Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer has been hailed as “the King of Weird Fiction.” The Queen Mother, surely, must be Madeleine L’Engle, who’s been keeping young adult fiction trippy since the Kennedy Administration. Her masterpiece A Wrinkle in Time takes its young heroine Meg across folds in time and space on a quest to rescue her father from a disembodied brain referred to simply as “IT.”
The novel is redolent of mid-century intellectual preoccupations, with its themes of self-understanding; mass society; and the rapid progress of science, both thrilling and terrifying. It also portends the rise of ’60s counterculture, with its metaphorical dramatization of the idea that trusted and eccentric mentors can help you kick open the doors of perception on a journey of mental liberation.
The most faithful way to realize L’Engle’s original vision onscreen might have been a film by François Truffaut, or an ominous Ralph Bakshi animated feature. No one even attempted it, though, until a Canadian TV production in 2003 — about which L’Engle, who died four years later, was asked whether it met her expectations. “Yes,” she deadpanned. “I expected it to be bad, and it is.”
Ava DuVernay, who helms the wildly anticipated new theatrical adaptation, makes clear from the outset that this isn’t the Wrinkle in Time you curled up in the school library with. The setting has been removed from woodsy Connecticut to sunny California, and the casting is consciously diverse. A Wrinkle in Time makes DuVernay the first black woman to helm a feature with a budget of over $100 million, and its release hot on the heels of Black Panther is rightly being hailed as a watershed moment.
Though DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell cast off some of the novel’s trappings (IT, for example, is now a collection of angry synapses rather than a literal brain sitting on a platform), what makes their Wrinkle in Time so moving is that they preserve the book’s most crucial, challenging, and ultimately thrilling tension. To prevail, Meg has to not just accept, but embrace, her own imperfections — and, in perhaps L’Engle’s most subversive twist, the imperfections of her father too.
As with Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time powerfully demonstrates what mainstream movies can be when producers embrace an inclusive creative team. The story’s message of empowerment, love, and acceptance resonates profoundly with the portrayal of Meg as an African-American girl, played by the remarkable Storm Reid. Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon play the book’s most iconic characters: the eccentric and mysterious supernatural beings Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit.
It’s a Disney movie, with much of the glossy sheen that implies — albeit now with substance underneath, rather than the empty exploits of recent live-action bombs like Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015). Key scenes are soundtracked by pop songs (including a resonant contribution from Sade), and the CGI is a little cheesy: maybe the most underwhelming effect is the transformation of Witherspoon into a sort of anthropomorphic flying carpet.
Both for better and for worse, the script doesn’t waste too much screen time dealing with in-depth exposition. That’s fine when it comes to the “tesseract” (we get it, it’s in the title) and the provenance of the Mrs. Ws, but it also leaves vague the question of what exactly IT wants with Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). It’s refreshing to see a girl pulling a dumbstruck boy around by the hand instead of vice-versa, but the introduction of Calvin (Levi Miller) into the story is so sudden and cursory, we never really quite know what to make of his friendship with Meg.
What DuVernay and Lee are careful to get right is the much more important relationship between Meg and her parents. DuVernay keeps her focus squarely on Meg at crucial moments, and it’s delicious to think of the people who come to see action hero Chris Pine play Meg’s dad — only to realize that the whole point of the story is that he doesn’t actually do anything. A Wrinkle in Time is truly Meg’s story, and DuVernay’s expansive vision suggests all the wonders that implies.