Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Politics of: A Wrinkle In Time

Someone told The Omnivore he should do more movie reviews--and The Omnivore is nothing if not conscientious! A Wrinkle In Time is now available on Pay Per View--and The Omnivore paid! How was it? What did it mean? The first part is a general review. The second part contains spoilers.

A Wrinkled Time

The book A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle is both beloved and complex for a book of its era and audience. When The Omnivore heard it was getting the deluxe treatment, The Omnivore was interested! The Omnivore counts himself as one of the story's fans--and, if it was done right, it could be an amazing--and sometimes chilling--family classic.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The movie clocks in below Disney's attempt at Tomorrow Land--a movie with a very, very good idea, some very good actors, and a construction that, in the end, was equal parts unsatisfying and overwrought. Tomorrow Land had no book it was based on to disappoint and had some very good sequences--but saddled with a book that is a classic and a lack of sequences that commanded attention--Wrinkle falls short of even that.

The kid performances are alright--but the shocking standout is Levi Miller playing, of all people Calvin. In the book Calvin is an important character--but he is secondary in importance to Meg, Charles Wallace, and perhaps even the Mrs's. Here, given a nearly impossible script, he is the actor who comes off the most comfortable with the role. Still, if he's the high point, the story itself is the low point. Wrinkle was never going to be easy to adapt as a great deal of it takes place in either dialog or inside Meg's head--also, it is surprisingly dense in a tell-don't-show fashion (and puts the lie to truck-loads of writing advice that goes the other way).

Still, for all the difficulties, the team has done a remarkably poor job of it. Without going into spoilers (next section), it is fair to say that the team did a "workman-like" job--they put in back-story that wasn't in the book. They cut a bunch of stuff out with the literary equivalent of a hatchet (the twins? Gone!). They made sure that parts of it looked right--but the results were more like false advertising than adherence to the material. It didn't have to be this way--but in the end, Wrinkle is more than just a disappointment or a missed opportunity--it's actively working against what made the book a classic.

The movie is good to look at and would be a decent outing if it weren't taking material that was, frankly, more deserving of the Lord of the Rings treatment (or, at least, The Hunger Games treatment) and giving it the ABC After School Special. Let's look at how they blew it.

The (Politics and Design) of A Wrinkle In Time

The Omnivore is frankly more interested in the design of the plot--but this is a political blog--so we'll do the politics first. What was done to Wrinkle was, precisely, what conservatives complain about in Hollywood film-making. To wit--

  • The deeply Christian nature of the books is utterly removed. As with Narnia, the religion inherent in Wrinkle was not hit-you-over-the-head. It could have been left in without breaking anything or preaching. It wasn't though. Why? We don't know--aesthetic choices of the filmmakers? The movie is poorer for it--the heart of the story is removed and replaced with glurge.
  • The casting of Oprah was greeted with groans from conservatives--if she were to run against Trump in 2020, it was considered that, at the time, she might be a threat. It doesn't look like she wants to--and Wrinkle isn't a launch vehicle for her anyway--but the idea that a potential candidate paired with the right movie (and Wrinkle could have been the right movie--Chelsea gave it a shout-out at the convention, remember?) would be a dangerous combination. As it is, Oprah does an okay job and, well, that's it. Air ball.
  • Everything is mixed race for "no reason." The Omnivore has no problem with the casting. It was all fine as far as it goes--and there was no problem with mixing things up a bit. However, if you want to take the conservative opinion on this, asking why it was done leaves only one real answer--because it was hip? Meg doesn't get any racial stuff added--which is good--but she also doesn't get any particular difference in perspective for being black. In short, it's diversity in casting for diversity's sake. Again, The Omnivore doesn't mind this--but it's more than a little glaring.
Let's talk about the design.

As The Omnivore said up top, Wrinkle had a bunch of problems that, say, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (or The Golden Compass--much less The Hunger Games) did not. These were:
  • Very, very little action. There is almost no action in the book. It's all cerebral and the sense of threat is ambient--but not direct (they don't get chased down or anything).
  • The plot meanders a good bit: they meet the Mrs.'s. They go to paradise-planet. They go visit the Happy Medium (argh), THEN they go to Camazots--where things take off. In the book, the payoff for Camazots works. In the movie, they have about 1hr to get there and there's a ton of stuff that has to be stuffed into that hour. That was going to be a problem no matter how they did that. Comparatively, a bunch of other family classics have more cinematic pacing.
  • It's All In Her Head. The Tell-Don't-Show stuff is hard and heavy in Wrinkle. It opens with a Dark and Stormy Night--and then Meg's inner narrative info-dumps her family with the twins, her trouble with school, Charles Wallace's psychic powers, Mom's inner strength, dad's disappearance, and some foreshadowing for Mrs. Whatist (who shows up quickly then). 
To get around this, the movie introduces mean-girls in school so we can see her get made fun of. It chops the twins out, killing off the twin-centric potential sequels. It gives us some dad-vanished visions and . . . removes Charles Wallace's psychic abilities (kind of--they're still  . . . kind of there--but in the book he can like scan people).

This leaves the opening weak and Meg a little unlikable. When Whatsit shows up, it's out of nowhere. On the screen she falls flat.

The second problem is that the soggy middle of A Wrinkle In Time (the first Tesser, Uriel, and the Happy Medium) are needed to set up what the kids are going to do: venture into the heart-of-darkness to get their dad back--the angles can't go themselves). 

Again: this was never going to be that easy--in the book the kids get to Uriel, get told they're now conscripts in the Warriors-For-Light league--visit the awful pun so they can see the enemy (The Darkness), and the off to Camazots. It's short, info-dumpy, and while the text plays really well off the build up (we are given to think that the Mrs's might be dottering old fools at first--and then, well, something cool, and finally literal angels)--and the vision of a star sacrificing its light to fight The Darkness is powerful--the movie has none of that.

Instead it: has an extended Uriel scene where the kids fly around on the back of Mrs. Whatsit in dragon form, introduces Camazots a literal dark cloud that comes out of the sky (for no reason)--and is described as THE GREAT EVIL IN ALL THE UNIVERSE. In the books, Darkness was the evil. Camazots was just one element. In the movie, IT is responsible for all suffering on earth. This was unnecessary and kind of stupid.

The Happy Medium scene doesn't explain to the kids what's going on--instead it becomes a "use your love for dad to find him"--and then everyone is shocked--SHOCKED--when he's on Camazots. The Happy Medium scene is also extended, played for laughs, and gender swapped. It wasn't an especially good part of the book and it's an even weaker part of the movie.

Then, instead of just going to Camazots, the Mrs' decide the mission is too dangerous for the kids and tessers them home--except Meg's love for dad takes over the angel's teleportation and zips them to Camazots instead. Oops.

The wish to have the Mrs.'s be "responsible adults" makes sense in a modern movie--would you send kids into 1984 to rescue someone from Room 101? No. But in the book there is a fairy-tale like quality that this harms. They should've stuck to the text here--it turned out the kids were (in the book) pretty well suited to rescuing dad--especially with a high-level esper (Wallace) on their side. Maybe give Calvin a 9mm or something?

Unfortunately, Camazots is replaced with a holodeck. The kids are moving through not a real-world--but some kind of VR. This is interesting to look at--but it lacks authority. The man with the red eyes is modestly well done--but in the end what we get is a bunch of VR stuff for no good reason, then Meg finds dad (with the glasses she got from the angels, as in the book--mostly) and . . . this sets up the one action scene that was IN the books--they try to rescue Charles Wallace from IT--can't--and have to have dad tesser out--which he doesn't do well.

Meg is blinded and they run into "Mother Beast"--some really cool aliens that care for them until Meg can go back and take Wallace away from IT.

This would be great--except by this time, the movie has about 20 minutes left and so it has dad teleport out, Meg stay behind, and use the POWER of LOVE to not just rescue Charles Wallace (from inside a big, dark, neural-net--the black brain on a dais is, alas, gone) but actually kill It.


Yeah. She kills it. So now earth is kinda saved. Go Meg.

Needless to say, this cheapens the Universal Evil, the book's interesting conceit that these are kids--they can rescue dad--but they aren't going to go nova and fight darkness like the stars did--and, well, everything else. It's a "Feel Good" ending for a movie that didn't need or want it.


A good movie of A Wrinkle In Time is yet to be made. The translation from page to film needs a LOT more work than this team gave it. Once they fumbled that, it was all over. Maybe HBO or someone can do a miniseries?

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