Hello, fantastic Novel2Screeners! Rebecca here. I know I haven’t written much for a while, but I’ve been deeply immersed in Diana Gabaldon’s “Drums of Autumn,” the fourth book in her “Outlander” series, which I will begin blogging about next month (prior to the fourth season of the show on Starz this fall). And if you’ve ever read a Diana Gabaldon book, you know that she is not kidding around with the page length!
Okay, so the topic du jour is Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Now, here at novel2screen, we aren’t so much interested in “reviewing” movies and TV shows as we are in discussing HOW the adaptation process from book to screen works. So we’re going to take a look at the script by Jennifer Lee (of Frozen and Zootopia fame) and Jeff Stockwell (who wrote 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia, another childhood classic).
Now as Chris pointed out last week, rereading the book with her daughter proved a bit underwhelming for her. My daughter and I reread it this month too, and I must admit, I had some similar misgivings. Madeleine L’Engle published “A Wrinkle in Time” in 1962. At that time, a woman writing sci-fi at all, much less about a young girl protagonist, was such a novel idea that she was famously rejected by 26 publishers before John Farrar decided to release it.
Yet, as we all know, sci-fi– and women sci-fi authors for that matter– have come a long way since 1962. And as a result, audiences have become more savvy. A modern sci-fi reader expects a lot from her novel—accurate science; real-world implications that haven’t been over-explored before; compelling and fresh obstacles and antagonists that don’t feel dated; and perhaps more than anything, a proactive protagonist.
Miss L’Engle’s book, with its super-dense and at times even anachronistic use of language (seriously, what five-year-old uses “exclusive” in conversation?), and its repeated reliance on Deus ex-machina characters to swoop in, sometimes literally, and save the day when young Meg has no idea what to do next, can be frustrating for a modern reader.
The plot of the book is quite thick. Tween-aged Meg Murray, her gifted younger brother Charles Wallace, and some random hot boy from the neighborhood named Calvin, must “tesser,” or space travel, to other planets in order to save her missing scientist father. And the book does not disappoint on the visuals and the world building of other planets. And yet, the book often feels a bit bogged down by its real objective: to teach us that only love can conquer darkness.
In fact, Miss L’Engle was so interested in sharing her time-worn ideas about love and goodness, about God’s divine grace, and about the contributions of renowned scientists and philosophers to humanity, that she has an entire character, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling in the movie), who does nothing but quote platitudes originated by famous figures of the past.
This can feel a bit, well, preachy, not to mention a bit obvious. The cynic in me couldn’t help but think, “Love conquers darkness? Ya don’t say?” But of course, I wasn’t reading it for myself. I was reading it for my seven-year-old daughter. And that’s when it hit me:
THIS ISN’T FOR ME!
No, this book was not written for us, it was written for our children. And Miss DuVernay, by extension, has not made a movie for us. She made one for our kids (and my two kids loved both the book and the movie, by the way).
So let’s talk about that movie script, shall we? Miss Lee and Mr. Stockwell, who are pretty much the crème-de-la-crème of writing these kinds of things, made some smart moves here.
These are my top favorite changes:
1. Adding more science.
The weakest part of the book, by far, is the science itself. Literally, the way to tesser to other planets is to, ahem, close your eyes and imagine you’re doing it. That’s it.
So our screenwriters were wise to flesh out some of the science scenes, letting us see Meg’s parents (played in the movie by the ridiculously beautiful duo of Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in their element. We see Dad in his lab at the beginning, and we see both parents giving a lecture on space travel (derided though it may be by an audience who apparently shares my opinion that “close your eyes and imagine you’re there” is pretty weak sauce).
These scenes also let us have a bit more screen time with our parents, who, after all, we’re supposed to be rooting for to reunite in the end.
Yet, while the science additions were a valiant effort, they don’t quite overcome the fact that there’s just no “there there.”
DID IT WORK RATING: 3/10
2. Bringing Charles Wallace down to Earth.
Miss L’Engle didn’t really make any bones about the fact that her kids don’t sound like kids. Now that’s partly intentional—both Meg and Charles Wallace are meant to be very precocious (or “prodigious,” as Mrs. Whatsit calls Charles Wallace in the movie)—but it also can’t help but feel like Miss L’Engle just doesn’t know what kids sound like.
The language here for all the kids has been brought back into the realm of reality. Charles Wallace still uses words like “exclusive” in conversation, but it’s made clear that it’s his “word of the day,” not just something he says.
And yet, the movie can’t quite overcome the obstacle of the third act. (Spoiler alert, btw.) The end of the movie features Charles Wallace being possessed by the evil entity known simply as “It.” In the book, one can imagine the young five-year-old being possessed by a voice not his own. But in the movie, watching a young actor “acting” his way through “turning evil,” and trying to hold his own with older actors—well, it’s a bit of a stretch.
DID IT WORK RATING: 7/10
3. Trying to give the characters more of a through-line.
“A Wrinkle in Time” features an “Odyssey” like plot—the story is told in episodes, and characters are introduced only for their episode and often not seen again. (Mom, for instance, is really given short shrift in the book.)
Miss Lee and Mr. Stockwell tried to rectify this with a couple of flashback and flash-sideways sequences in which we see other significant moments, such as when Dad first “accidentally” tessered away from his beloved family upon the realization that “love is the key” (I warned y’all about the science).
They’ve also introduced a new character—the school bully (played by “Girl Meets World”’s Rowan Blanchard), who we see in a “flash sideways” glaring at herself in the mirror, filled with self-loathing at having apparently failed to meet the standards of her “no food” diet, taped to the wall.
This character, along with an added moment at the end in which Meg is confronted by “perfect Meg” (you can tell she’s “perfect” because she has straight hair), but rejects her because she “loves herself the way she is,” are both there to make sure we get the theme—you guessed it, “Love yourself… or else.”
So do these additions reinforce the theme of self-acceptance? Well, yes, but I have to say Oprah spending half the movie lecturing us about self-acceptance pretty much already accomplished that one for me.
DID IT WORK RATING: 6/10
4. Ditching the biggest Deus ex-machina.
The fourth and perhaps biggest change the screenwriters made was the omission of the entire “Aunt Beast” segment of the book, in which Meg’s father whisks her off to yet another distant planet where enormous, blind “sense creatures” live, and one of them nurses a deeply injured Meg back to health.
And while my seven-year-old was deeply disappointed by this omission (she couldn’t wait to see what Aunt Beast would look like), I have to say, this was the smartest choice, and not just because filming an entire CGI planet with enormous CGI sightless creatures would have basically doubled the budget.
The fact is, this book has way too many Deus ex-machina characters in it. All three of the Missus characters are there to tell Meg what to do every step of the way, while relentlessly repeating the theme. Calvin– the random hot boy who just happens to tag along for this journey– is also there to protect Meg, with whom he seems to be madly in love despite the fact that she doesn’t give him the time of day. (Actually, come to think of it, maybe Miss L’Engle DOES understand 13 year olds!)
When Meg finds Dad and rescues him from his invisible cell, she expects him to “save her” as well– to know what to do next. It’s an important moment in both the book and the movie when Meg realizes that Dad doesn’t have the answers, and Meg must figure them out on her own.
In the book, this moment is diluted by the Aunt Beast sequence, in which Meg is yet again taken care of by some mystical “other” who swoops in to save the day. So it was very smart of our screenwriters to keep Meg exactly where she is upon realizing that Dad can’t save her, and make her spring into action to save herself and her brother.
DID IT WORK RATING: 9/10
In the end, Meg does learn the lesson to believe in herself, and to love herself the way she is. And while I may have found that message a tad flat, the look in the eyes of my seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son when the movie ended taught me that children can never hear that message enough.
After all, when Miss L’Engle was asked in an interview about which of the children in her book she most related to, she answered, “None of them. They’re all wiser than I am.”
*All screenshots courtesy of Disney.
Keep an eye out for DOWN WORLD, my original sci-fi novel, which will be available on Kindle this summer!
To catch up on my Outlander reviews and exclusive content, be sure to click HERE. And don’t forget to follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel, “like” us on Facebook at Novel2Screen, or just follow this blog.
And don’t forget your Droughtlander homework: Reading (or rereading) Drums of Autumn, which we’ll begin discussing next month.