Why A Wrinkle in Time needed to let Meg Murry fail


By excluding a pivotal section of the novel, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time adaptation undermines its heroine and loses its emotional resonance.

Cinema is littered with the disfigured, hollowed-out remains of beloved fantasy literature, from The Golden Compass to The Hobbit. I didn’t expect A Wrinkle in Time to join them.

Yes, I had reservations.

Disney isn’t exactly known for challenging audiences. The trailers flaunted candy-colored imagery reminiscent of The Lovely Bones — another disappointing literary adaptation.

Still, I trusted Ava DuVernay, who demonstrated an aptitude for nuanced character-driven narratives with Middle of Nowhere and Selma. Her racially diverse casting was promising, suggesting a willingness to think outside the box. Surely, if any director could do justice to Meg Murry, it was her.

Alas, my reservations proved to be valid. As a standalone achievement, A Wrinkle in Time is bizarrely amateurish, full of wooden acting, ham-fisted dialogue, and haphazard editing. (Despite the tacky CGI, the visuals rank as a strength, injecting the proceedings with a kind of psychedelic zaniness.)

As an adaptation, it’s heartbreaking. Like New Line Cinema did with Philip Pullman, Disney purges the thematic substance from Madeleine L’Engle’s work, reducing a bold, haunting vision of cosmic moral and spiritual struggle to a blandly “inspirational” adventure tale.

Maybe I could excuse the sanitization and even the sloppiness if the sentiment hit home. For all its philosophizing, A Wrinkle in Time ultimately cares less about ideas than feelings. L’Engle’s poignant insight into the inner life of a teenage girl explains much of the book’s enduring appeal. However, aside from a couple scenes involving Chris Pine, every emotional beat in the movie falls flat. The hugs, tears, and constant expressions of love have a robotic quality — imitations of feelings rather than the real thing.

IT would approve.

Sitting in the theater, I grew increasingly bewildered and angry, as the story I’d cherished since childhood withered onscreen. The fatal blow arrived late. In the book, Meg’s first encounter with IT proves disastrous, as, despite her best efforts, she nearly succumbs to the malevolent entity’s hypnotic power. She survives only because her father tessers (i.e. wrinkles aka travels in time) her, Calvin and himself to a nearby planet, leaving Charles Wallace behind. In the movie, Meg’s first encounter with IT is her only encounter with IT.

If I had a remote then, I would have thrown it. Over time, my memory of the book faded, revived only when I reread it to prepare for the movie. Yet, one detail remained vivid, lodged in my mind like a recurring dream: Meg Murry shouting, “Like and equal are not the same thing!”

It wasn’t the words that stuck with me (in fact, I’d misremembered them) so much as the punctuation — the tumult of defiance and desperation embodied by the exclamation mark. The omission of that detail felt like a personal betrayal.

More importantly, though, it betrays Meg. Far from extraneous, the doomed battle with IT and subsequent interlude on the frozen planet represent the crux of the story. Without those scenes, the adaptation sacrifices three major stages in its protagonist’s arc.

First, there’s Meg’s failure. Even though it espouses messages of self-acceptance and self-love, A Wrinkle in Time is not about empowerment; it’s about growing up. Whereas the former involves you gaining control, the latter involves you losing control, or, rather, understanding the limits of your control. It isn’t a linear progression but a cycle, a process of trial and error, like a scientific experiment. Losing to IT forces Meg to reckon with her limits.

L’Engle shows her maturation not through narration or action, but through a conversation with an alien known as Aunt Beast. Residing on a world drained of color, Aunt Beast is blind, and she struggles to comprehend concepts such as light and darkness. After a futile attempt to explain the value of sight, Meg realizes that she “was limited by her senses, not the blind beasts, for they must have senses of which she could not even dream.”

These lapses, whether in judgment or ability, endear Meg to us, more than her eventual triumph. After all, no one relates to a girl who defeats evil on her first try.

Regrettably, DuVernay and writers Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell are too busy turning Meg into a hero to make room for her humanity. They introduce her through a flashback disguised as a dream, showing her bonding with her father, Alex, over science. Viewed on its own, the scene is sweet and innocuous. But the decision to open with a happy place, bathed in nostalgic light, rather than a dark and stormy night alters our perception of Meg’s circumstances. It distances us from the present, diminishing the weight of Alex’s absence and Meg’s loneliness.

The lighting is telling. DP Tobias A. Schliessler immerses A Wrinkle in Time in a relentless California sunniness that reflects the film’s general reluctance to engage with the harsher aspects of reality. Even as it professes to celebrate Meg’s faults, it softens them. She never quite feels like the misfit that she’s supposed to be.

Yeah, a mean girl at school taunts her about her father’s disappearance and her brother’s eccentricity, but that says more about the mean girl than Meg. In the book, Meg goes to Mr. Jenkins’ office because she lashes out at a teacher. Here, it’s because she lashes out at a bully. (The book does mention a bully, but it’s a separate incident.)

DuVernay’s desire to uplift marginalized girls is admirable, and many people found watching Storm Reid a joyful, cathartic experience. Good for them. But, to echo Jaime Green, who wrote a wonderful tribute to Aunt Beast at Electric Literature, I wish we had seen Meg fall apart. I wish she could have been seen as messy and vulnerable and small.

Which brings me to the second stage: disillusionment. Meg adores her father, as evidenced by the fact that she travels across the universe to find him. He provides love as well as protection, a constant source of warmth and stability in an otherwise cold, chaotic world — that is, until he goes missing. In his absence, she, too, becomes lost. Naturally, she believes that once he returns, they will live happily ever after.

Quite the contrary: besides stranding her on an alien planet, her father chooses to abandon her brother. Resentment and despair threaten to overwhelm Meg:

"She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for."

Eventually, she forgives him, confessing that her fury is rooted in fear — both of the possibility that she would have to rely on herself and of the possibility that she couldn’t. Growing up means learning not only that you have limits, but also that other people have limits. It means learning to see other people as human too.

On screen, this conflict barely registers, confined to a handful of passing lines. Meg’s apology comes across as perfunctory, an act of habit rather than genuine regret. The film treats her rescue of Charles Wallace with similar brusqueness, depicting it as instinctive, motivated by innate love for her brother. While this sustains the plot’s momentum, it renders Meg passive, depriving the climax of its potency.

Because it’s essential that Meg makes a conscious choice to rescue Charles Wallace. She has to choose to face IT, knowing what that entails and how likely it is that she will fail. She also has to choose to not destroy IT, to accept that “she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT.”

Meg has to choose to love Charles Wallace instead and settle for saving him. It’s not a heroic choice; you could argue it’s selfish, saving the person you love and leaving a whole planet in darkness. But Meg has no interest in being a hero, and her refusal to play hero is precisely what enables her to succeed.

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She is only human — mortal, imperfect, fallible. And, at last, she understands that it’s okay. That is brave.