S&S Reviews: A Wrinkle in Time (2018) Partial Spoilers
In 2018, Disney released A Wrinkle in Time to theatres everywhere. Now, it’s on Netflix for screens everywhere.
This film is based upon a children’s book that I greatly enjoyed.
Yep! That book is A Wrinkle in Time.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote it in 1962 and it’s now a classic having won the Newbery Medal, perhaps the most coveted award for a children’s book. Though written with children in mind, this is not a childish book. It’s one of the most striking things about the novel. L’Engle has the remarkable gift to write simply about mature and important ideas. A very, very difficult thing to do. C.S. Lewis did it. J.K. Rowling can do it. And I’ll gladly place L’Engle among these writers.
>> WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
So, what’s the story about? Watch out! Here are some spoilers.
The story is about three children. Two siblings -- Meg Murry and Charles Wallace -- and a friend, Calvin O’Keefe. Meg and Charles’ father is a brilliant physicist who disappeared a number of years ago after he discovered the tesseract--a way to travel through time. One night, three mysterious beings visit the children and beckon them to rescue the father from a force so evil it threatens the entire universe.
The movie generally follows the plot of the novel.
>> WHERE TO FIND IT?
You can find A Wrinkle in Time on Netflix right now, or in Redbox for $1.75 (x 3! If you always forget to return the DVD like I do...Redbox, you’re ruthlessly brilliant.)
>>THE STAGE & STORY PERSPECTIVE
Despite the negative reviews, I wanted to give the film a chance, because of the source material. And I also noticed that Netflix is saying the film is “Trending Now”...which means some of you may be watching it.
>COMMENTARY ON CRAFT
I enjoyed some of the film. Moments between Meg and her father (Chris Pine) are touching, and the young man (Levi Miller) who plays Calvin is a fine actor. The weakest acting in the film goes to Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. However, I’m not convinced that it’s all their fault. Much of the dialogue is awkward and sets them up for a poor performance. The story kept my attention when it followed L’Engle’s novel, but lost me when it went its own way. More on this way later.
Personally, I think, for the most part, that the heavy CGI in the film was a hindrance to the story. Reportedly, the film had a large budget, about 100 million! This is a good example of the principle that more money doesn’t necessarily make a better film. A former imagineer for Disney once shared with me that he’d rather have a budget of $50 than thousands (or something like that). His point was that often a small budget forces you to think creatively (honing in on what is most important) and a large one can make you lazy and distracted.
The power of L’Engle’s novel was that her unusual gift with language harnessed your imagination to bring you to these other worlds and introduce you to these funny and delightful characters. Her descriptions in the novel are robust and eloquent, while many of the movie’s visuals feel contrived and awkward. The screenplay felt like a big departure from L’Engle’s work, even though it did follow her plot pretty closely. One other big difference is that the villain, IT, in L’Engle’s novel is terrifying, but in the movie it’s not, reducing the tension and conflict from the beginning.
>COMMENTARY ON WORLDVIEW
My main concern with the film is the worldview the filmmakers import into this children’s movie. This worldview is foreign to L’Engle’s original work, and I know this because L’Engle’s view of the world is anything but subtle.
Christians are often criticized about making movies that are “too preachy,” and yes sometimes Christian films can feel this way, but Hollywood is well-practiced in preaching too. But, not many people see the preacher in the pulpit on the screen. Why? Here are some guesses.
Some Hollywood films do have subtle messages that seem to naturally rise to the top through the characters. But other films are not subtle and yet we still don’t recognize the message. This may be because we’re so used to the particular messages in the film they no longer seem like “messages” or “sermons” anymore; they morph into assumptions we already hold, which usually live subconsciously.
Brian Godawa, an award-winning screenwriter, novelist, and Stage & Story board member, helped me see this principle in his excellent book, Hollywood Worldviews. In the work, Godawa walks through a number of worldviews and then shows clear examples of films that espouse the particular worldviews. Can you remember a time when you heard the slogan, “Follow your heart,” or “Just believe in yourself” in a film? I can think of many! Godawa shows how those ideas represent and actually connect with a view of the world. Until reading Godawa’s book, I had no idea those messages were so deeply entwined within the movies.
>WHAT MAKES A “PREACHY” STORY
There are a number of reasons why a movie may come off as “preachy,” and unfortunately it’s not a simple formula. Here are some factors to consider, not in any particular order.
(1) SPIRIT OF THE TIMES OR RHETORICAL CONTEXT. It is not only the filmmakers that determine whether a film’s message will come off as “heavy-handed.” The audience and current cultural trends play a large role in this too. The views of the world that are currently unchallenged or rapidly growing in momentum or are “sexy” (for a lack of a better word) will generally strike the audience as either persuasive or not a big deal, and definitely not “preachy” or “controversial.”
Just think for a moment about what causes or movements people are rallying around as I write this entry -- LGBTQ+ rights, #metoo issues, female empowerment, social justice, and environmentalism, and anti-Trumpism...to name a few. If a filmmaker incorporates messages connected with these movements, he will be like a surfer riding a wave moving toward the shore. And you can probably guess which issues or ideas are currently deemed as “outdated” and “ignorant” and "hateful." Trying to incorporate these issues or ideas into a film are like trying to paddle against the oncoming waves. And when a film is doing this, a message will strike an audience as “heavy-handed.”
(2) QUALITY OF THE CRAFT. Sometimes a message is perceived as “preachy” because the writing is lacking. Generally, though not always, it’s a bad plan to start writing a story with the idea or message as the priority. In other words, you set out wanting to make a movie about an idea or message, so you wrap it neatly around a plot and characters. For the most part, audiences will know that’s exactly what you’ve done and they will be displeased that you’ve made them sit through a sermon.
(3) THE SORKIN EFFECT. Some stories are unabashedly heavy-handed in their perspective on the world, but are equally met with a high level of craft. In my opinion, Aaron Sorkin is one of the most gifted writers of dialogue in television and film today, and an example of this phenomenon.
He is the writer behind shows like The West Wing and The Newsroom and movies such as A Few Good Men and The Social Network. He’s known for his intelligent, witty, fast-paced dialogue, as well as his long monologues that he gives his lead characters. Sorkin is very liberal and opposed to Christianity. And he doesn’t really try to hide this in his works, especially The West Wing and The Newsroom. But, here’s the irony...I’m very conservative and a committed Christian and yet I, generally, will try to see just about anything he writes because he’s so good at his craft. When I watch his shows, I know that he’s preaching his liberal views at me, and I usually vehemently disagree with him, but I still watch them.
During a number of episodes of The West Wing, Sorkin will have characters quote extensive sections of Scripture...just about always out of context. (See my article on how films can engage with Christian ideas only to subvert them!) I will pause the show and talk with my wife about Sorkin's faulty interpretation and application of Scripture. My wife and doggy listen patiently. When I finish, I take a deep breath and then continue watching. And yet, Sorkin's a master at making interesting, human characters that I still can relate to. And at times, on The West Wing, he will write in some articulate, well-meaning, and intelligent "enemies" (Republicans) to play a roll in the administration. The main characters (just about always liberal Democrats) usually come around to respecting them. And since when Sorkin writes in an "enemy," this enemy usually encapsulates my own conservative worldview, I appreciate Sorkin's attempt at civility.
Unfortunately, I don’t know many “preachy” writers who can write with such style and engagement as Sorkin.
(4) THE BIAS MYTH. Finally, it’s a myth to think that any film or show is without bias. Every filmmaker has a perspective (e.g. bias) on the world, and every film or show absorbs that perspective, though in some cases it is more evident than others.
Some critiques against Christian films are terribly unfair when a critic will dismiss the film because it is “biased.” Duh! Every film or show has bias. Sometimes the critic says it’s biased because he doesn’t like the worldview. And that’s his right as a critic. But it’s not honest to deduct points from a film because it is “biased,” as if there was such a thing as a film that was “neutral.” You can like a film for its craft and not like it for its message. That’s how I feel about Sorkin’s stories. But, it’s time we stop thinking anyone approaches the world as a “neutral” observer without a set of experiences and beliefs. Reality just doesn’t work that way.
>A MAIN REASON WHY I DON’T LIKE THE MOVIE
To return to Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, I’ll be forthright with you. I’m not a fan of the filmmakers’ (screenwriter and director) worldview. It’s very clear that they are pushing an eastern spirituality (i.e. New Age worldview). And they don’t try to hide it. Actually, you can divide the movie into two parts. Part one sounds like a primer on New Ageism, as the characters take a great deal of time to "talk" about it. Part two is a working out of part one with a little more action and less talk. The problem is that these filmmakers are not Sorkin. Their bold, unbiblical messages struck me like a cast iron skillet in the face. My bruise is one part boredom and one part frustration.
In the film, the key communicator of this New Age worldview is Mrs. Which (played by Oprah Winfrey), but the other characters are mouthpieces as well. Consider just a few examples.
When one of the children, Meg, cannot tesser (move through time), Mrs. Which tells her, “And you won’t [be able to tesser] until you become one with the universe and yourself.”
At the beginning of the film, Meg’s father is giving a presentation when he asks the audience, “What if we’re not just in the universe, but the universe is within all of us.”
In one scene, a seer/spiritual guru, played well-known comedian Zach Galifianakis, leads the group in an eastern meditation, encouraging them a number of times to “center” themselves.
Though I felt like I sat through a sermon, I don’t think most who watched this film will. Why? Because this type of this New Age philosophy is rampant in many films. Have you ever seen James Cameron’s Avator? In my opinion, it feels like a treaty on eastern spirituality. We’ve become accustomed to this type of spirituality in our movies.
Now, what bothers me even more than this worldview is the decision to gut Madeleine L’Engle’s worldview from the novel. L’Engle was a Christian (an Episcopalian) and didn’t hide that in A Wrinkle in Time or in her other works. She actually utilizes key Scriptural passages in A Wrinkle in Time. And I don’t mean little phrases, but large passages from Isaiah and 1 Corinthians. You can also read her semi-autobiographical work Walking on Water in which she freely reflects on her Christian faith as it affects her writing.
(However, I do want to note that in my research and reading, L’Engle did lean toward more of a progressive, liberal branch of Christianity. For example, she held to Universalism, which states that ultimately God will save all human beings, eliminating the need for hell in the traditional, biblical sense. I think this is very problematic. And yet, this liberal slant didn’t seem to be terribly evident in A Wrinkle in Time.)
The screenwriter of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, Jennifer Lee, is aware of L’Engle’s Christian worldview but decides to pass on incorporating it in the film. In an interview with The Federalist, Lee explains, “In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she [L’Engle] wrote that we have progressed on as a society, and we can move onto the other elements.” I can only assume here that a part of what society has progressed on is L’Engle’s Christian faith, but please read the source of this quote for more context.
But, should this really surprise us? Sadly not. To continue my analogy, the ideological wave in our current times is not Christianity, especially the historic, biblical kind. Lee is savvy, and perhaps she knows that if she were to keep L’Engle’s biblical convictions in A Wrinkle in Time she’d be facing an onslaught of oncoming waves.
Alissa Wilkinson, film critic for Vox, reflects on the filmmaker’s decision to shy from L’Engle’s faith. “Certainly,” writes Wilkinson, “a filmmaker is free to shift the aims of the story to suit her desires. But with a book like Wrinkle, losing some of the specificity of its source material can belie a mistrust in the artist.” Well said. Why not let the audience make what it will of L’Engle’s novel...and her Christian views? It’s one thing if Christianity is slightly evident in the work, but it’s not. Not at all.
>NO SEX OR LANGUAGE?!
In conclusion, I don’t recommend Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time for children or adults, and there’s no sex or language or gratuitous violence in this film. It’s only rated PG! And this is an important point to make. I think there’s something far more sinister interwoven into it: a spirituality that has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit! That doesn’t mean everything it espouses is wicked, but this type of pseudo-spirituality is.
Friends, the time for assessing films only by their ratings is over. In the first chapter of Hollywood Worldviews, Brian Godawa makes a powerful case for re-evaluating our understanding of sex, profanity, and violence in films. God uses sex, violence, and profanity in Scripture to make some pretty important points. Context is what really matters. As Christians, we are called to interpret stories in terms of their context, the filmmaker’s intentions, and ultimately Scripture. Now, I’m not saying the floodgates are open...go see all rated R movies, but this is a call for us to think critically about what we’re consuming on the big screen and the small one.
So, save an hour and fifty minutes and put it toward reading L’Engle’s books A Wrinkle in Time and Walking on Water. You’ll find the time a far better investment.
>> WHAT DO OTHERS SAY?
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and the Cast Chaplain at LifeHouse Theater in Redlands, CA.