Like thousands of other Americans, I eagerly awaited the release of the movie, A Wrinkle in Time. As a kid’s fantasy adventure, it contained the special effects, star-studded cast, and fast action designed to create a modern blockbuster. A film you waste a couple of hours on and then forget. It’s not the type of film to change anyone’s life, and that is exactly the problem.
It wasn’t surprising to me that the audience was comprised of women — some my age, some older, some younger — who came without kids, without friends, to see the film version of a treasured classic. The truth is, Madeline L’Engle changed lives with her book.
I am sure of this, because she changed mine.
A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962 — a year when children didn’t read sci-fi, female heroines weren’t math geniuses, and the cold war was in full swing. While I didn’t come to know the book until many years later, by the time I got to reading it, we were still afraid of Russia and communists, women weren’t encouraged to study math or be scientists, and kids still didn’t read sci-fi.
I’m glad at least one of those things is no longer true.
I read the book when I was eleven years old. It contained only one illustration — an ant crawling along the hem of a woman’s skirt. It had quotes by deep thinkers in languages I couldn’t read. It discussed math and scientific principles I’d never heard of and didn’t have the background to understand. It described order as evil and monsters as aunts and deep philosophical ideology I couldn’t fathom. It had women in role models I’d never heard of.
For all these reasons I fell totally in love with it.
So in love, I tried to memorize the quotes in both the original and translated — yes there was a translation — forms. So in love, I constantly looked words up in a dictionary and grew frustrated as the words, which I immediately loved and breathed in like a new kind of air, impeded my progress through the incredible tale L’Engle spun.
Let me give you a taste. Here is the opening paragraphs of L’Engle’s book:
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
The house shook.
Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.
Take a look at that beginning. What eleven-year-old knows the words: frenzied, lashing, scudded, or wraithlike?
I sure didn’t. But because of Madeline L’Engle, I started not only a journey following her characters, but a journey with words, with writing, and with understanding there was a world beyond what my eleven-year-old self ever knew.
The truth is, eleven-year-olds are pretty self-centered. Oh, we might be good to friends or siblings, do our homework, and even chores, but outside of family and school we really don’t understand much about the world. Life is about us. About our family taking care of us, about our teachers doing for or to us, about the tiny little world we live in. Who knew there were issues, big fat issues out there? Who knew there might be beings different from us, people who dressed differently, who thought differently?
For the first time, I gleaned that I was a teeny tiny particle in a vast and endless universe. Almost nothing. A nothing, however, that mattered very much, and was in fact, essential to everyone everywhere. It was up to me to be the best I could, to try as hard as I could, because only by doing my part would the universe, my world, and my family be safe.
Talk about a guilt trip.
Here are some of the things I learned from Madeline L’Engle:
- A cat has a pink tongue. I’d never noticed things like that before and the elegance of L’Engle’s writing made me understand that beauty is in the small details. I believe she’s made me the writer I am today. Just look at these gorgeous sentences on page two of her book:
The window rattled madly in the wind, and she (Meg) pulled the quilt close about her. Curled up on one of her pillows a gray fluff of kitten yawned, showing its pink tongue, tucked its head under again, and went back to sleep.
- Quotations are deep dark puzzles of language, often with more to offer than pages of literature. Frequently, they are better in the original language than in translation.
Mrs. Who has trouble speaking human languages. She compensates by speaking in quotations. Here is one I loved the instant I read it:
“The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.” Mrs. Who, quoting Pascal.
- A “tesseract” is a cool thing. A “megaparsec” is an even cooler astronomy term that can be used as a nickname. A “sport” is a mutation that might not be at all bad. Mothers can be scientists and cook stews while working on experiments at home.
- You might be a genius but can still get lousy grades at school. You will never feel terribly bright if your little brother is way smarter than you are.
- You can be loved by a boy for who you are even if you wear glasses and aren’t allowed to wear makeup, and don’t look anything like the “pretty” girls at school.
- Even the star basketball player has his own issues.
- Not everyone’s home is a good one. Not everyone is loved.
- People are more than what they look like. Look at this bit of dialog that comes from L’Engle’s character Aunt Beast:
“We do not know what things look like. We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.”
- Responsibility isn’t just doing the dishes, or practicing the piano, it’s much much more. As Mrs. Which says:
“There will no longer be so many pleasant things to look at if responsible people do not do something about the unpleasant ones.”
- Independence isn’t a quality some people have. It’s who we all are. We are all alone inside, all looking for love and acceptance. Again from Mrs. Whatsit:
“Though we travel together, we travel alone”
Not only did the movie not pass along any of these messages, in fact deleting the Aunt Beast character altogether, it turned into a glib, weird fantasy where the scenes had almost no meaning.
The movie even removed Christian references that were as integral to A Wrinkle in Time as they were to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In it’s heyday, Wrinkle was referred to as “Christian literature.” However, that moniker never stuck, because Wrinkle had quotes from multiple religions and ethnicities. Even to me as a child, it didn’t feel “Christian,” it felt universal. When asked to name those who have fought for goodness and light, and against darkness and evil, the children called out “Jesus.” They then follow up with “da Vinci, Gandhi, Einstein, Euclid, and Buddha along with a slew of others. Mrs. Whatsit even goes on to say, “All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.” Why Jesus needed to be the single name eliminated from the list in the film is odd and troubling. Are other non-Christian references okay, but Christianity is something passe’ or perhaps wrong? What exactly is the message film-makers are sending? Jesus wasn’t referred to in L’Engle’s book as the Messiah, or as God, only as a fighter against evil. Is even that reference too upsetting for theater-goers to stomach?
Seeing this list of names made me want to find out more about who they were. Why they were important people, how they contributed. It didn’t make me want to convert to Buddhism any more than it made my Jewish friends who read the same book want to convert to Christianity. We are all like different colored flowers upon the earth. Are the Christians now to be considered weeds?
Understanding that faults can be assets, that conformity can be dangerous, and that giving up your free will too readily may mean your destruction, are lessons few others have had the courage to teach. I learned to think differently — that extreme age can be amazing, to laugh at the idea of stars camouflaging themselves as hobos, and wonder if the breeze can talk to the trees.
When I am outside and hear the rustling of branches and the rush of wind in my hair I remember Mrs. Whatsit saying, “Wild nights are my glory.”
There are too many lessons for me to recount here, only know that this one book did forever change my life as it did countless other girls over the many decades it’s been around. I thank Madeline L’Engle, and hope, one day, someone will recreate this film in a way that inspires all of us in the same way she did.