Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 children’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time artfully tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murry on a rescue operation.
Together with her brother, a neighborhood friend and three mysterious celestial beings known only as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, Meg Murry must liberate her father from the clutches of an evil power that has imprisoned him on a distant planet.
The book is well-written, with a sympathetic, realistically flawed heroine, an exciting quest and a clearly defined boundary between good and evil. Since its publication, it has been a childhood favorite for many, as evidenced by the fact that it won the prestigious Newbery Medal for children’s literature.
Fantastic settings, exotic creatures and characters who travel through a dimension beyond space and time make L’Engle’s novel a story that begs to be adapted into a movie, and in 2018 we finally have the sophisticated computer and filmmaking technology needed to bring her fertile imagination to life. Visually, director Ava DuVernay’s Disney adaptation amply delivers. It is colorful, beautiful, huge in scope and spectacle.
But both the book and the movie contain New Age and supernatural elements, such as mediums, crystal balls and witches, which have garnered criticism from parents who would prefer their children not be exposed to such things.
And L’Engle has also been criticized for promoting syncretism — the assertion that all religions are basically the same and that none has any claim to absolute Truth. In this, too, the movie is similar to the book.
In fact, it may actually be worse.
The syncretism in the novel is found in a key scene nearly halfway through the story. The celestial beings show the children a glimpse of the Evil Darkness that they’re up against, a thing called “The It,” that has cast its shadow over the Earth and completely engulfed the planet on which Meg’s father is trapped. To encourage the children, they point out all the men and women throughout Earth’s history who have fought against the Darkness and served as “lights for us to see by”: Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, St. Francis and others.
A Christian may rightly object that this list suffers from the fallacy of reducing Jesus to a mere moral teacher, but at least he’s on the list, and his inclusion in it is preceded by a quotation from the Gospel of John: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
When the characters in DuVernay’s film recite the litany, all religious figures are omitted, and the list ends up being a litany of praise to scientists, artists and activists. Serving “the Good and the Light in the universe,” participating in the spiritual struggle against existential Darkness, is reduced to things as mundane as writing poetry and studying bacteria. DuVernay’s film is yet more proof that 21st-century Western pop culture has moved way beyond mere syncretism into full-blown, undisguised anti-religious secularism.
We may live in a world in which Jesus doesn’t even make it onto a list of great historical figures who changed the world for the better, but at least the movie refrains from blurring the line between Good and Evil.
In both the book and the movie, Evil demands sameness, conformity, uniformity, control and perfection. “The It” erases individuality and all flaws and is incapable of love. The filmmakers draw a clever parallel between the modern suburban world that Meg and her family live in and the evil world of Camazotz. The scene on Meg’s school playground, with its mass of uniformed children playing the same game, eerily mirrors a scene from later in the movie in which a group of mind-numbed automaton children bounce playground balls in creepy, unified synchrony.
In the suburban playground scene, only Meg is doing something different. Standing out, being something other than what the current cultural orthodoxy demands, puts a target on your back. In Meg’s case, it makes her the target of bullies, and these bullies are clearly “bad guys.”
One of the “goods” both the book and the movie celebrate is devotion to family. In fact, the deep emotional connection that binds family members together is one of the things the movie makers tapped into that in my opinion is an improvement over the book.
In L’Engle’s novel, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are unable to accompany the children on their rescue mission to Camazotz, and, later, Meg is compelled to face “The It” alone, without the help of her friend or her father. As an author myself, I understand the narrative necessity of these two storytelling choices. It wouldn’t do for the celestial beings with superpowers to accompany the heroine into peril, because they could just do everything for her. Meg, the heroine of the story, must face the Darkness alone. And not just the Evil Darkness on Camazotz, but the Darkness within her own heart that makes her dislike herself so much and is the source of so much of her inner pain.
I get all that, yet in the book, neither of these storytelling imperatives had a satisfactory explanation within the story. The movie, on the other hand, managed to achieve what the book did not. It was Meg’s deep connection to both her brother and her father, her love for them, that drags everyone to Camazotz before Mrs. Which thinks they are ready, and that later propels Meg into her final solo confrontation with “The It.” Then, as in the book, Meg realizes that the flawless perfection the enemy promotes is a sham. Unconditional love — the kind that accepts and embraces the Beloved, flaws and all — is what saves both her and her brother.
As an exciting adventure of “Good versus Evil,” both the book and movie succeed. As a celebration of family and a moral exhortation to accept oneself and to treat others with kindness and compassion, again, both book and movie succeed.
But the book’s syncretism and the movie’s heavy-handed secularism succeed only in trivializing the universal struggle against Evil, as if there’s nothing wrong in the world that a few more social reforms, self-help books and scientific breakthroughs won’t cure.
Christians, however, know that secular solutions to spiritual problems ultimately fail. “The It,” the Evil, depicted in A Wrinkle in Time as “the darkest mind in the universe,” is in fact inside each one of us. We call it Original Sin, and for that, there is only one cure.
Clare Walker writes from
Fantasy and science-fiction authors who write from the universal truth of Christ are few, but, naturally, you can’t go wrong with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and the classic tales of King Arthur. I also recommend Catholic authors Michael O’Brien, Christopher Stasheff and John C. Wright, a former atheist and now a convert to Catholicism. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is hailed by Catholic sci-fi fans as that rare book that portrays the Catholic Church with sympathy, and John C. Wright (in this 2017 interview with the Register) recommends A Case of Conscience by James Blish, as well as Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher (for its sympathetic portrayal of a Catholic family man who also happens to be heir to the sword of King Arthur), and the novels of Gene Wolfe.