Monday, March 12, 2018

"A Wrinkle in Time" Minus Shakespeare

I can't say Ava DuVernay's film version of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle's famous children's space-travel novel, is a bad movie, because it isn't. Its plot is engaging, its actors are skilled, and its visual effects only seem lacking to a viewer who cares more about spectacle than story. And not only does DuVernay get some things about the much-loved tale right, she does the original author one better in a couple of particulars.

However, by the end of the film, a true Wrinkle-lover must conclude that DuVernay didn't understand the book. And since all roads lead to Shakespeare (at least, on this blog), I will say that this director's failure coherently to express L'Engle's central theme is tied to her erasure of Shakespeare. Specifically, she cuts the allusions to Shakespeare's Tempest with which, in the last third of her book, L'Engle clarified her heroes' dilemma.

But let's start with the praise. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Although the film has received some criticism for clunky special effects, it is in fact lovely to watch, full of color not only in its alien-planet scenes -- which feature, among other things, a green
landscape peopled by talking flowers, and a kaleidoscopic beach panorama -- but also in the scenes displaying Earth. Main characters Calvin O'Keefe and  Meg and Charles Wallace Murry's California neighborhood of mysterious old bungalows and high palm trees, and the Murrys' backyard full of green plants and flowering bougainvillea, shows the ordinary world as a place of vibrant disorder within the civil confines of family and town. It's a world that matches her visitor Mrs. Whatsit's description of the Shakespearean sonnet, an insight shared in the book, though not in the movie. The sonnet, a "strict form" within which "the poet has complete freedom to say what he wants," is Whatsit's metaphor for a human life. "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself." These lines, admittedly, work better as text than as dialogue, and yet a similar point is made by some of DuVernay's images, including Meg's curly, untamed, yet beautifully face-framing Afro. She hates her hair, but it catches the eye of her schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller), who praises it twice. DuVernay's redirection of Calvin's compliments from Meg's eyes (as in the book) to her hair is a good choice.

In the book, key characters Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are angels sent by God to the troubled Murrys (Calvin figures this out), and the three Ws amuse themselves by shape-changing into figures who look something like the Witches from Macbeth. DuVernay's script retains their one Macbeth line ("When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?"), but transforms the Ws into radiantly clad and exotically coiffed beauties, sporting ever-changing hair, makeup, and clothing styles that range from Hunger Games chic to what looks like the finery of a classical Balinese dancer. We can't regret this choice, since it's fun to watch Mindy Kaling (Mrs. Who), Reese Witherspoon (Mrs. Whatsit), and the incomparable Oprah (Mrs. Which) strut their stuff and hear them bicker as they guide the human travelers from planet to planet. "At last, a little color," Oprah exults, as they move from an ashy volcanic planet's dull exterior into its fiery red caves. With this line DuVernay slyly alludes to her own choice to cast actors of color in a film based on a book about white kids, since there's no reason not to, and plenty of reason to. But Oprah's -- sorry, Mrs. Which's -- line also sums up the director's intent to supply a riot of color in every detail of most of the film's frames, from flowering landscapes and yards to green lipstick and flaming orange hair.

Not that DuVernay's accomplishments are only visual. In A Wrinkle in Time, three children are brought by three angels to confront a malevolent force called "It" which is infecting the universe, and which has long cast its shadow on Earth. In both the book and the film, "It"s power is presented primarily as a demand for utter conformity, seen in a conquered planet named Camazotz whereon children must all bounce their balls simultaneously, and where everyone moves robotically in obedience to a sinister governing power. "It" will not tolerate independence or creativity. That's not its chief evil, however. "It" also makes people selfish and uncharitable. L'Engle's book contains one episode where "It"s effects on Meg are registered in her angry, childish impatience with Calvin and her father, who have escaped from "It"s clutches, intending to return for Charles Wallace once they figure out how. She accuses both of them of being screw-ups. DuVernay omits this scene, but includes a more powerful one in which the children are shown the effects of "It" on their own world at home. They see a vision of some of their teachers' jealous reactions to a deserving fellow's promotion, a mean-girl student's private struggles with anorexia, and Calvin's own sufferings at the hands of an abusive father. These scenes bring home the soul-killing nature of "It" with an immediacy and familiarity that L'Engle only fleetingly achieves.

But now for what's missing. In the book, the children eventually discover what "It" actually is: a human brain. DuVernay comes close to revealing "It"s true nature in a scene where Meg (Storm Reid) follows her "It"-controlled brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) into some dark scaffolding which resembles a brain's synaptic structure. But when the place is identified as "the most evil brain in the universe," we know L'Engle's point has been missed. The novel's "It" is not an especially evil brain. It's a regular human brain, functioning without a heart. "Heart" must here be understood metaphorically, to mean something that isn't physical at all, but a spiritual love that penetrates the physical world. "The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing," is the quotation from Pascal with which L'Engle's Mrs. Who first greets Meg (a line changed by DuVernay into Kahlil Gibran's less relevant "A life without love is like a tree without branches"). The omitted line helped foreshadow the book's later revelation that without "heart," the people of Camazotz, slaves to a reasoning efficiency, were only robots. Each was a mere machine, like the brain itself: a biological entity, an "it" rather than what Martin Buber calls a "thou." How, then, does Meg conquer the "It," the brain, the soulless machine? By using the force "It" doesn't have: love. "I love you, Charles Wallace!," she shouts, again and again, until "It"s spell is broken.

I cannot imagine what DuVernay was thinking when she changed Meg's "I love you!" to "You love me, Charles Wallace!," and, worse yet, to "I deserve to be loved!" Or maybe I can. At this moment, with sad predictability, the filmed story shrinks from a profound comment on flawed humanity's need for a love beyond itself, into the popular argument that girls need to cultivate more self-esteem. (Not that yelling "I deserve to be loved!" has ever helped anyone's self-esteem.) In the film, after Charles Wallace's rescue, the three angels -- who, to be clear, aren't angels to DuVernay, and what they are we do not know -- these three Ws congratulate Meg for joining a pantheon of "It"-fighting warriors that includes Einstein, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Their list is devoid of religious figures like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, or Christ, who is the first one mentioned in L'Engle's book. I'm tempted to attribute these figures' exclusion to the fact that their argument to the world was not "I deserve to be loved," but "We should love." However, that would be unfair to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who said similar things. In the end, why the movie-Meg's name belongs with any of these others is a puzzle. In the book, however, it's not. There Meg, like all of them, has faced down evil by loving her enemy -- for Charles Wallace, while he's the mouthpiece of "It," is her enemy. She has used the moment for something grander than a proclamation of her own worthiness.

The moral confusion DuVernay introduces into this, the film's climactic scene, is disappointing. But how is it anti-Shakespearean? You shall read. There was more Shakespeare in L'Engle's book than the three Whiches/Witches, and the Murrys' dog Fortinbras, whom DuVernay also axed. I mean omitted. In L'Engle, the three children travel to Camazotz to rescue Meg's scientist father, who came there by curious means and is now trapped in a glass column that L'Engle explicitly compares to the tree in which the witch Sycorax confined the spirit Ariel, in Shakespeare's Tempest. Mr. Murry is being jailed because, like Ariel, he would not perform the "earthy and abhorr'd commands" of L'Engle's Sycorax, who is "It." The unhearted brain is "earthy" in that it is a purely material thing. Meg's father, who, as a human, is a spirit within a body, refuses to surrender to its loveless dominance. Charles Wallace comes under "It'"s sway, and is then also compared to Ariel trapped within the tree. Meg's love releases them both. Her love is not (or not only) natural, but supernatural, delivered to her through the help of the angels. Mrs. Whatsit, who, in the film, is unaccountably hostile to Meg, in the book gives her "my love, always," and the memory of Whatsit's gift reveals to Meg her power over "It." It is not belief in herself that empowers her, but belief in something larger than herself. In fact, in the book, Charles Wallace's fatal weakness is that he "trust[s] too much to his own strength." Such self-reliance, which is folly in L'Engle's Charles Wallace, appears as wisdom in DuVernay's Meg, who defeats "It" by trusting herself. In the book, it's not as simple as that. There Meg's power requires her to put aside her pride and trust others to guide her.

And so to Prospero. In The Tempest, Prospero loves Ariel and Sycorax doesn't. That's how he can liberate Ariel from the tree, and, ultimately, how he can bring himself to release Ariel from service to himself, Prospero. Yet Prospero, like L'Engle's Meg, can't do anything by himself, as a natural man. A soul may be free, like the words of a sonnet, but the body and its passions are slaves to form, or to nature. Put another way, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. That's why Prospero needs Ariel, a spirit whose name means "Lion of God," to help him forgive his island enemies, when logic would lead him to kill them (since at least two of them show every indication that they're just as malicious as ever). Prospero is like Meg's father, who, though a scientific genius, ends up saying, in L'Engle's book, "We know nothing . . . . We're children, playing with dynamite . . . . I'm a human being, and a very fallible one." Prospero the wizard likewise comes to the end of what knowledge can do for him, discards all his books, and throws himself on the mercy of his audience, saying, "my ending is despair / Unless I be reliev'd by prayer." Shakespeare's final word -- for this was his last play, and he, in a sense, was Prospero -- was not a statement of triumph, but a plea for mercy.

I don't think this is what DuVernay's film is about. I don't even think Madeline L'Engle made her heroes stupid and clumsy and fallible enough for her own message. After all, L'Engle's Meg, though physically unattractive and a bad student (no "top student" as in the film), is shown to be a secret math whiz who fails tests only because she takes forbidden shortcuts learned from her father. In addition, L'Engle's Charles Wallace, though called a "moron" by mean kids at school, is at home a truly insufferable prodigy who speaks in the starched terms of an especially prissy adult. ("Lettuce on your sandwich, Mother?" "I shall be very angry.") The film's Charles Wallace is an improvement on him, to be sure. Even Meg's plainness in the book is apologized for. It's made clear that she's an ugly duckling who'll one day grow into a stunner/swan, like her now-gorgeous mother, who "looked awful" at Meg's age. But why should Meg need to become a beauty? What's wrong with her looking like she looks? What of the moral that looks, like brain without heart, are an "earthy" thing, and love doesn't give a fig for them?

Maybe someday authors and filmmakers will catch up to their own message, and write books and films in which the heroes aren't intellectual superstars. And maybe directors will one day cast "nerd" teenage actors who aren't models wearing glasses. How about average kids with zits and a few pounds to spare? Hollywood isn't there yet. Shakespeare got there, though. He created Caliban, the ugly dreamer who is capable (whatever Prospero thinks) of grace, and Twelfth Night's Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who, though silly and foolish, is a good-hearted guy who "was adored once, too," and Much Ado about Nothing's Dogberry, a pompous ass with pathos. I could go on, but to do so would take me far from the subject of A Wrinkle in Time. Which is not a bad movie, like I said. Go see it. Just don't expect to find L'Engle's book on the screen.

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