“The book is always better” is a cliched refrain many bookworms love to spout any time there’s a movie adaptation of their beloved book. Sometimes this cliche is very wrong. The Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson, for instance, excels at capturing the heart and soul of the novels while simultaneously being its own thing. But, The Lord of the Rings is largely an external story, focusing on action and plot with little internalization. A Wrinkle In Time is the inverse. Its plotting is basic but the beauty of the book is the heavy internalization. Because of that, A Wrinkle In Time gets lost in translation and feels like they’re shoving a square peg into a round hole.
For her part, Ava DuVernay tries her best to bring intimate and heartfelt storytelling, but around every corner, Disney appears, throwing every color in the rainbow and hallucinogenic CGI effect at the audience, undercutting DuVernay’s efforts and sterilizing the magic. But, even if that wasn’t the case, much of the story’s middle, where the three characters travel through space and time to find their father, feels silly, dull, and almost pointless.
With her father (Chris Pine) suddenly disappearing, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) lives the next four years growing up without a father and dealing with the usual young adult issues – bullies, feeling out of place, and having a bad reputation. Her brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), is exceptionally bright and precocious. In time, he introduces Meg, and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller), to three women: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). These women are like fairy godmothers, acting as the guide to the hero’s journey. They tell Meg that they heard a cry out in the universe and they believe its Meg’s father. So, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin slip through the wrinkle and travel through space.
DuVernay does a good job establishing the relationship between Meg and her father right from the beginning. With a plot hinged on finding him, this only makes sense and the scenes are well-shot and intimate, allowing the audience to really absorb why finding her father is so important. On a side note, Chris Pine, despite only having a few scenes, truly shines in his role as the father.
DuVernay is clearly a student of film and, when CGI isn’t present, knows how to tell a good story using the right angles, shots, and camera techniques at the right moments. She also doesn’t anchor all of Meg’s internalization on exposition but uses various techniques to portray how she’s feeling. For instance, perhaps the most impressive scene (and my favorite of the film) is with Meg and her father (that’s all I’m going to say to not spoil anything). One shot is of Meg with a red backdrop and another is a shot of her father with an orange backdrop. The colors are striking and perfectly minimalistic. When the two characters come together into one shot, the colors blend in the background, representing both connection and warmth between the two characters. Another great subtextual element is how DuVernay shot the scenes where Meg “tessered” or traveled through time and space. All in all, she gives A Wrinkle In Time its humanity among the fantastical.
Let’s talk about the fantastical for a moment. A Wrinkle In Time is a bizarre mixture of fairy tale, science fiction, and fantasy. It has fairy godmothers on the one hand and advanced physics on the other. These two themes shoved into one space make it difficult to try to take it seriously during its more fantastical moments.
Still, to some degree, the fantasy elements of the story need to be transcendent and over-the-top despite being tethered to reality. A large part of A Wrinkle In Time feels very similar to A Neverending Story that way. While it’s connected to the real world, when Bastian slips into a new dimension, reality turns into a hallucinogenic trip. That’s really what makes fantasy fun.
Likewise, A Wrinkle In Time thrusts the audience into an abundantly colorful world with very silly creatures and characters. With the book, the reader has the freedom to play with their own imagination and build the world for themselves. Because it’s their imagination, it doesn’t really matter if you mix fairy tale and physics together, it still works because it’s theirs. In the cinematic world, the imagination is forced and cemented, making the audience have to either suspend disbelief or scoff at the preposterous spectacle. In this case, the audience will likely choose the latter.
The Neverending Story succeeds at forcing imagination on the audience because of the puppets, real sets, and locations. They’re tactile. They have character. In contrast, A Wrinkle In Time is riddled with boring, lifeless, and sterilized CGI. Much of the time when they’re traveling from planet to planet, it’s painfully obvious the characters are standing in a giant studio with green floors and walls. You’re supposed to be awed by the multitude of colors but you know its a fake.
The middle act, with all its CGI wonder, is also the perfect moment for DuVernay to shine because in the book it’s exactly where a huge portion of introspection takes place. Instead, Disney mutes DuVernay’s voice and slaps on eye candy that’s sure to dazzle a few children while distracting from its hollow shell. We also get much more exposition in these scenes with Oprah and Mindy Kaling’s characters handing out trite axioms like Peeps on Easter.
They also miss their chance to build the middle act toward the last act. Instead, it’s a mere surrealist dream where the children are thrown to and fro without any real direction. Admittedly, this experience is not entirely without whimsy and fun, but by the end, it feels too shallow. One moment, they’re in an eerie neighborhood, the next they’re on a beach, and before long they end up in a white void. It’s all too passive, happening to the heroes rather than the heroes taking things into their own hands. Rarely is there any true cause and effect. This passivity makes it a struggle to care about anything happening in the story.
It does pick up in the last act but by then, it’s too little, too late. Again, key relationships aren’t built up enough in the middle to make the end worthwhile. They also cut out a significant portion of the book’s third act, a third act that builds tension between characters and suspends the conclusion a little longer for effect. While it makes sense why they would cut out this part due to time constraints, the movie’s third act is rushed and premature because of it.
The key thing to understand is that Disney, DuVernay, the screenwriters, actors, and the entire team clearly want to make this beloved story a wild success. Why wouldn’t they? In many ways, it’s not that they didn’t capture the heart and soul of the book. They did in many ways. But, that’s the inherent problem. In the attempt to capture the heart of the book, it didn’t translate well to film.
Deep down, book lovers want their favorite books adapted to the screen so they can see what it might look like in real life. It’s an understandable desire. But, it’s probably time to admit books and movies aren’t always compatible, no matter how much we want them to be. In this case, despite every effort to make it work, A Wrinkle In Time is a prime example. It’s a great book and will likely never be a great movie.
Photos Courtesy of: Walt Disney Pictures.
A Wrinkle In Time tries to stay faithful to the book the best it can, but that is ironically its fatal flaw. The book doesn't work very well as a movie. Moviegoers will likely become bored and fans of the beloved book will likely feel underwhelmed and frustrated.