“To stake one’s life for the truth”: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ in a narcissistic age

Disney’s film is nothing like Madeleine L’Engle’s strange and startling novel, a book that fleshes out the radically others-centric love inaugurated in Christianity’s revolutionary command to lay down one’s life for others.

Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid star in a scene from the movie "A Wrinkle in Time." (CNS photo/Disney)

Any work of art valiantly attempted deserves respect—not praise, perhaps, but at the very least a serious meeting of the eyes and a nod as one mercifully puts the revolver to the skull of the poor, quivering beast. Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time is, lamentably, precisely not that. Not a work of art nor a recognizably living thing. No lathered coat, no heaving lattice of ribs: nothing to dissect, discard, ponder, or abhor, unless it is the uncanny way in which the lead-footed “self-first” message of the film resembles the very philosophy of the bad guy from the book upon which it is nominally based.

That is to say, the film is nothing like Madeleine L’Engle’s strange and startling novel. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected many times by publishers who thought it was too advanced for children; DuVernay’s version, on the other hand, could feasibly have been pieced together from snippets overheard at a Starbucks patio adjoining an exclusive daycare in L.A. The characters’ names (or at least those who made the cut) are largely the same, but the heart of the film is not only different from the book’s, but is diametrically opposed to it. The wooden mantra of the film, already worn shiny since some time in the nineties, can be summarized neatly in the lyrics of the song that plays over the end credits: “I can do anything, if I believe, I believe, I believe in me [sic] … If I follow my dreams, I’ll end up building a yellow brick road.” Never mind that the actual yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz was part of a symbolic complex used to represent the illusory promises of economic fulfillment in L. Frank Baum’s milieu; children today need only to be ensured, with frenetic regularity, that they require no feedback loop from the outside world other than sycophantic affirmation.

Of course, it wouldn’t be worth writing a review of such a boringly boilerplate extravaganza. Shallow pap fades away. But the true shame is that some $103 million was spent on incarnating A Wrinkle in Time, which will ensure that this film will be the only major adaptation of a precious and philosophically nuanced book.

I should be clear that I do not mean simply that the film was bad qua cinema. It was. There was no pacing of revelation. No true sense of wonder. Some of the cinematography was beautiful, but it seemed stripped of its weight by other directorial and writing choices. The script read like a rote litany of lines alternately ripped without context from the book or shoddily fabricated whole-cloth. The three Mrs. (Whatsit, Who, and Which) seemed to lack directorial cohesion. The middle of the film lagged interminably and the ending was rushed. I can easily stay awake till four in the morning on a Tuesday watching a solitary human demonstrate a blender, but the second act of Wrinkle had me blinking. One man in front of me actually did get up and leave.

The true tragedy, however, was not the quality of the filmmaking. We have all seen faithful low budget adaptations of great books that remain watchable and re-watchable. DuVernay’s lavish production, on the other hand, is heartbreaking because it baldly (though incoherently) contradicts the deeply human and theological arguments of L’Engle’s book. The heart of A Wrinkle in Time lies in its characters’ encounter with a reality that is not themselves—with an immovable and implacable “other”— with the metaphysically “not-me.” DuVernay, it seems, did not ponder a possible reality deeper than the characters’ strident self-affirmation. I say this with regret, since she is also the filmmaker responsible for the deeply human and thought-provoking Thirteenth, which explores the evolution of systemic racial oppression in America from slavery into the current prison state. Perhaps she considered such themes to be too much for children, in which case she disagrees starkly with Madeleine L’Engle, and missed a chance to make a lasting film.

In L’Engle’s novel, the encounter with external reality begins with science itself: the science which forms the basis of the Murry’s travels. The husband and wife team are actually and passionately interested in the unadulterated act of discovery, in the acquisition of knowledge itself. There is excitement in the Murry household, and mystery. Throughout the book, the children, the parents, and the three Mrs. all engage in lively discussions about extra-dimensional physics, propositional logic, and the theology of love. As Calvin says, “You see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” This insistently humble position flies in the face of the film, which avoids all specifically scientific talk, and flattens the impersonal joy of discovery into the vague hubris of a Mr. Murry who says: “I wanted to shake hands with the universe.” This is the lowering of a noble human urge into an immature caricature, and it is not the Mr. Murry L’Engle envisioned:

Mrs Who’s glasses shone at her gently. “If you want to help your father then you must learn patience. Vitam impendere vero. To stake one’s life for the truth. That is what we must do.”

That is what your father is doing.” Mrs Whatsit nodded, her voice, like Mrs Who’s, very serious, very solemn.

To stake one’s life for the truth.” The film completely upends this theme. In the movie, Charles Wallace is quicky seduced by the emissary of IT by repeating the multiplication tables with him. In the book, however, the children, including Charles, fend off the mind-dominating power of IT by saying true things, in a fascinating exchange. It is only when Charles realizes there is no other way to infiltrate IT that he allows his mind to be overcome. When Meg is being attacked by the mind of IT, she recites first nursery rhymes, then the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. The IT, through Charles Wallace, tries to bend her mind by deploying a logical fallacy:

As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain. Then she realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.

But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”

Good girl, Meg!” her father shouted at her.

But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. “In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else,” but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation.

Like and equal are two entirely different things. For the moment she had escaped from the power of IT.

How telling that the crushing, distinction-denying force of IT “gave her no argument, provided no answer.” This is the very modus operandi the thematic bludgeoning of the film utilizes. In contrast, it is by proffering a distinction of definition that Meg is able to buy time and resist evil. There is a correlation between untruth and real Evil for L’Engle.

This emphasis on the hardness of reality is not unique to L’Engle, of course, though it has become rare in recent decades. Dostoevsky’s priest tells the Karamazov patriarch that the most dangerous type of lie is that which one tells oneself. Charles Williams (a lesser known Inkling) has his character Lawrence Wentworth begin his descent into hell by fudging small historical details in his books, then allowing himself to indulge in an increasingly unrealistic fantasy about an unrequited love, and finally by isolating himself in pure solipsistic delusion as he lowers himself step by step into damnation. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisitied, Julia finally comes up against the immovable object of her indissoluble marriage, and leaves Charles Ryder permanently. Her absolutely steely decision has nothing to do with her feelings on the matter. Even the non-religious philosopher Jacques Derrida, who completed the twentieth century philosophy’s severance from blind faith in language, argued that his methods only emphasized the reality of the Other—that, not being containable or abstractable in language, he or she ought to be granted the respect of “infinite alterity.” In a practical sense, of course, this recognition of the “infinite alterity” of the other is the basis for all true love: granting to one’s spouse, one’s children, one’s friends, and every stranger an objective existence outside of oneself.

The ultimate instance of the encounter with objective reality in L’Engle’s novel is the encounter with the divine, an element that is conspicuously lacking from the film. In the film version, Mrs. Which, upon meeting Meg, immediately de-escalates any potential awe at her otherness by introducing herself as “A part of the universe, just like you, Meg.” Lines, once again, nowhere to be found in the novel. At the foundation of our cultural moment is an abhorrence of distinction. Because distinction, even in mathematical proofs, opens the door for judgments of value, which might lead to accurate and humble self-evaluation.

The Mrs. in the book, however, are not shy about shocking the children with alien revelations. Mrs. Whatsit, in the form of a beautiful (male-looking) centaur-like creature, translates the songs of the angel creatures around them on Uriel for the children:

Listen, then,” Mrs Whatsit said. The resonant voice rose and the words seemed to be all around them so that Meg felt that she could almost reach out and touch them: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!”

Throughout her entire body Meg felt a pulse of joy such as she had never known before.

Her joy comes from an encounter with the infinitely lovely Other. Madeleine L’Engle’s book remains a classic because it starkly embodies the truth that joy, and true love, are found not in digging ever deeper into oneself, but in the freeing act of making someone else’s good more important than one’s own. The novel fleshes out the radically others-centric love inaugurated in Christianity’s revolutionary command to lay down one’s life for others. Our current zeitgeist, in which Disney’s Wrinkle basks, has inculcated instead a castrated and infantilized version of Nietzsche’s will to power, which rejects any imposition coming from outside the Ego.

In the book, Charles Wallace, the youngest and most vulnerable character, chooses to give himself up to the evil IT in order to have a chance at saving his father. It is striking that the writers of Ava DuVernay’s Wrinkle would completely remove his heroic sacrifice. In its place, they offer a paltry version of Meg’s love act to save Charles Wallace. In the novel, Meg realizes in the nick of time that what IT does not have is love, and she offers her love to the then-undeserving Charles Wallace. The film, however, inexplicably turns this self-giving moment of love into a chance to parrot an unnatural statement of manipulative possession—one that is, quite frankly, worthy of IT itself. Here, from the novel, is Meg’s beautiful affirmation of love for Charles Wallace even while he remains unloveable:

Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me.

Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.

Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.

I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in the forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.

I love you!” she cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!” Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs. “Meg! Meg! Meg!”

This interchange is so moving because it is a naked, undeserved, unilateral act of love. The film gratingly changes the end of this scene, by having Meg conclude her plea to Charles Wallace with “You love me. And you should love me, because I deserve to be loved.” This new line slaps in the face the carefully-built understanding of love that we gain by the end of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In its place, the script writers have inserted a manipulative demand for a “love” that is nothing more than a transaction of conditional value, a demand that sounds like the melodramatic jab of a jilted forty-year-old lover.

As I said at the outset, it saddens me to document the failure of such an undertaking. But it dismays me even more to contemplate that scores of folks connected to the making of such a large budget film could so brazenly and confidently pillage a work that clearly meant itself to be read deeply, philosophically, theologically. It is almost as if the production was designed solely to eviscerate the guts of any book that would dare expose children to the scalding and nourishing joy of ineluctable reality. But without these guts—messy, troubling though they may be—we are left, fittingly, with nothing more than a painted cadaver animated by a wind-up toy.

About James Watson, Ph.D. 1 Article
James Watson, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of English at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Oregon. He has published on Cormac McCarthy, Hemingway and Derrida, and is the author of the novel A Window On the Door (Green Gate Press, 2015). Otherwise, he relishes every moment with his wife and five sons and cat and garden and old motorcycle.


  1. On a much lower intellectual plane than your article: Just the stupid outfits they have the three Mrss. wearing should be grounds for criminal prosecution of the moviemakers.

  2. Hearing Hugh Hewitt’s interview with someone who was instrumental in getting the film made revealed a distinctly modernistic interpretation.

    So that makes it perfect for out times.

  3. It sounds as if the only redeeming value of the film will be if it gets kids to read the actual novel. When our sixth grade teacher read it to us back in the mid ’60s, it changed my life, making me into a voracious reader and life-long learner.

  4. Nice! Most children’s films these days are such trash that I was looking forward to sharing one based on such a beautiful classic book with my kids. But I guess you can’t even count on modern adaptations of truly great stories anymore. Thank you for this review.

  5. I wouldn’t worry about another version of “A Wrinkle …” being made. The reviewer doesn’t mention it, but there’s already been several versions done on TV and radio over the years, and even so this last version, wretched though it is, got made. Just recall all the inadequate and even execrable versions of LOTR that were made before the mostly okay version of Peter Jackson was made. If a story has true greatness, people will want to remake it until they can present its greatness in an adequate way. This latest Disney debacle misses the essence of L’Engle’s story, and so, if the story is truly great, virtually guarantees that a better version will be made.

    However, I’m not convinced that L’Engle’s story is truly great. It was good for its time, and I treasured it as a child, including the other two parts of the trilogy it forms. However, it seems to me that it hasn’t aged well. Who reads Morris, Eddison or even Dunsany these days? And even if you do (as I do), you can’t imagine them making a movie of “The Well at the End of the World.” My feeling now, is that the Wrinkle trilogy will become less significant over time rather than more. But I could be wrong… And if I’m wrong, expect there to be versions made, until one version gets the greatness right!

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