The success of the movie A Wrinkle in Time has the potential to offer us something beyond what we see on the screen, writes David Goodwin.
Over the past few decades we’ve seen Hollywood going back to some of the classic stories of previous generations. Advances in computer generated special effects have seen books that would have once been impossible to translate to the screen come to life, allowing a whole new audience to enjoy them.
Following in the footsteps of notable examples such as C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit comes another classic of children’s literature from an author who shared their Christian faith, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the book tells the story of Meg, a young girl who travels space in search of her missing father, a scientist. Along the way, she is guided by three celestial beings named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. They guide her and offer advice through scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 1:27–29 and John 1:5 as Meg finds herself caught up in a battle between good and evil.
The story explores a number of themes, including Meg’s feelings of not belonging, the pressure she feels to conform to society’s expectations, and her struggles with bullying. Its mix of scientific musings and spiritual truths contain a powerful message that has seen it become one of the classics.
While the book has won numerous awards and has never gone out of print since its publication in 1962, L’Engle initially struggled to find a publisher—clocking up 26 rejections. She believed that this may have been, in part, due to having a female protagonist, something that was rare in science fiction of the time.
However, she later said that she felt there was also a perception that it was “too different” and raised questions such as, “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adults' book, anyhow?”
But, it’s because of those very things it is still being read today. When you look at the books that have come to be considered classics they all have something in common—they don’t talk down to young readers. Instead, they tackle the problems they face, understanding that it’s not just adults who are searching for answers.
This makes it a story that still speaks to people today, and the most recent movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time features a powerhouse cast, including Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon, and a strong performance from Storm Reid as Meg.
With that sort of talent, it is no wonder it is already a box office success. It’s been lauded for its incredible visuals, and for its diverse cast that has allowed a new audience to see themselves represented on the big screen. But, one thing that has been noted by a number of critics is that much of the Christian content found in the book has disappeared.
Screenwriter Jennifer Lee (of Frozen fame) addressed the reasoning behind this decision in an interview with pop culture site, Uproxx, saying:
“One of the reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s [book]…had that strong Christian element to it wasn’t just because she was Christian, but because she was frustrated with things that needed to be said to her in the world and she wasn’t finding a way to say it and she wanted to stay true to her faith…In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements.”
She went on to say that they felt this would allow them to focus on the “universal” and “timeless” elements of the story, making it accessible to people from different backgrounds.
“I can’t put words in [Madeleine L’Engle’s] mouth—and I worked with one of our producers, Catherine Hand, who was very close to her—but that wasn’t her intention. Her intention was looking at the ordinary real hero in an extraordinary situation. The power of love in this world, and we stayed very true to that. And her lens through it was Christianity and everyone has a different lens in.”
The concern that Christianity might be seen as an obstacle to inclusivity is undoubtedly something those of us who claim to follow Christ should take a moment to reflect on, and take some responsibility for. But, the idea that the powerful themes in the story—including those of love and acceptance—are despite, or even independent of, L’Engle’s deep Christian faith are at odds with reality.
Just like Lewis and Tolkien, her faith did more than simply influence her writing—it was the foundation on which it was built. L’Engle did not see the Gospel as just another reflection of a universal idea of a battle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark. She saw it as the original reality from which all the other stories derived. Christianity was not merely the lens through which she saw the world, but the light by which everything else was made visible.
The values running through A Wrinkle in Time are a direct result of L’Engle’s faith, and one of the reasons that the book still resonates with readers half a century on is because they are timeless and universal values. For all society’s progress in the intervening years, the issues Meg faces are ones that we still struggle with.
For many young people, bullying is a very real part of their lives, as is the battle to find a place where they belong. Just because technology has put instant communication at our fingertips hasn’t changed the fact that many people feel a sense of disconnection, and it is perhaps even more possible to be surrounded by people, yet feel completely alone, than ever.
That is not to say that the movie doesn’t contain worthwhile messages of its own. There is no doubt that its updated approach and wider focus has allowed young people who have felt unrepresented something they can identify with, and its message of tolerance and inclusivity are more important than ever. But, to simply stop there leaves us at the risk missing out on some of the original book’s most valuable lessons.
Hopefully, the popularity of the movie will introduce a whole new generation of readers to the novel it is based on, and that in its pages they will find a deeper exploration of truths only touched upon in the cinema, as well as answers to some of the issues they are facing.
After all, it’s hard to do justice in 109 minutes to a book scholar Jean Fulton describes as “among the first to focus directly on the deep, delicate issues that young people must face, such as death, social conformity, and truth”. But, you can point people to a book that can lead them to lessons that will last a lifetime.
A Wrinkle in Time is now showing in cinemas across Australia.