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Old School Wednesdays Presents: A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle

Old School Wednesdays is a regular Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

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On this edition of Old School Wednesdays, Thea re-reads A WRINKLE IN TIME and then watches the movie. Mild spoilers ensue.

When the children learn that Mr. Murry has been captured by the Dark Thing, they time travel to Camazotz, where they must face the leader IT in the ultimate battle between good and evil—a journey that threatens their lives and our universe.

This is my first entry in a series of Old School Wednesdays posts, brought to you by the amazing folks who supported us on Kickstarter. As one reward level, backers were given the opportunity to pick an Old School title for Ana and I to read and review online–A Wrinkle in Time was selected by the wonderful Iysha Evelyn. (You rock, Iysha Evelyn!!!)

A little background: I first read A Wrinkle in Time as many people did: in Middle School. I remember really liking the book as a kid–there were a few SFF novels that I had the joy of reading for class which seemed the most delightful thing in the world at the time. These wonderful, literary life-shaping novels included Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Susan B Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, J.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It has been many (many) moons since sixth grade, however, and re-reads are tricky beasts. Of the aforementioned novels, I had re-read them all over the past five years with mixed results (still love The Giver with a passion, surprised at how short The Dark is Rising is as a single standalone book without the whole sequence to back it up, kinda bored by The Hobbit). I hadn’t re-read A Wrinkle in Time, though, until prompted by 1. Iysha Evelyn’s kickstarter request, and 2. the recently released Disney movie. As a diligent Book Smuggler, I of course had to read the book again before watching the film–which of course colored my take on the film (I think in a good way, based on folks who I watched the movie with who hadn’t read the book before).

It is a dark and stormy night when pre-teen Meg Murry, her precocious five-year-old brother Charles Wallace, and their exceptional scientist mother are all drawn to the kitchen because they cannot sleep. Not only does the storm bring thunder and lightning, but also sweeps in a stranger–clad in bedsheets–to the Murry household: Mrs. Whatsit. The strange woman already seems to know Charles Wallace, but has a message for Meg and for her mother–there is such thing as a tesseract. For four years, ever since her father disappeared into thin air, Meg has dealt with feeling lost and alone; at school she is picked on and ostracized, but what really gets her worked up is when people make fun of her younger brother. Mrs. Whatsit gives the Murrys a sliver of hope–Mr. Murry didn’t leave his family forever; he’s just lost and trapped after tessering and needs help to find his way home.

With the help of the Mrs. (Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit) as well as Meg’s classmate Calvin, Meg and Charles Wallace set out to do the impossible–save their father from the clutches of a great darkness known simply as the IT. Their journey will take them across the universe, to planets of hope and light like Ixchel, as well as the heart of darkness itself on Camazotz. It is love that defines both the novel and the film–love and acceptance that ensures that the Murrys are reunited, largely thanks to the stubbornness and belief of Meg in her family.

Upon re-reading, the novel is… bizarre. Using my 2018 reviewer hat, there are many dissatisfying aspects of the book I can’t quite ignore. Take, for instance, the rushed ending of the book, in which Meg thwarts the IT and saves her brother with the Power of Love in the span of two paragraphs. Or the entire scene on the planet with Aunt Beast and her furry, tentacled, sentient brethren. This is to say nothing of the overtly religious angle of the novel–in which Mrs. Who, Which, and Whatsit are legit angels of God (the Christian God), and Meg Murry is the latest in a long line of warriors for God (others include Jesus–“And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not”–Gandhi, da Vinci, and so on).

Thinking back, however, to twelve-year-old Thea, or beyond that, the overall significance of A Wrinkle in Time As a novel and seminal work of children’s literature and speculative fiction, I understand its importance and appeal. Meg Murry is a young woman who is angry at the world–she’s fiercely protective of the people she loves, especially her precocious younger brother, and is flawed, and fragile, and intense, and real. As a middle schooler, I hadn’t read many heroines like Meg Murry–and there’s something powerful about female characters who are vulnerable and not preoccupied with being likable. Meg is a heroine more concerned about the fate of the universe and the evils that lurk in both plain sight and at its edges than she is with being liked by her peers; even Mrs. Whatsit is unimpressed by Meg, and Meg doesn’t care. That’s kind of awesome. Similarly, I love the relationship between Meg and her younger brother, her tangled relationship of love and respect for her mother and father–and her frustration when her father isn’t infallible, and falters in the face of danger. There are plenty of things to love about the book… which made entering the film a mixed experience for me.

On the one hand, I was absolutely thrilled with the casting choices for both Murry parents, as well as the Murry children–Gugu Mbatha-Raw is perfection even if she doesn’t get much screen time, Chris Pine delivers another powerful performance as the lost Dr. Murry, and young, half-Filipino (represent!) Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace. But it is truly Storm Reid’s vulnerable performance as Meg that steals the show–she is emotive, angry, raw, and passionate in all the ways that I loved Meg from the books. I was less impressed with the trio of the Mrs and the weird choice of Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium–from the costume choices to the celebrity cameo effect of each performance. Similarly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the visuals of the film. To be fair, A Wrinkle in Time fits with the general Disney live-action super-glossy, hyper-CGI’d, over-the-top glittery costume affairs of late. Personally, I’m not a fan–the many elaborate dresses for the different Mrs, for example, and Oprah’s bejeweled eyebrows were a little much for my tastes.

Aesthetics aside, the bigger problem with A Wrinkle in Time is in the film’s reinterpretation of the evil of IT. In the novel, IT is a force of supreme power, focused on control and conformity–symbolically, Meg is able to defeat IT and save her brother from IT’s clutches because she rails against the evils of conformity in addition to the power of her love for her younger sibling. In the book, Calvin’s character has purpose, especially when it comes to Camazotz–Calvin is diplomatic and likeable, the softer counterpart to Meg’s sharp edges and rage against the machine of conformity. But in the film… IT is reduced to every act of human pettiness or jealousy, from a pre-pubescent mean girl with body image issues, to demanding and verbally abusive fathers, to envious coworkers after being passed up for promotions. There is no overall examination of the true urgent darkness spreading and threatening to take over the Earth (and other planets across the universe), just as there is no further face of IT–instead of showing Camazotz as an infinite hell where those who act out against conformity are “reconditioned”, the film version plays like a planet full of simulations who aren’t really people, and the IT is a kind of malevolent force that sits there in wait for unsuspecting visitors. The overall climax of the film, the loss of Charles Wallace to the IT loses its significance because the stakes are so watered down.

Overall? A Wrinkle in Time is a mixed experience–there are moments of joy and brilliance in both the novel and film adaptation. But there are many moments of bizarre choices, flat characterization, and general frustration.

I’m glad I re-read the novel, and I’m glad I saw the movie–I just don’t think I’ll be back for either at any point in the future.

Rating: 6 – OK, Recommended with Reservations

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