Review: 'A Wrinkle in Time' waters down book's complexity
As is proudly proclaimed by the trailer for the 2018 cinematic adaptation, "A Wrinkle in Time" has been a beloved children’s book for decades. The Disney film is exactly what you would expect a modern take on a cherished story written for kids in the 60s to be: a colorful fantasy amusement park ride, more than a little on the cheesy side. Its core theme of “you’re beautiful and deserve to be loved” is sweet and unobjectionable, especially considering director Ava DuVernay’s decision to make the Murrys a mixed-race family. But being familiar with the book, I can’t help but think the film plays it too safe to live up to the ambition of author Madeleine L’Engle's original.
L’Engle was a woman with strong opinions about what kind of content could belong in children’s literature. You’d have to be to consider quantum physics a fun plot device for your chapter book about kids going on an adventure. "A Wrinkle in Time" was complicated because she believed her young readers could handle complicated stories. “Despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender,” L’Engle once said during a 1983 lecture at the Library of Congress, “they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost.” If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, she suggests, then you write it for children.
But the 2018 movie cuts away many of those difficult concepts and replaces them with content that’s much more cut-and-dried. The book warns against the complacency that comes with ignoring injustice to focus on what makes you happy. In the film, main character Meg simply has to find her balance with the “Happy Medium.” The book criticizes the factory design of the U.S. school system that prioritizes memorization over real understanding. In the film, Meg’s frustration with her school life is reduced to a bully who’s mean to her because an evil space cloud made her self-conscious about her weight. The book shows Calvin’s relationship with his neglectful working-class mother, whom he loves deeply because he knows that, despite her flaws, she’s doing the best she can. In the film, Calvin is briefly shown being screamed at by a caricature of an abusive father for not getting an A in one of his classes. The book begins with celestial beings disguising themselves as homeless, weathered old women to illustrate the problem with judging people by their appearances. In the film, those beings are beautiful and stunningly dressed from the get-go to keep anything ugly and mundane from ruining the movie’s perfect fantasy aesthetic.
Storm Reid and Deric McCabe do a great job as the two Murry siblings, and their performances are what make the most powerful scenes in the movie. But they aren’t enough to redeem the vague prettiness that makes up the rest of “A Wrinkle in Time.” Too much of the movie’s rudiment is spent on nothing but showing off Disney’s massive CGI budget to allow it to live up to its much more enterprising source material. It’s a beautiful movie with some tremendously emotional scenes, to be sure. But its lack of faith in its audience to understand the story that L’Engle wrote might leave the readers in the audience disappointed.