Monday, March 12, 2018

A Wrinkle in Theme

This is going to be a movie review today, plus some tangents.

We went to see A Wrinkle in Time this past weekend. I think it was opening weekend, not sure. We went to a late matinee, and shared the theater with maybe five other people.  So it’s probably not going to be a blockbuster. It was a worthwhile use of a couple of hours, especially visually. But, because I’m familiar with the book, plus a couple of other reasons, it was somewhat disappointing.

The Newbery Award winning book by Madeleine L’Engle was first published in 1962. For perspective, this science-fiction/fantasy comes seven years before the moon landing. It predates Star Trek, the TV series, by four years. It came fifteen years before the first Star Trek movie. So you can’t judge it by current science. You just need to suspend your disbelief about the science. The purpose of science fiction and fantasy is to put people (or other sentient beings) in different circumstances, so you can see more clearly the important human interactions without the noise of our world to blame things on.

Anyway, the movie does some updating and scene changing, some of it intended to make it more appropriate to our times. Some of it works, but some of it adds extra noise.

The original is set in rural New England. The Murry family is made up of both mother and father scientists, plus high schooler Meg, her ten-year-old twin brothers, and pre-kindergarten age genius brother Charles Wallace. The movie keeps the parents, lowers Meg’s age to middle school (I’m guessing; it isn’t specified), leaves out the twins, and adds an adopted Charles Wallace.

Instead of flaming red hair and porcelain skin, the beautiful mother is played by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I didn’t recognize her, but she played Plumette in the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast. She’s mixed race but appears black, and is very attractive. That fits the book, but the movie doesn’t have her doing crazy concoctions over a Bunsen burner, and talking naturally about when her children’s father will return. Instead she’s uncertain about his disappearance, even though she’d been working on the experiments with him, and is kind of angst-filled, which doesn’t help the two kids.

Father is played by Chris Pine, who is one of the more reliable actors around these days. He’s less heroic and swashbuckling than usual here, but he’s one of the reasons I was hopeful about this movie. In the movie he’s ahead of his time and his science is scorned by others. In the book, he is part of a government team, and not the first to attempt the tesseract (which is moving through time and space, not a magical artifact as in the Marvel universe).

Anyway, the marriage of these two attractive parents means the daughter, Meg, is mixed race. Adopted Charles Wallace is unidentified. He looks maybe partly Hispanic.

One of the things I liked was that this racial updated was completely uncommented on. It just was. That is how to treat race in a movie, so I didn’t mind that.

I do miss the brothers, the rural setting, and a few other details. The change in theme is subtle, but significant. I’ll get to that in a minute.

movie poster from
The movie uses some big name star power: Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Zach Galifianakis. Probably others I’m missing. These are big personalities in real life—and in other roles they’ve played. Except for Reese Witherspoon, who imposed a full personality on her character (different from the character in the book, but I can tolerate the differences), the others were underused. Oprah Winfrey was stiff and lifeless—so coated in glitter that maybe the stiffness was to prevent it from flaking off. The same was true for Mindy Kaling, who had the added difficulty that her character was “evolved beyond speech,” so she only spoke in quotations. The quotations were updated and didn’t always seem as apt as the ones in the book. But my disappointment was that she and Oprah seemed like prom dates with a special dress and hairdo that they’re too afraid will spoil if they get down and dance at the prom.

The Happy Medium is female in the book. I wouldn’t mind the change to male, to make use of Zach Galifianakis, if they’d made use of him. He was odd. But neither he nor Oprah nor Kaling were useful; any random unknown but decent actor could have filled any of those roles.

The child actors are adequate. Storm Reid plays Meg. Since the character was meant to be not yet attractive (her mother hadn’t been as a child either), and socially awkward, her stiffness is tolerable. We may see more from her in the future. Calvin is played by Levi Miller. He’s a pretty boy, with pretty eyes, and most of what he is required to do is look adoringly at Meg for reasons that aren’t really explained in the movie. If his job was to be of interest to tween girls, he’ll do. Charles Wallace was OK. The role required being able to speak as though he was very advanced for his age, while looking somewhat babyish. He was able to deliver the lines, but there wasn’t much acting there.

Full confession: Back in sixth grade (which was elementary school, not middle school, in my world), my class read this book and decided to turn it into a play. We typed up the dialogue and some stage directions, and then put it on for the school and our parents. I played Meg. That was the full extent of my acting career, I’m sure for good reason. Anyway, when I say the young actors were adequate, that is a complement. I think it takes a lot for a young person to provide depth to a role.

Getting back to the change in theme. This is a book I’ve used to teach my method for doing literary analysis for homeschoolers. It works for anyone, not just homeschoolers. But sometimes it’s a challenge for non-English-major moms to figure out how to talk about literature with their kids, and they resort to online lists of questions, which is almost as painful as answering a list of questions in school. This doesn’t instill a love of literature; it instills dread. So, I have this brief pattern for the conversation, and the parent can facilitate, but doesn’t need to have all the answers beforehand. They discover them together.

You list all the main characters. Then you go through each one and describe what it is that character wants, or is seeking, near the beginning of the book. Then you see if the thing they were seeking changed by the end of the book. Give evidence from the book as you answer the questions together. (And there can be disagreement; just write the extra views on the board too.) Then identify whether the characters’ individual goals were met or not—with evidence from the book. By the time you’ve gone through this discussion, you know a lot about the book, and you’re ready to try to say what the author was trying to tell you. Take a stab at a theme statement or two.

So, that’s the process. This is actually the first book I did this with in our homeschool. At the beginning of the book, Meg’s goal is to fit in, to not be different. She’s not doing well in school. People talk behind their backs about why her father is missing (the assumption that he must have run off with another woman). Meg is socially awkward, unlike her twin brothers, who seem to fit in fine.
On page 19, talking to her mother, she says, “I hate being an oddball. It’s hard on Sandy and Dennys, too. I don’t know if they’re really like everybody else, or if they’re just able to pretend they are. I try to pretend, but it isn’t any help.”

In the movie, she has troubles as well. But it appears those around her are just mean; no one in their right mind would want to “fit in” with them. She’s just suffering because life is cruel, people are cruel; and that turns out to be because of the darkness shadowing and looming above in space.

When they travel to Kamazotz, that dark mysterious planet her father disappeared to, with plans to rescue him, they come upon a tidy neighborhood with children bouncing balls. All at the same time. To the same rhythm. This shows up in the movie, too. But the scene dissolves afterward, so none of it was real. In the book, these are real people, afraid of making an error or doing anything differently.
On pages 100-101 they have a conversation with a paper route boy, who is puzzled by their being out on the streets at a time when only route boys are allowed:

“Are you examiners?” the boy asked a little anxiously. “Everybody knows our city has the best Central Intelligence Center on the planet. Our production levels are the highest. Our factories never close; our machines never stop rolling. Added to this we have five poets, one musician, three artists, and six sculptors, all perfectly channeled.”
“What are you quoting from?” Charles Wallace asked.
“The Manual, of course,” the boy said. “We are the most oriented city on the planet. There has been no trouble of any kind for centuries. All Camazotz knows our record. That is why we are the capital city of Camazotz. That is why CENTRAL Central Intelligence is located here. That is why IT makes ITs home here.”
So, of course, they go exploring to find out what IT is. Charles Wallace’s brain is captured in the process—not at all like in the movie. He becomes a voice for the IT. And he starts telling his sister to give in, to submit. To their request to see their father, the IT-controlled Charles Wallace says, “Father? What is a father?” Charles Wallace intoned. “Merely another misconception. If you feel the need of a father, then I would suggest that you turn to IT.”

Here’s something scary about it, explained through the little boy’s body:

“Perhaps you do not realize that on Camazotz we have conquered all illness, all deformity—“
We?” Calvin interrupted.
Charles continued as though he had not heard. And of course he hadn’t, Meg thought. “We let no one suffer. It is so much kinder simply to annihilate anyone who is ill. Nobody has weeks and weeks of runny noses and sore throats. Rather than endure such discomfort they are simply put to sleep.”
“You mean they’re put to sleep while they have a cold, or that they’re murdered?” Calvin demanded.
“Murder is a most primitive work,” Charles Wallace said. “There is no such thing as murder on Camazotz. IT takes care of all such things.” (p. 127).
And page or two later he adds,

“On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Difference create problems. You know that, don’t you, dear sister?”
“No,” Meg said.
“Oh, yes, you do. You’ve seen at home how true it is. You know that’s the reason you’re not happy at school. Because you’re different.”
In the book, IT is a disembodied brain set on the dias in a room in a large building. The thing is “just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying.” In the movie IT is a planet-sized brain, and they’re inside it, fighting off the occasional swinging neuron tendrils.

In the book it tries to take them in by its pulsing rhythm, so the humans resist by reciting things in their minds that won’t fit into the rhythm. In the book, at Calvin’s suggestion, just before IT can take them in, Mr. Murry tessers them away from Camazotz, to a weird cold planet, where a kind creature helps them rest and recover. And then Meg is the chosen one to return to rescue Charles Wallace. In the movie, Mr. Murry is somewhat cowardly and is willing to lose Charles Wallace (because he’s adopted?), but Meg doesn’t allow him to tesser her away.

In both movie and book, Meg reminds Charles Wallace of her love, and this pulls him out of the spell of IT. And then they get away with the help of others tessering them away.

Visually, the rescue scenes are very different. In essence, love wins out over the darkness. But in the movie the darkness is just a vague uncomfortable human meanness. In the book the darkness is loss of freedom—of thought and action.

I don’t think Madeleine L’Engle was very political. In New England, if anything, she was probably Democrat. But the ideas here compare to socialism or communism—IT provides everything, and everyone is made equal, but at the sacrifice of their freedom and individuality. Remember that article a while ago, about Iceland eliminating Down’s Syndrome? They did it like IT—by eliminating (i.e., killing) any Down’s Syndrome babies or fetuses. Central control ≠ a good thing, no matter what IT claims. It’s not about what’s good for the people; it’s about what gains power for the tyrannical ruler, which is what IT is.

In the end of the book, what Meg wants isn’t to fit in, or conform; it is to resist conforming. And you do that with love from one individual to another.

The message of being an individual came through in the movie. It was kind of a celebration of “You should stop loathing yourself and love yourself for being an individual.” But the message of resisting conformity is lost.

So, the movie was interesting, and visually worth watching. But probably not the classic that the book has been for almost 60 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment