Film Web Review
A Wrinkle in Time
Directed by Ava DuVernay
(Walt Disney Pictures, 2018)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was the most influential book of my childhood. I was in fifth or sixth grade when I discovered it on the metal portable shelves that were wheeled into my school’s library once a year for that magical week called Book Fair. My paperback copy had a buttercup yellow picture-frame style cover featuring a white centaur flying through the sky on rainbow wings, carrying three children on its back. Over the next three years, I read and reread Wrinkle, delighting in the characters and the fantastical story of their transcosmos mission to rescue a beloved husband and father.
Until recently, the last time I had read Wrinkle was as a seventh grader, having awoken from a terrible nightmare. I stayed up reading the rest of the night, drawing great comfort from the pages, in which L’Engle reminded me of God’s sovereignty and protection in scary circumstances and the triumph of goodness over evil. I was captivated by the beautiful integration of Christian spirituality, theoretical science, adventure, and the subtle sparks of tentative young love (though I couldn’t have described it in such terms at age twelve). Like Meg Murry, I was painfully awkward and plain, with unruly hair and a heap of insecurities. I longed to one day be like Meg’s mother, Mrs. Murry, the beautiful, brilliant physicist who cooked dinner over a Bunsen burner in her home laboratory, whose genius six-year-old son liked to hear Genesis read aloud at bedtime. Though I had not yet been exposed to the idea of an alleged conflict between science and faith, Wrinkle did an outstanding job of preparing me, spiritually and intellectually, eventually to see Christianity and the natural sciences in harmony — an attitude that went on to shape my academic and career trajectory.
I revisited the book in preparation for seeing the new film, the latter of which I felt no small measure of apprehension about. I’d watched Disney’s low-budget 2004 adaptation, and had not been impressed. Moreover, the fact that religious pluralist Oprah Winfrey (who portrays Mrs. Which, one of the supernatural godmother figures) was singing the praises of the new film told me quite a lot. I fully expected that the deep and pervasive Christian theme, including the direct biblical quotations as well as paraphrasing, would be all but obliterated. What I wondered about was how the spiritual content would be handled. Would it be a very generic sort of fantasy mysticism (the best alternative one could hope for), or would it completely distort the core spirit of the story by subjecting it to pluralist or even materialist philosophical corrosion? If the worse of the two happened (the latter), would even a small bit of L’Engle’s heart shine through in spite of the film’s egregious warping of her worldview? I didn’t have high expectations, especially since I’d already read some of the lamentations of Wrinkle purists like me.
It turns out that the new film is a hybridization of the two approaches I mentioned above; it has been entirely sanitized of Christian references, as one should expect from what I call “Disney 3.0,” but…I actually didn’t hate it. In fact, it had some partially redeeming qualities and, as I will explain later, I think it will actually turn out to be somewhat of a boon for cultural apologetics.
Here are some observations and analysis that could be used to generate good productive discussions. I’d even encourage parents to take their tween and teen children to see the film just to create an opportunity for engaging philosophical worldview conversations!
Warning: spoilers to follow.
The Nature of the Universe. Central to any worldview is the question of what exists. Is the universe all that ever was, all that is, and all that ever will be (to quote Carl Sagan)? Or, is the universe a creation that includes human beings and in which human beings are of the utmost importance? The position communicated by the film is not compatible with the Christian view, though some of the related dialogue is ambiguous. For example, while trying to describe her father for Calvin, one of the male leads, Meg describes her father’s scientific motivation as being an insatiable curiosity about the cosmos; she says that he wanted to “find its origin and shake its hand.” The positive implication is that the universe has an ultimate cause, and Meg’s personification of the cause is interesting to note. Though this line doesn’t go all the way in terms of explicitly saying that Meg’s father sought to better understand the creator of the universe through science, it certainly could be taken that way. However, near the end of the film, Mr. Murry echoes Meg’s statement with a subtle, yet significant change. He says to Meg, “I wanted to shake hands with the universe when I should have been holding yours,” a comment that might be taken as metaphorical for a materialistic worldview.
Many segments of dialogue suggest a New Age, pantheistic view of reality, such as when Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) says, “I am part of the universe, just like you, Meg” and later tells Meg to “become one with the universe and yourself.” Of course we are all “part of the universe” if “universe” is taken to be synonymous with “the totality of creation.” But according to Christianity, we are not merely part of creation — we are its crown, and the rest of creation does not have inherent energies that we can psychically harness to give ourselves special abilities. In another scene, Meg’s attempt to be one with herself and the universe (whatever that means) in order to figure out where her father is involves yogalike posing and meditation directed by the Happy Medium, a humorous male guru-type character (rather than the cheerful, crystal-ball-wielding female seer in the book). He tells her, “Center yourself…your energies will affect what we see!” These are a clear nod to the New Age view, which is a distortion of the Christian understanding of human spirituality and prayer for guidance. To be fair, the Happy Medium in the book uses her crystal ball to reveal things to the children, but magical artifacts are a typical element of the fantasy genre (think The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings).
The Source of Good and Evil. Though the film does a wonderful job of artistically contrasting darkness/evil with light/goodness, its explanations wind up being conceptually lopsided. The film is pretty similar to the book in that the source of the darkness that has enveloped Camazotz (the planet on which Mr. Murry is being held prisoner) and is encroaching on Earth is an evil entity known simply as IT. IT sucks in other minds, basically paralyzing them by exploiting their fears, insecurities, and hateful desires. When IT speaks to Meg through the possessed Charles Wallace, it tempts her to join with it by offering to make her just like the attractive, popular girl who bullies her at school. (I couldn’t help but see a parallel with Satan’s temptation of Christ.) All in all, the evil side of the equation is right in line with a Christian worldview; it is consistent with what we know about the nefarious manipulations of the Enemy.
It’s interesting to note that the film portrays IT as a nebulous “cruel and vicious mind” that seems to manifest centrally in a dark, cavernous place pervaded by random electrical impulses that suggest firing neurons. This is different from L’Engle’s characterization of IT as a giant, quivering, disembodied brain with telepathic and telekinetic powers, but it still retains the essential idea of IT being an evil and powerful mind. I would argue that the film portrayal of IT has a certain advantage: it implies that a powerful mind can exist without a material brain, something the Christian worldview affirms in its characterization of God and Satan.
Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who are the collective foil for IT, and in the film they are described as “warriors who serve the good and the light in the universe” and (as we have already seen) actual parts of the universe itself. In the book, however, L’Engle adds a strong yet subtle nuance; in the scene where Mrs. Whatsit transforms into the rainbow-winged centaur, Calvin drops to his knees in a posture of worship, to which Mrs. Whatsit responds, “No. Not to me, Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.” (Notice the parallel with Revelation 22:8–9.) A couple of pages later, L’Engle quotes Isaiah 42:10–12, which makes it clear who is to be praised and worshiped.
Problematic in the film, however, is the fact that goodness has no definitive source; rather, it is only made manifest in various light-bearers who fight the evil emanating from IT and infecting the universe. Whence comes goodness? What is the metaphysical grounding for it? For that matter, if the universe is “the all,” doesn’t that mean that IT is also “part of the universe” just like Mrs. Whatsit, Which, and Who? At the very end of the film, the entire Murry family is reunited and safe at home. Meg gazes out the window into the sunlit clouds and whispers, “Thank you.” Who is she thanking? The universe? The three beings who helped her on her rescue mission? The viewer can’t tell. Perhaps this is intentionally left open to interpretation.
Final Thoughts. At the end of the day, the film communicates truths that Christians can stand behind, such as the reality of a personal evil that transcends the material world and the fact that human beings can make an impact in the very real war between good and evil. As sons and daughters of God, we are indeed called to be warriors against the darkness. The film also does an admirable job of promoting some important Christian ideals, such as understanding and accepting the fallibility of those we love, forgiving those who disappoint us, being at peace with our enemies, marital fidelity, the high value of fathers, and familial piety. A central message is that unconditional love of our fellow man is one way to fight the evils that permeate our fallen world. If only the film had acknowledged the quintessence of unconditional love — Jesus Christ, who so loved the world.
What I think is most wonderful about the new film is that it has caused a huge spike in the book’s readership. Now fans of the film and those preparing to see it, people young and old, from a wide diversity of worldviews, will have direct exposure to what I regard as one of the most powerful works of cultural apologetics ever written. —Melissa Cain Travis
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith