Tessering in 2018
“I hate being an oddball,” Meg said. “It’s hard on Sandy and Dennys, too. I don’t know if they’re really like everybody else, or if they’re just able to pretend they are. I try to pretend, but it isn’t any help.”
“You’re much too straightforward to be able to pretend to be what you aren’t,” Mrs. Murry said. “I’m sorry, Meglet. Maybe if Father were here he could help you, but I don’t think I can do anything till you’ve managed to plow through some more time. Then things will be easier for you. But that isn’t much help right now, is it?”
“Maybe if I weren’t so repulsive-looking—maybe if I were pretty like you—”
“Mother’s not a bit pretty; she’s beautiful,” Charles Wallace announced, slicing liverwurst. “Therefore I bet she was awful at your age.”
“How right you are,” Mrs. Murry said. “Just give yourself time, Meg.”
Meg Murry was the awkward, self-doubting, angsty 12-year-old I’d been waiting for. My worn copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time likely still sits on my little sister’s bookshelf—the copy I received was already well-thumbed by my older cousin Ilene, who had handed it over to me with solemnity when I must have been about 9 or 10. This was a special book, an important book, especially for girls who struggled with self-hatred, who found it hard to see their beauty in the face of the oncoming freight train of adolescence. Ilene and I bonded over this, as she shared her hard-fought wisdom: ten years older than I, she had gone through it already when I was just on the cusp. A Wrinkle in Time for me came a few years before my parents covertly left their copy of Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls on the table for me to read, and far before a group of friends discovered themselves in Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child and Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves. Books that tried to make sense of the rage of being female in a world that seems to only love women if they are a certain kind of special—beautiful, effortless, easygoing. Meg Murry is every girl who finds everything in the world extraordinary except for herself—full of the same rage that plagued Roald Dahl’s Matilda and so many others, until it spills out of their bodies into the supernatural. This book, L’Engle’s first in a series on the Murry family, documents Meg’s cautious steps towards seeing herself in the universe and the universe in herself.
It was easy enough to see myself as Meg when I was growing up. While the book was first published in 1962, it wasn’t such a stretch in my imagination to see Meg as living in the 80s or early 90s. This was pre-digital, and we were still enthralled with technologies like the Bunsen Burners on which the Murry’s made their hot cocoa. However, when I think about the language and diction–the children call their mom “Mother”, Calvin uses the term “old sport” like a Gatsby spin-off–the mother I imagined as a Jane-Goodall-type was likely more Marie Curie cum Donna Reed. The Murrys’ parents were misfit scientists and scholars, which jived with my hippie-Jewish upbringing and my father’s own interest in the spiritual dimensions of scientific inquiry—particularly quantum mechanics. On his bookshelves I first found Fritoj Capra’s The Tao of Physics, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters—books that from the 70s to the 90s espoused the mystical of everyday experience and connected personal spiritual quests to fundamental truths of the cosmos. In the early 60s, L’Engle’s work at the cusp of a quest to bring spirituality and science together into one beautiful, universal whole. Our home was a haven for religious pluralism, a worldview L’Engle’s fiction makes room for, despite the fact that her own faith was explicitly Christian, and in the face of the critique that some evangelical Christian groups leveraged against her.
In the recent Disney adaptation of L’Engle’s novel, Ava DuVernay updates the book—she endeavors to “tesser” (L’Engle’s term for traveling through time) Meg and all of the parts of Meg’s life into 2018. In it, DuVernay calls out the idea that the Meg of the book is every girl, and, as she very explicitly set out to do, places a young woman of color in the leading role and lavishes love on her with the lens. In this sense, DuVernay is successful; and young actress Storm Reid’s vulnerability, internality, and guarded openness are perfectly Meg. She is a 2018 Meg, no less, who indirectly faces unprecedented political challenges to her very being. These political challenges were subtly nodded to throughout the film and in DuVernay’s introduction to it at the premiere I was able to attend—the kids attend James Baldwin Middle School, we catch a glimpse of Maya Angelou’s photo on the bulletin board, there’s a glorious quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.” The intertextuality the film weaves brings Meg’s vulnerability and power into sharp focus—and it got more than a few little cheers from the crowd.
The film makes no direct reference to race—but DuVernay’s backstory and framing both make it clear just how important race is to the context of the adaptation. In her opening speech, DuVernay framed this journey as an epic journey—to make sure that every girl could see herself in science fiction. Meg is a girl with a Black mother and a white father; a girl with an adopted, genius of a brother (the Charles Wallace of the book was her biological relation);a girl between childhood and adulthood; a girl whose father was missing; a girl whose familiarity with liminal spaces makes her a perfect candidate for tessering, making the in-between a source of power, as opposed to insecurity. And in this way DuVernay’s update was so very important. While I may have felt a natural affinity for Meg when I first read the book, including her wish that when she grew up she’d lose her mousy brown hair and it’d turn shiny and auburn like her mother’s, this was a story about a white, early-60s family. Beyond some of the details, however, the story itself seems infinitely adaptable, and DuVernay was ready to capitalize on that adaptability. The book was ripe for an update and its audience is ready.
In short, both the film and original novel cover Meg’s search for her physicist father who had disappeared four years prior as he experimented with bending space and time. In their search for their missing father, Meg, her preternaturally gifted 5-year old brother Charles Wallace, and boyfriend-to-be, Calvin O’Keefe, discover that all they need to travel across space and time is the power of their minds. And the power of love, of course—filial, parental, burgeoning romantic, and, ultimately, cosmic.
There were three more books in L’Engle’s Murry family series —A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters (which focuses on Meg and Charles Wallace’s twin 10-year-old brothers Sandy and Dennys, who are notably absent from DuVernay’s version). An Acceptable Time, which some consider to be a fifth book in what has been called the Time series, covers the adventure of Meg and Calvin’s daughter Polly. Like the bildungsroman Anne of Green Gables, the book spans Meg’s early adolescence to the adventures of her own family with Calvin later in life. Both of the Murry parents are scientists. While the first book focuses on her father and his scientific pursuit, her mother becomes more important in the second book in the series, A Wind in the Door, where Meg has to travel into Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, which is a tiny planet in itself, to heal his body… again, mainly through the power of love and self-sacrifice. If only the movie was set up to cover further adventures in Meg’s future; sadly, it did not.
I was privileged enough to be invited to the premiere for the movie at El Capitan in Hollywood. It sparkled with activists from the entertainment industry to the literati—on the staircase after the movie, Tracee Ellis Ross caught up with Lena Waithe, and on my way to the bar at the afterparty, I passed blissfully by Janelle Monae chatting with Roxane Gay. Don Cheadle to my right, Salma Hayek a few rows away, Ellen Pompeo joking sweetly with her daughter in the front row of the balcony. These are the members of the ethereal choir that welcomes DuVernay’s story and Meg herself into the world. That story in my mind is less about A Wrinkle in Time and more about a film lavishing love on a main character who is written to reflect a broader swathe of children watching it.
Here’s the rub: this movie is a narrative mess. I can’t tell you how hard that is for me to say, considering how much I am invested in DuVernay’s goals. While she offered a much-needed update to characters and identities, her reimagining hit some major snags along the way—perhaps because it isn’t easy to render planets made so rich by the relationship between text and imagination, and perhaps because the problems L’Engle tackles were so different from 2018’s brand of problems. It becomes hard to absorb the original plotline and to appreciate the not-so-subtle activist messages that DuVernay planted throughout the movie. What it gains in perfect icons, political symbolism, and a slew of loaded pop-cultural references, it loses in narrative cohesion and character development. And that narrative and the tiny-mundane moments in the Murry house are exactly what we need to connect with the updates. I want to see Meg and her bully struggle for power, beyond just a quick flash. I want to get more about the sweetness of the relationship between Mr. Murry and his kids, not just short scene where he shows her a project he’s working on in the lab.
It would have been great to eliminate the segments that were more explicitly relevant to 1962—a scene where the kids crash onto Camazotz, a planet that is home to “It”, L’Engle’s source of evil in the books, and changes shape based on their fears and desires. At one point the children are hungry and it transforms into a perfect suburban neighborhood complete with ticky-tacky houses in unsettling conformity governed by Stepford-like mothers who offer them dinner. When they smartly refuse, it transforms into a scene where the “man with red eyes”, played by Michael Peña, claims to know where their father is and offers the hungry kids some sandwiches. Beyond the seductive fairy-tale trope, a la the White Witch luring Edmund with Turkish Delight in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, these scenes offered us little and could have been entirely re-written to match DuVernay’s update. The suburbia scene could have easily been replaced with the children’s perfect version of their family, where both Murry parents were home all the time, less invested in their science projects, and ready to serve the children a perfect home-cooked meal. While DuVernay was true to the original, these segments could have used the fresh update that she gave the characters, even if it lost some die-hard fans of the books.
The narrative was a disjointed jumble that used elements of A Wrinkle in Time, but was ultimately not A Wrinkle in Time—in its fragmentation, it lost its context entirely. This context included critiques on the conformity of 1950s suburbia that just didn’t jive with a 2018 plot and a mother who, instead of whimsical and understanding, read as disconnected and almost negligent, despite Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s notable acting chops and emotional acuity. Charles Wallace, played by the effervescent Deric McCabe, who moonwalked onto stage for his debut, was delightful, but his transition into “evil” Charles Wallace was abrupt and made no sense. In the book, his “prodigious mind” was extra vulnerable to the powers of “It,” which read more like the “nothing” of “Neverending Story”, of which DuVernay admitted an intertextual love and wanting to fly. Knowing this makes the scene of the children flying on Mrs. Whatsit’s back was a lovely little reference to Falkor!
Beyond the issues with the core narrative, we also have our spirit-guides to consider. Three “celestial” characters: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, guide the children on their journey through the universe, introducing them first to the idea that the energy of consciousness and the energy of the cosmos are one and the same. This diffuse understanding of “energy” is at the heart of these three characters, as well—they are “energy” and “light” manifesting in human form, a form they are not entirely fit for. In the movie, these characters are played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey, respectively.
These are characters who are energy manifesting as matter. And they don’t know how to do it. They are weird. They are almost as old as time itself. When we first meet Mrs. Whatsit in the movie, she has taken over the Murrys’ living room, and we’re left wondering why Mrs. Murry isn’t calling the police. The 1962 book was pre-stranger-danger. In the book, Mrs. Whatsit was old, wrapped in scarves, not the rainbow-clad space fairy of the movie. She may have seemed to Mrs. Murry to be in need of some community support. Also, the Mrs. Murry of the book already knew about her—Charles Wallace was talking about three old women squatting in an old house in the neighborhood. So, it would be no stretch of the imagination to think of them as homeless. In the movie however, they are brightly colored, beautiful, and celestial—they are A-list goddesses. Moreover, they’re the movers and shakers of the contemporary TimesUp and #metoo movements to empower women. Not in need of hot chocolate or a liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich. There’s ample explanation for Mrs. Murry’s response to Mrs. Whatsit in the book, including the following passage, which, per usual for Meg, hinges Mrs. Murry’s good looks:
“No, Meg, but people are more than just the way they look. Charles Wallace’s difference isn’t physical. It’s in essence.”
Meg sighed heavily, took off her glasses and twirled them, put them back on again. “Well, I know Charles Wallace is different, and I know he’s something more. I guess I’ll just have to accept it without understanding it.”
Mrs. Murry smiled at her. “Maybe that’s really the point I was trying to put across.”
“Yah,” Meg said dubiously.
Her mother smiled again. “Maybe that’s why our visitor last night didn’t surprise me. Maybe that’s why I’m able to have a—a willing suspension of disbelief. Because of Charles Wallace.”
“Are you like Charles?” Meg asked.
“I? Heavens no. I’m blessed with more brains and opportunities than many people, but there’s nothing about me that breaks out of the ordinary mold.”
“Your looks do,” Meg said.
Mrs. Murry laughed. “You just haven’t had enough basis for comparison, Meg. I’m very ordinary, really.”
While the wardrobes for Mrs. Whatsit, Who, and Which are covetable and clearly rich in global symbolism, they lack the grandmotherly connection the original characters have with the children—instead of a mystical spin on the mundane, we get glam-rock goddesses; when Reese Witherspoon first pops onto screen as Mrs. Whatsit, she is a combination of a manic-pixie Glinda the Good Witch and an empathy-deficient Anyanka, the temporarily-reformed demon from Buffy. The effect is an “I’m a billion years old, how do I hyooman?” bit that makers her windily whimsical without any warmth. Mindy Kaling plays a serene, wise Mrs. Who. While encumbered by some of her dresses, she retains the original character’s propensity speak only in quotes, to deliver potent messages and connect us to the densely woven fabric of human intelligence and creativity.
And then there is Mrs. Which—the oldest and most mystical of them all. In DuVernay’s words, when thinking of who could play this character, who else was as “celestial” as Oprah?
This year may be offering us peak Oprah. Lady O. Mama O. Auntie O. Queen. Goddess. Just a speckling of names that her Instagram followers call her, from the familial to the celestial. Whether she answers the Oprah 2020 call or not, she is reaching the realm of self-actualized icon. My friend Erich Schwartzel, who invited me to the premiere, leaned over to me at one point and asked: “Do you think that Oprah is a modern-day deity?” The question was an eerie precursor to her first appearance on screen as a glowing, 15-foot, metallic-clad light-being. In the book, Mrs. Which doesn’t even take a form when she first meets the kids—she is a disembodied voice:
“There was a faint gust of wind, the leaves shivered in it, the patterns of moonlight shifted, and in a circle of silver something shimmered, quivered, and the voice said, “I ddo nott thinkk I willl matterrialize commpletely. I ffindd itt verry ttirinngg, andd wee hhave mmuch ttoo ddoo.”
When she does appear, she treats it as a joke: Mrs. Which elects to appear as a “figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair.” The homophonic reference to ‘witch’ earned L’Engle criticism from more conservative evangelical Christians. But a disembodied voice or the classic “witch” joke would have interrupted the optics of Oprah’s entrance—divine, larger than life, magic embodied.
This movie is a platform for Oprah-worship—and DuVernay’s choice to cast her in this role is significant. Oprah, whose book club presented us with a nearly infinite loop of power exchange between authors and Oprah branding, touts Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle—grand theories of the relationship between mind and universe. In 2018, this power-exchange finds its culmination in OWN’s Super Soul Sessions, “a series of life-transforming talks from spiritual thought leaders, changemakers and wisdom teachers[…] a powerhouse lineup of inspirational speakers take the stage to stimulate and inspire us to move in the direction of our truest calling—to become more of who we are.”
At a turning point in both movie and book, Meg confers with Mrs. Which about why it has been so painful for her to tesser. In the movie, we see Oprah’s Mrs. Which stop on a precarious stone bridge with no railings or support, counseling young Meg to look with compassion and concern into her eyes and to tell her that things will get easier if she can believe in herself, if she sees how extraordinary she is just for being herself. During the premiere, Oprah reached over and held Storm Reid’s hand; it was a simple gesture that forecast the scene and yet again blurred fantasy and reality. When Oprah descended the stage after the introductions, she was swarmed by people wanting a hug or a handshake as she walked to her seat—so many people yearn to have their hands held by Oprah, to have their lives fixed by Oprah. On Instagram they use comments to call out to her to support their small businesses and programs, and, in some cases, say they would “pass out” if she wore something they made. And, Oprah fans know that this is also Oprah’s story—repeated oft and vocally. She did not believe she was extraordinary either, and she had to “speak it into being.” In her own Super Soul Session on UCLA’s campus in April of 2017, she reads the entirety of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”:
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I tell them it’s in the reach of my arms,it’s in the span of my hips, it’s in the stride of my steps, and its in the curl of my lips, because I’m a phenomenal woman.”
At the end of the much-quoted poem, which ends in a simple “That’s me”, she adds her own line:
“And that’s you. That’s you. When you see me walking, it ought to make you proud, because I’m a phenomenal woman… That’s me and that’s you. And a few phenomenal men. “
And that’s essentially what she says to Meg on the bridge; again the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. Are we seeing A Wrinkle in Time, or are we just listening to Oprah tell us to love ourselves, to want to be ourselves, because we are perfect as we are? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What stays with me as a viewer are two images of Storm Reid as Meg: the first is the scene just before the end of the movie where she finally learns to tesser gracefully, gloriously and elegantly and joyfully floating through streams of light like the aurora borealis.
And the second is the incredibly powerful moment she sees her father (played by Chris Pine) again after 4 years and turns back into the tiny child she was when he disappeared. When she says “Daddy”, we don’t see Chris Pine, we see our own Daddies, the ones we miss, the ones we long for, the gentle protective arms of men who leave for reasons we can understand and those we cannot. The idea that we can find them again by traveling the cosmos, however, is wish-fulfillment—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In the end, the film fails in narrative cohesion and developing characters beyond Meg; the movie is pure wish-fulfillment and entirely wrapped up in its optics—in that sense it is not really a feature film. It’s more a vision—an impression on a Wrinkle in Time. While I cannot recommend the film on the whole, it’s worth reveling in the scenes that cast girls, specifically girls of color, in a loving glow and through a loving lens. At all of our precarious ages, those adolescences we struggle through at 15 or 35 or 65, when struggle to love ourselves, we can find ourselves in Meg and I’m glad to see her embodied afresh. And, maybe it will prompt some would-be writers, L’Engles-in-training, to make better updates—we’re at the point where we need some new unified theories of love and life, spirit and science.
Ashley Karlin lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she is Assistant Professor of Writing in the University of Southern California. She earned her Ph.D in Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University, where her dissertation analyzed a popular series of dialogues between Buddhism and science. While most of her work on the subject has focused what academics and contemplatives have had to say about spirituality and science, she thinks that YA offers us some of the best examples of how our inner worlds collide with the cosmos.