Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees likes saying the word "tesseract."
A straight line is not always the shortest distance between two points.
Whenever someone decides to make a film or television adaptation of a book as beloved as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, they are taking a big risk: With so many fans of the novel bringing high expectations and a merciless eye for inaccuracy to the release, it's inevitable that it will disappoint some. Disney has proven itself to be audacious in taking on many such adaptations of literary classics, and its TV-movie version of L'Engle's Newberry Award-winning book is actually unusual in sticking closely to the novel, unlike so many of its other book-to-film projects (Around the World in 80 Days lurches unpleasantly to mind). For that reason alone I'd like to say that this miniseries based on L'Engle's novel is a new classic…but, sadly, I don't think that will prove to be the case.
Facts of the Case
Ever since her father vanished one year ago, young Meg Murry (Katie Stuart) has felt like more of a misfit than ever. With two brilliant scientists for parents, she's always been painfully aware of her own intellectual shortcomings, and her pride smarts when kids jeer at her genius six-year-old brother Charles Wallace (David Dorfman) because he never speaks outside the family. Now that the Murrys carry the stigma of a deserting father, things are worse than ever. Meg is certain that her father will return, even though there has been no word from him, and when a mysterious visitor arrives with the unusual name of Mrs. Whatsit (Alfre Woodard, Radio) to tell her that her father is being held captive on another planet, she eagerly rises to the challenge of rescuing him.
Joined by Charles Wallace and the school's good-looking basketball star, Calvin O'Keefe (Gregory Smith, Everwood), she sets out across the galaxy to save her father and fight against the encroaching power of an evil force known as It. What they discover is a world where individuality has been stamped out and It can use someone's dearest dreams to drug them into submission. Meg, Calvin, and Dr. Murry (Chris Potter, Silk Stalkings) will need all the help that gentle Mrs. Who (Alison Elliott, The Wings of the Dove) and magisterial Mrs. Which (Kate Nelligan, The Cider House Rules) can provide when Charles Wallace begins to succumb to the power of It and The Man with Red Eyes (Kyle Secor).
It's probably been twenty years or more since I read L'Engle's "Time trilogy" about the Murry family, and in that time L'Engle has written another book in the series, making it a tetralogy. Approaching this new miniseries, I wasn't sure if my having read the book would be an advantage or a detriment, and in fact I think it turned out to be both. As a fan of the book, I certainly brought higher expectations to the film than would a viewer unfamiliar with the novel, and it may well be that parts of the film that disappointed me won't have the same effect on novice viewers. L'Engle's book is so powerful, the images it conjures up so indelible, that any film adaptation would have its work cut out for it in trying to live up to the experience of reading it. However, in order to avoid frustrating readers who haven't read the book, I'll save direct comparisons for The Rebuttal Witnesses.
A Wrinkle in Time opens on a mysterious spacescape, an awe-inspiring vista of planets and stars that nicely sets up the action to come. After this impressive opening sequence, though, the film takes a while to get off the ground: The pacing is leisurely to a fault, and there are more exposition scenes than are necessary. Nevertheless, the characters engage our interest: Meg, our heroine, is an appealing mixture of vulnerability and frustration, embodying feelings familiar to everyone who has passed through (or ever will pass through) adolescence. Her anger and pain, and her unhappy conviction of not fitting in, provide a lot of the energy in the first act of the film. The other primary force in this early part of the action is precocious Charles Wallace, an intriguing combination of small boy and old soul. The story finally gets moving when Mrs. Whatsit blows in on one stormy night—yet it's here that older kids' interest may flag.
With the appearance of this first of the three Ladies (supernatural figures who aid the children on their journey), the film's thoughtfully observant take on Meg's troubles takes a turn for the goofy. Director John Kent Harrison has evidently told the talented Alfre Woodard to ham it up for all she's worth. Later on Mrs. Whatsit will emerge as a presence of warmth and strength, but in her early scenes she gushes to a fault. Between the over-the-top early scenes with Mrs. Whatsit, the introduction of the quavery Mrs. Who (who seems to have studied elocution under Glinda, the Good Witch of the North), and the campily androgynous Happy Medium (Sean Cullen), the film squanders a large chunk of its credibility, and for this reason I suspect it will lose many teen viewers—while probably drawing in younger kids, who are more likely to be attracted by the newly comedic tone and the wacky characterizations. It's a pity that young teens who will most relate to Meg will probably find the film becoming too childish for them at this point.
It's even more of a pity because much of the message of the film would really strike home to teenagers. Evil in the film takes the form of a mind-controlling force that blots out individuality; thus, fitting in with one's peers, the desire of so many adolescents, is portrayed as an oppressive, numbing state, a virtual prison. Likewise, freedom from pain and sadness is achieved only at the cost of feeling any emotion—except fear of displeasing the all-powerful It. The film is effective, if unsubtle, at portraying the deadening influence of this mandated conformity: The protagonists find themselves on a sepia-hued planet without daylight, where the citizens are clad in uniforms and all literally march to the beat of the same drummer—the endless throb of It that controls all their movements and thoughts.
Unfortunately, the message becomes clouded in the two climactic confrontations with It. I suspect that the filmmakers were motivated by the desire to present these confrontations in more visual terms than in the book, but whatever the cause, these two scenes about the clash with evil don't really come off. Part of the problem is the decision to make The Man with Red Eyes a jocular sort of villain; instead of becoming more sinister in his false jollity, however, he becomes less so. Particularly when he is the most powerful denizen of the stone-faced, emotionless crew that carries out the wishes of the inarticulate It, it seems to me that he should be the epitome, not the antithesis, of the cold detachment It creates. The limitations of young actor David Dorfman also become evident in these scenes, when he is supposedly under the control of It. The role of Charles Wallace is a challenging one, and Dorfman is natural and believable in less tense scenes, but he is not convincing in these important parts of the film.
Most of the other human characters are well acted. The standouts are Katie Stuart, who is completely convincing as Meg, and Gregory Smith, who likewise brings credibility to the role of Calvin. These two young actors bring a welcome naturalness to their roles that helps ground the film and make the story compelling. Sarah-Jane Redmond, as Dr. Dana Murry, does a fine job, and Chris Potter as Dr. Jack Murry turns in a solid performance as well—although he, like Alfre Woodard, is sometimes hindered by an atrocious wig. The otherwordly creatures, as I have noted, are generally more exaggerated; depending upon the age and temperament of the viewer, they may strain one's patience or bring some welcome color and energy to the goings-on.
The special effects are another area where my reactions were mixed. Some of the effects are truly impressive, such as the majority of the space-travel sequences and Mrs. Which's vanishing effects. Yet some of the effects seemed amateurish or rushed, most prominently Mrs. Whatsit's form as a birdlike creature with the body of a horse and the head of a woman. The computer animation of this creature was terribly fake (and the fact that it is replaced with a traditional winged horse on the disc cover art makes me wonder if it was a last-minute substitution). Nevertheless, for a TV miniseries, the special effects are respectable on the whole.
The extra features on the disc supplement the miniseries nicely. My favorite is the ten-minute conversation with Madeleine L'Engle, in which she describes the writing of the book and provides additional insight into some of the characters. It's perhaps inevitable that her screen time would be intercut with film clips, but I still resented the distraction. Some of her remarks would have benefited from some context or elaboration, as when she discusses the difficulty of finding a publisher for a book with a female protagonist—a puzzling statement now that makes more sense if one knows that A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962. The deleted scenes (five in all) add substantially to the running time of the miniseries, if not to the content; one dramatic sequence that shows Meg's father falling afoul of the tesseract looks like it was quite expensive, and for that reason alone it's surprising that it was cut. The deleted scenes are letterboxed, which leads me to wonder if the entire miniseries was originally intended to be presented in widescreen. The 11-minutes featurette on the cast focuses mainly on the younger actors and looks at some of the considerations that went into casting the main characters.
As one would expect from a new Disney product, the image is clear, colorful, and without dirt or flaw. The 5.1 surround mix is attractively balanced and makes good use of the side speakers for sound effects during space travel scenes, but overall it is definitely a TV soundtrack and lacks the full dynamism and power of a theatrical film's soundtrack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although viewers who are unfamiliar with L'Engle's book will probably enjoy this miniseries more than faithful readers, they will probably find themselves lost at certain points of the story. Susan Shilliday's teleplay skips some useful information, the most prominent of which is the role that time plays in a tesseract—the "wrinkle in time" of the title. Mrs. Whatsit's explanation of the tesseract is abbreviated here to the point that viewers may be left without any clear idea of how the characters are moving around through time and space. Likewise, readers of the novel will know Aunt Beast when that character appears and will understand how she came upon that unusual name, but novice viewers may have a difficult time making the connection between the Sasquatch-looking creature and the "Aunt Beast" name. (And shame on the costume designers for reducing the velvety Aunt Beast to looking like a cut-rate Abominable Snowman.)
It is very likely my memories of the book that made me so dissatisfied with the depiction of characters like Aunt Beast and the Ladies. I always pictured Mrs. Whatsit in particular as being elderly—an eccentric old lady with a witchlike quality. Casting the beautiful and eternally young Alfre Woodard when someone more like the late Mary Wickes might have been more appropriate was unsettling to my sense of the character. Similarly, Charles Wallace is a bit too cheekily modern in interpretation; I can't imagine the introspective character of the book ever saying "cool." But these are minor quibbles next to the main disappointment of the miniseries, which is simply that it never comes close to having the emotional power of L'Engle's insights into the human condition or her fascinating depiction of the way the universe may work. Despite its admirable fidelity to its source, I can't imagine anyone who loves the book being fully satisfied with this adaptation.
The good news is that young viewers who have yet to take on the intellectually challenging novels by L'Engle may well find this miniseries a nonintimidating introduction to her Time Tetralogy. The friendly, comedic interpretations of some of the otheworldly characters, and the visual wonders of the other worlds themselves, may be just the thing to engage the interest of youngsters. On the other hand, that's probably not what fans of the book will be looking for in this miniseries. Disney's A Wrinkle in Time gets credit for retaining so much of L'Engle's story and dialogue, but it doesn't pack the book's power. Although it's attractive family viewing, it never transcends the genre of TV-movie.
The court recognizes that Disney is attempting to reform by making a film or TV adaptation in which the source book is actually recognizable, but the studio will remain on probation until it proves it can offer more than a Classic Comics version of literature.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Author Madeleine L'Engle
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