Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time has stirred up religious controversy since it was first printed in 1962. This was by design. L’Engle, who famously saw her epic-in-the-making rejected by over 25 publishers before landing with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, was deeply religious but also deeply skeptical of religious organizations. Those organizations noticed and protested the book, which was a phenomenon out of the gates, even as atheists and agnostics complained that the story Trojan-horsed a religious message into kid-friendly science fiction. The both sides against the middle nature of the argument around A Wrinkle In Time was not dissimilar to similar discussions about C.S. Lewis’s more overtly Christian Chronicles of Narnia or Lewis Carroll’s subtler but still pious Alice in Wonderland. But, as L’Engle’s masterpiece arrived in theaters, there was little discussion of the narrative’s religious themes. And it’s clear why: The story of Meg Murry has been secularized for the screen. Unfortunately, this does the story a disservice.
The biggest difference between the book and the film adaptation is the definite lack of a God figure in the film. While the book explicitly says that the Mrs. must be “messengers of God,” the film swerves away from any religious overtones by framing the central struggle as between good and evil. There is no mention of angels and one of the longer quotations in the book – wherein Mrs. Who recites a passage of Corinthians – is excised completely. Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who speaks through the thoughts of others, but Bible verses are nowhere to be found. This was clearly an explicit decision made to limit the degree to which the film could be understood (or reviewed) as a religious allegory.
One of the more controversial pages of the original text is also changed for the movie. In the book, when Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin figure out that humans have tessered before and are given the names of the spiritual warriors on that list, Jesus gets namechecked along with Da Vinci, Madame Curie, and Einstein. This passage has been described by various camps as sacrilege and evangelical overture. Conservative Christians argue that placing Jesus in the same context as other humans devalues his divine existence, while more secular critics feel that including Jesus alongside scientists and creators that have tangible accomplishments promotes a more religious worldview. Either way, Jesus doesn’t make the cut in the movie.
Charles Wallace comes to the same realization as he does in the book, but the names he mentions don’t belong to religious figures. Buddha is the only deity whose wisdom makes a cameo, but even that happens only in passing.
This creates a narrative issue. A Wrinkle in Time is a story about faith. In the absence of religious references or broader religious context, it becomes a weird story trip about cosmic beings that lack any particular depth. Aware of this, the filmmakers replace religious faith with faith in the power of individuals to overcome their own shortcomings and help others. In a sense, the scripture of Jesus is replaced by the scripture of Oprah. Though there are overlaps there, it’s clear that the film’s theodicy is fundamentally at odds with L’Engle’s communitarian Episcopalianism. The movie seems to insinuate that we must save ourselves. But Madeline L’Engle didn’t believe that. She believed in universal salvation by a deity figure.
Which is all to say that L’Engle’s story is a lot darker – if there’s nothing you can do to save yourself, why bother? – while simultaneously taking place in a much kinder universe. After all, if there’s someone looking out for us, it would make sense that we would feel safer in His or Her or Their hands.
While the movie has received mixed reviews, based more on aesthetics than moral or religious arguments, it is worth noting that some of the incoherence of the movie seems to come from the filmmakers playing fast and loose with faith. Would a more explicitly religious film have been better? It’s hard to say. The very explicitly Christian 2008 adaptation of Prince Caspian was rightly panned as borderline pamphleteering. Translating implied biblical parallels to the screen is a tough trick.
One thing that is clear, however, is that the book did a better job of giving the Mrs. a clear mission, which is sorely lacking in the film. The adaptation has fun with Reese Witherspoon’s introduction as Mrs. Whatsit, but it’s surface-level fan service. There is no explanation of why she is fighting back the It or what she actually is. In the film, the Mrs. can be read as aliens, ghosts, or interplanetary travelers — it’s all the same to Meg and to the audience. They are fundamentally magical whereas, in the book, they are vessels of faith with a clear purpose.
By taking aspects of not just L’Engle’s Christianity, but other religions, and flattening them into a battle of good vs. evil, A Wrinkle In Time becomes a more broadly appealing, if almost overwhelmingly American, film. It’s the Marvel style, where everything gets sanded down to the chrome. It’s shiny but difficult to parse. Would making a movie as overwhelmingly religious as the book fix that? Maybe, but it would not have been very marketable.
The other simple reality is that the changes – which give the Murry family what they want but nothing more – also make the movie sadder. Meg can save the day and save her father and maybe even save the world, but there’s no real resolution. The film does not offer salvation, which was part of the core appeal of the source material.
Still, there’s something nice about God’s power being transferred into the vessel of Meg, who is young and brittle and angry and tough. That’s a powerful message and the story tells a powerful tale — it’s just not the tale L’Engle published. The same narrative pieces form a very different whole on screen, but nothing ultimately fills that deity-shaped empty space.