Film

The Strange and Artful Worlds of A Wrinkle in Time

Ava DuVernay’s sci-fi blockbuster follows its characters from a verdant world right out of a Hudson River School painting to a glowing space worthy of James Turrell.

A scene in <em>A Wrinkle in Time</em> set in Camazotz (all images courtesy and © Disney)
A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Camazotz (all images courtesy and © Disney)

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time centers around a group of children traveling between times and wondrous worlds. Teenager Meg Murray, her young brother Charles Wallace, friend Calvin O’Keefe, and three divine beings — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which — jump through space and time (or “tesser”) in search of Meg’s missing father. In helming the movie adaption of this science-fiction classic, Ava DuVernay made history as the first woman of color to direct a $100-million film. She also made bold strokes by selecting a diverse and predominantly female cast. The movie falls firmly within the female-lead sci-fi genre, alongside Hunger Games and Twilight and, as an unabashed “love letter” to black teenage girls, it earnestly delivers a message of empowerment and self-acceptance.

A Wrinkle in Time is also remarkable for DuVernay’s singular vision of the fantastical worlds through which the characters travel. Some locales are rendered similarly onscreen to the book’s descriptions, while others veer far from the source material. This is to be expected when adapting a story from one medium to another, and especially when updating a 1962 novel for 2018 audiences. Yet the instances when the settings’ cinematic renderings do deviate from L’Engle’s descriptions have a profound impact on character development and the story’s overall themes.

(Warning: The following contains spoilers.)

Uriel

A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Uriel
A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Uriel

Of all the worlds in A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay’s visualization of Uriel sticks closest to the original source in both aesthetics and spirit. Uriel is the group’s first stop after leaving Earth, and in the book, it is described as a paradise: Everything is golden with light. The green grasses are scattered with tiny, multicolored flowers. Enormous rock monoliths tower into puffy clouds, while below flows a broad, sparkling river.

On screen, we are treated to a sun-drenched landscape straight out of a Hudson River School painting, with an untamed wilderness of verdant mountains and crystalline waters. As the camera pans across this sublime scene, we can almost smell the fragrant air. A pastoral setting full of brightness and saturated colors, DuVernay’s Uriel indeed captivates us with the same “ineffable peace and joy” that embraces the characters on the page and on the screen.

Orion’s Belt

A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Orion's Belt
A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Orion’s Belt

The protagonists’ second stop on their journey is a planet in Orion’s Belt, home to a seer named the Happy Medium. Here, DuVernay puts her own stamp on L’Engle’s world. She veers from the novel’s description of an unremarkable and flat landscape devoid of vegetation whose most notable feature is that it is gray, both outside the Happy Medium’s cave and within its walls. Only a fire inside the cave offers dynamic color and light.

In the movie, Orion’s Belt conjures the dark and mysterious ambience of Gothic architecture or Romantic landscape paintings. The planet’s rocky landscape is shrouded in more than just mist. Much like the setting, the characters arrive here full of fear of the unknown. Inside the Happy Medium’s rock cave, amber-colored crystals and minerals jut out of the walls to provide unstable supports and walkways. Such a luminous interior undercuts the fundamental message that L’Engle sought to articulate in this section. By definition, a “happy medium” is the middle ground between two extremes. The color gray is the middle ground between black and white. And for our hero, Meg Murray, this middle ground is precisely what she should be seeking in order to be content. Instead, the call for a middle ground is jarringly juxtaposed with an extreme visual setting.

A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Orion's Belt
A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Orion’s Belt

The character of the Happy Medium is also supposed to embody this balance of emotions; in the book, she maintains her emotional equilibrium by striving to think about only pleasant things. However, in the movie, the Happy Medium’s emotions are erratic and volatile, offering comic relief in an otherwise earnest sci-fi adventure — but not much else.

Camazotz

The lion’s share of both the book and the movie take place in Camazotz, an Earth-like planet that has succumbed to the evil of the Black Thing. We learn in the book that the people of Camazotz have relinquished their free will to an entity called IT (the movie does not clearly explain this). IT controls their thoughts and actions. In essence, Camazotz represents a possible dystopian future version for Earth, and it is this future that the characters end up fighting to prevent.

The Town

A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Camazotz
A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Camazotz

After leaving the three Mrs., the children enter a suburban housing development in Camazotz, and it is here that DuVernay makes what I find to be a misstep — by actually staying true to the novel. On evenly-spaced plots of land stand cookie-cutter houses; in front of the houses, children are bouncing balls. In the book, Meg remarks that, at first glance, this looks like “any housing development at home.” Yet there is something strange about this scene: the people in this town are doing everything in perfectly synchronized rhythm.

The movie succeeds in portraying this uncanny synchronicity: the balls hit the pavement at the same time; the doors of the houses open simultaneously; out come similarly-dressed mothers “like a row of paper dolls”; they clap together, call in their children, and return inside their homes all at the same time. The scene depicts a cul-de-sac of buttery-yellow houses standing before a backdrop of a saturated, gradient sky right out of a Joel Meyerowitz photograph from the 1960s or ‘70s. Lawns and trees punctuate the street in a pattern of vivid green.

DuVernay’s version of this scene unnecessarily creates a layer of strangeness that did not exist in the book. Recall how this housing development is familiar to Meg; in the book, Meg is a child during the early 1960s, when the book was published. At that time, construction of such housing developments was booming, contributing to the expansion of suburban America. From book-Meg’s perspective, such cookie-cutter houses are not strange, nor are the women clothed in their aproned tea dresses, which were fashionable then as well. What she does find strange is the synchronicity of the people’s behaviors. However, to movie-Meg, a 21st-century child, the odd and retro packaging of this scene distracts her, and the viewer, from what’s truly at stake: the threat to free will.

CENTRAL Central Intelligence

A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Camazotz
A scene in A Wrinkle in Time set in Camazotz

The administrative hub of Camazotz is called CENTRAL Central Intelligence; it is also where Meg’s father is being held prisoner. What is perhaps the emotional crux of the story is also the coolest and slickest scene in the entire movie. When Meg finds her father, he is imprisoned in a James Turrell-type light space. Silhouetted against illusory shades of orange light, Mr. Murray’s darkened form approaches Meg, herself silhouetted against a similar backdrop of pink light. Their bodies and their hearts eventually meet where the two colors join. Although this scene veers very far from the book, DuVernay succeeds in heightening the emotional impact of the father-daughter reunion with pulsing colors.

And perhaps this climactic scene gets at the ultimate advantage of movies over books: the visual potential of the film medium to tell a compelling story is poised for exploitation in the right hands. Although she achieves mixed results, DuVernay’s eclectic world-building in A Wrinkle in Time broadcasts her bold strokes as a visionary filmmaker.

A Wrinkle in Time is now in wide release.

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