Magazine April 16, 2018, Issue

Bland Diversity

Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time (Disney Enterprises, Inc. )

The glossy new adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, reimagined as a costly star-studded multicultural showcase with the Christianity drained away and Southern California swapped in for New England, is terrible. I mean, it’s really, really bad. The special effects, the script, the acting, Oprah — nothing works the way it’s intended, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what was intended at all.

The plot follows the book relatively closely: The middle-school-aged Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is the bespectacled daughter of a missing scientist (Chris Pine) who studied “tessering” — basically, instant interstellar travel — before he vanished. She has a genius-weirdo younger brother named Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), a miserable life at school, and a mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, lovely and wasted) who still wants to believe their dad is coming back.

But in fact it’s Meg and Charles Wallace who end up going off to find him, assisted by three semi-angelic beings who manifest as the exotically dressed Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which (played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Her Oprahness) and joined by Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), a cool kid from Meg’s school who finds himself drawn to her strange family and her prickly self. Their quest takes them to a couple of exotic planets and thence to their ultimate destination, the darkened world of Camazotz, where the Murry paterfamilias is in the grip of a malign intelligence, a literal giant brain that desires to assimilate Charles Wallace, especially, into its Borg-like totalitarianism.

All this story, strangely riveting on the page, has been transmuted by Ava DuVernay’s movie into something that’s still strange but mostly dull, with a patter of O magazine clichés overlaying a plot studded with dead-end CGI scenes. But if the movie is tedious as art or entertainment, it’s still quite interesting as a cultural artifact — in three ways.

First, it offers a depressing case study in why Hollywood relies too heavily on the same formula, the same narrative structure, the same pre-sold, instantly recognizable franchise characters, for all its big, expensive, effects-laden movies. A story like A Wrinkle in Time is not remotely like a superhero movie where everyone comes in knowing what to expect: It has to establish its own weird, distinctive mythos, to rope viewers into its quest narrative, and then to figure out how to adapt a climax that’s a psychological battle for your family rather than a battle royale to save the universe.

That’s a hard test for any filmmaker, and especially a filmmaker such as DuVernay, who has been asked to do her first blockbuster in a promising career that peaked, so far, with 2014’s Selma. The whole Marvel narrative machine exists to make it easy for talented young directors to slot right in to a big-budget production; with a weirder, more challenging story, the leap is harder, the risk greater — and the chances of a real flop like this one go way up. So for those of us who want Hollywood to make mass-market movies that are more original and challenging, A Wrinkle in Time is an object lesson in why the system has evolved the way it has: It’s far easier to fail by attempting originality than by pushing all your money into doing the same old, same old thing.

Second, what the movie does with the source material’s religious themes is a fascinating distillation of America’s religious evolution in the 50-odd years since the novel appeared. L’Engle was a theologically serious liberal-leaning Christian, which put her close to the country’s religious and cultural center in the early 1960s; A Wrinkle in Time was criticized by more conservative Christians for its syncretistic touches, particularly a line that puts Einstein and the Buddha alongside Jesus in a list of warriors for the light.

In DuVernay’s adaptation, that line is still there — but now Jesus isn’t on the list at all, having been replaced by Gandhi even as the novel’s Biblical quotations and allusions have been replaced by quotations from Rumi and Kahlil Gibran and allusions to the gospel according to Saint Oprah. The novel’s liberal Christianity, in other words, once controversial for its lack of perfect orthodoxy, is now controversial for its Christianity — so much so that it felt perfectly natural for an adaptation aimed at the present-day mainstream to transplant in “spiritual but not religious” doctrines instead.

Finally, A Wrinkle in Time is interesting as an object lesson in how making a story more multicultural doesn’t always serve the cause of portraying real diversity — the diversity not just of color but of class and attitude and type.

The movie’s publicity campaign has leaned hard on the fact that this is a female African-American director remaking a classic WASPy novel with multiracial characters, seeking the same multicultural cachet that lately propelled Black Panther to success. But what’s striking about the result, as Alyssa Rosenberg and Christine Emba of the Washington Post noted in a conversation on the film, is how blandly upper middle class the multiracial SoCal setting turns out to be, and how many interestingly complexifying details from the novel — Calvin’s large shanty-Irish family, and the fact that he never has enough to eat; Meg and Charles Wallace’s older twin brothers, whose normalcy and lack of genius make for a contrast within the Murry family — are simply written out.

Meanwhile, the Oprah/Reese/Mindy troika, whose characters in the novel dress like homeless people, appear as beautiful demi-goddesses throughout — as though the filmmakers didn’t want their diversitopia to appear anything except gorgeous and immaculate, an impulse of the kind that does not serve art.

I can easily imagine a world in which the crusade for diversity in Hollywood, for more female power and minority representation, ends up enriching mainstream cinema with a richer array of human stories. But A Wrinkle in Time shows the other possibility: a world in which stories become more multiracial mostly as a way for Hollywood to feel better about the fact that everything else about its movies has become more hackneyed, lame, and flat.

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