let you go, Meg. I am going.”

“No.” Mrs Whatsit’s voice was sterner than Meg had ever heard it. “You are going to allow Meg the privilege of accepting this danger. You are a wise man, Mr. Murry. You are going to let her go.”

There’s a recognizable authenticity to Meg’s struggles and her father’s limitations in the novel that are much less present in the movie. That’s partly as a result of its relative brevity. But, sacrificed for a message of self-love, it also feels like a serious loss.

A Wrinkle in Time isn’t afraid of spiritual content, but its handling of that material seems indicative of what it believes about its audience

Some of the changes from the book are perfectly reasonable — no movie can (or should) do in two hours what a book can do in hundreds of pages, even if it frustrates fans.

But there’s a kind of liability in broadening out a movie to make it palatable by big movie studio executive standards. Certainly a filmmaker is free to shift the aims of the story to suit her desires. But with a book like Wrinkle, losing some of the specificity of its source material can belie a mistrust in the artist.

In the novel, Christianity lays thickly upon Wrinkle, influenced by L’Engle’s own beliefs (for years she was the writer in residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a progressive Episcopal congregation). In that way and others, the book is like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series: not blatantly preachy or too ponderously allegorical but integrating long quotations from the Bible and Christian theology into a story that still works whether or not you pick up on the Christian context.

Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time
Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time.
Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

Much of that Christian content has been excised from the film version of Wrinkle. It’s hard to tell precisely what the thinking was behind this, given the broadly inclusive nature of L’Engle’s Christianity — you’d be hard-pressed to call Wrinkle anything like proselytizing, and because of this, it has been the subject of vehement criticism from some conservative Christians for decades. The movie seems fine with preserving and foregrounding other religious ideas: Figures like Buddha still get quoted in the movie, and there’s some religiously oriented language about becoming one with the universe, alongside a smidge of yoga.

Certainly there’s no effort to appeal to the moviegoing audience that flocks to Christian movies. And that move will naturally, and maybe rightly, incense some of the built-in audience for the book.

But more importantly, it undercuts the story, preserving a more vague spirituality at the expense of any particulars in a tale that’s all about particularity. One wonders while watching the film if Disney underestimates young viewers’ ability to understand that there are different religions (something that L’Engle herself was clearly interested in), many of which are interested in the matters the film addresses, and whether the better choice for someone looking to make a religiously inclusive film might have been to preserve the film’s Christianity but add influences from other systems of belief, rather than smoothing them all out into a vague swirl of “love.”

Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time
The different dimensions do look pretty cool.

None of this is necessarily a deal breaker for families who want to go see A Wrinkle in Time, which is part brightly colored positive-attitude fable and part call to a brave but nonsectarian love for everyone. There is something here for the uncertain child in all of us.

But the best-case scenario is that those who see the movie will go home and read the books, and experience the bigger, richer, more brilliant world that L’Engle created, in all its strangeness and smartness and periodic tables and quotations from old, confusing texts and passages in which Meg voices her petulance and anger.

That’s why, at the end of the film, I was left with a lingering uneasiness about its broadness, the ways it removed what was most specifically chilling and weird about the story. It makes me wonder how much Disney trusts its young audiences to be smart and able to understand the world.

I wonder whether the movie’s attempts to celebrate our differences are rendered merely surface-level by what it dropped from the plot. And I wonder, if what Disney was after was the fuzzy sense of the need to love one another, without some of the darker elements A Wrinkle in Time offers, whether L’Engle’s book was the right one to adapt.

A Wrinkle in Time opens in theaters on March 9.

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