Misadaptation by Walker Storz

A Wrinkle in Time
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
PG   1 hour, 49 minutes

AWrinkle in Time is a movie that—while it keeps many of the facts intact—is devoid of the animating spirit and mythology of the original book. It is an example of how Hollywood spectacle theologizes in a way that is vague and profane, replacing mythos with propaganda.

The original book, by Madeleine L’Engle, was one of my favorite reads as a child. It was suffused with deep metaphysical mystery. It was strange, thrilling, and eerie. It is a book animated by Christian concerns, but specifically a heretical Gnostic Christianity, tied to metaphysical inquiries borne of Greek philosophy. At the center of the world-building that L’Engle did is a winding, nerve-tingling eccentricity. The familiar and the strange are interwoven in uncanny ways. In short, the world becomes re-enchanted.

The book’s protagonist, Meg Murry, is a 13-year-old girl who is having trouble socially and in school. A lot of her emotional instability stems from the disappearance of her father in a mysterious incident, possibly related to his scientific research in physics. Her mother is also a scientist, but focuses more on microbiology. Her younger brother, Charles Wallace, is portrayed as extremely sensitive and precocious.

One evening, three supernatural beings named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which show up to help Meg, Charles, and Meg’s friend Calvin go on a journey to find and rescue her father. They use a metaphysical process called a “tesseract,” described as a folding of space and time, to transport the children to different planets and galaxies. The group eventually reaches a planet called Camazotz, which is fully controlled by an ur-fascist force only known as “It.”

The book blends a scientific naturalist’s fascination with the vertiginous distances and differences of the universe with a metaphysical and theological attention to a conception of good and evil that, while insistent, is not oversimplified. In my opinion, it is all but explicitly Christian in a Gnostic sense. The terms light and darkness are used in place of good and evil. Intuitive and cerebral communication between the children, or between the children and the supernatural beings, is valued.

The way the book values these insights suggests a kind of Gnostic metaphysics, sharing Gnosticism’s concern with the idea of liberation through insight and direct “gnosis,” or knowledge, of the divine, rather than through the vehicle of the church. Rather than being a forceful and sanctimonious vehicle for evangelism, A Wrinkle in Time subtly imparts an esotericism that is thrilling.

The film version, starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Storm Reid, Zach Galifianakis, and Chris Pine, had none of this esotericism. After all, esotericism involves subtle wisdom that one has to work for. The film has an almost identical plot to the book, but just without many of the small, important touches. Almost like a compressed image, it retains the skeletal details of the narrative but without anything that fills it out.

In the movie, rather than being eccentric, rural loners, Meg’s family is suburban, with a nice house in which everyone is conventionally pretty and charismatic except for Meg. But her character is not explored very deeply: she is just grumpy, rather than full of complex doubts and curiosity and fear. The acting and writing is so flat that none of the characters seem to have much at stake, which makes the drama less compelling, despite having an interesting plot. Instead of light and opacity, it’s just good versus evil, and the villains are cartoonish rather than eerie.

Hollywood tends to ruin fantasy movies, and I am starting to understand why: Hollywood already has a theology, and there is little room for the portrayal of a competing one. Hollywood is dedicated to the production of spectacle, a theological totality that is an emergent property of capitalist modernity, and that cannibalizes and reconstitutes aspects of the sacred. The iconography of popular culture, its apotheosis in the ubiquitous Image that has a life above and beyond the subject of the image, is a large part of this spectacle. Hollywood has managed to captivate almost the entire world. Its productions are often epic and compelling—if sometimes overly simple and bland—narratives.

But this specific theology of spectacle, since it is so focused on the manifest, the object, the image—in short, the profane—starts to fail when it comes to portraying the theological niceties of that which it has not already envisioned. It flattens out the wrinkles of this eccentric world that Madeleine L’Engle created. It cannot portray the eeriness of the sightless beings on a world light years away, singing inhuman, ancient songs, reciting psalms, and healing human children that have fought evil. It cannot portray a metaphysics in which time isn’t a linear thing that one “travels through” but rather is wrinkled—a gesture that reveals the universe as a fertile natural archive.

L’Engle’s particular brand of Christianity might have been somewhat heretical, but she had the courage to be eccentric and imaginative, exploring the alterity and strangeness present in early Christianity and some currents of Gnosticism. Her writing consistently criticized a drab homogeneity that she saw as a threat in several societies—from totalitarian ones to nominally democratic but very consumerist cultures, and used science fiction to fulfill what is a theological imperative: imagining utopia and imagining the path to that utopia. The movie adaptation of her book is everything that she would have criticized. It comes from the most heretical kind of theological viewpoints—the viewpoint of the spectacle, the profane religion of consumerism and mediocrity. We must remember L’Engle’s eccentric courage. It will be very necessary in times to come. ♦

Walker Storz is a musician, artist, and writer living in Vermont. His work covers the themes of faith, suffering, and illness.

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