It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky… The house shook.
So begins one of the most enduring childhood sci-fi/fantasy classics this side of The Wizard of Oz, 1962's A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. Inspired in part by a cross-country camping trip the New York City native took with her husband and children in 1959, the book's original title was "Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which," named after the three characters who popped into L'Engle's head while she traversed Arizona's Painted Desert. These characters practically demanded to be written about. Another inspiration was, of course, L'Engle's reading of Albert Einstein, whose heady insights into the workings of the universe she deftly wove into her narratives.
In the 56 years since the book's publication, Wrinkle sold over 16 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages. And of course, this Friday, the much-anticipated A Wrinkle in Time film debuts in theaters, starring Storm Reid as Meg Murry and Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon as the three Mrs.
But did you know this year's film isn't the first attempt to turn the sci-fi kids' classic into a live-action movie? It isn't even Disney's first attempt.
In the early 2000s — in that liminal period for SFX between prop-shop, Jim Henson-style creature-building and the refinement of CGI — a long-running project to bring A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen slowly morphed into a TV mini-series, which then finally condensed into a two-hour ABC made-for-TV movie in 2003.
In advance of Friday's long-awaited (56 years awaited!) premiere, screenwriter Susan Shilliday, who wrote the 2003 A Wrinkle in Time, spoke with SYFY WIRE about the challenges of bringing mathematical whimsy to the screen and her own fantastical afternoon with the original Mrs., L'Engle herself.
How did you get involved in the project? Were you always a fan of the book?
Susan Shilliday: It's kind of a long, confused Hollywood story. It was a book I knew about, but I didn't know it well. And then when I read it, I went, "How did I not know about this?" This was way back in 1995, maybe. And originally I was working on it as a feature film for Castle Rock with Catherine Hand [a producer on both the 2003 and 2018 versions].
I was working on it as a feature, and then that didn't go anywhere — as these things go in Hollywood. At that time, the situation with special effects was vastly different than it is now and they had never done that kind of a movie before. It was revived some years later to do as a two-part series for TV, [so] I was brought on to expand the feature I had written. And there were a lot of typical, kind of Hollywood things that happened, so the final product that was on TV was pretty far from what I had written [laughs]. So I'm thrilled that it's being done again. I think it's great. I'm thrilled.
What are the challenges of adapting a fantasy book like Wrinkle? For instance, the book was written decades earlier and I know your version was set very much in the present of 2003, just like the new one is set in 2018.
With that particular book, that was the biggest challenge. It was written in 1961, so the concept of science fiction — and of what was scary and what wasn't — was very different. That's one of the big challenges of adapting it: How can you stay true to the book and yet make the science fiction elements look new to a generation to whom the science fiction elements as they're written in that book might not be very exciting, to people who are used to the kind of things we have now? That's a huge challenge. At the same time, that is a beloved book, and the psychological underpinnings of it are so wonderful and you want to get that out. The book was so influential to so many science fiction writers. The challenge is to make it new again, which is even harder today. And from what I've seen it looks like it's going to be great.
Over the years, adapting Wrinkle has been seen as a particularly challenging project.
Even when I was doing this in the mid-'90s, there was any number of people who had tried to do a movie before. Over and over again, projects had come up and failed and come up and failed. I never read any of those scripts, but people had been trying to get it right for a long time. But the original reason I wanted to get involved when I read it was [sort of asking myself] "Do I want to write a TV show about an adolescent girl who has to hold on to her anger to get through life? You bet I do!" That was fantastic. And the characters are so wonderful.
Speaking of making it new again, even Marvel's Thor and the other Avengers talk about tesseracts these days.
Tesseract! That was just this bizarre word. I think it does have a mathematical meaning, but [L'Engle] made it what it is in the book. By the way, I will say that possibly the greatest thrill when I was involved with the project was that I got to meet Madeleine. I got to go to New York and talk to her.
Oh, you did? Please tell us about that.
She was just so lovely. It was like your perfect image — you know how sometimes when you meet someone you admire you're so disappointed? Well, instead I go up and meet this incredible, strong, powerful woman who's living in the very image of a West Side writer's apartment. Just this big airy apartment, full of books [from] top to bottom.
She was just amazing. And with great trepidation, I told her one idea I had had for changing something [in the script]. In the book, [potential spoilers ahead] Meg's father disappears, but a colleague of his disappears first. And then her father has tried to find this guy and in doing so the same thing happens to him. And later, when Meg starts her adventures, she ends up meeting the Man with the Red Eyes. And I, reading this, said, "Oh, the guy with the Red Eyes is the guy who went first, her father's colleague, he was taken over by the evil force." And I was very trepidatious about suggesting this to Madeleine L'Engle, that this is what I had imagined when I had read her book. And she looked at me and she said, "Oh, I never thought of that! That's a good idea!"
That's great. What a gift.
It was really a high point in my life to be able to meet her. We were walking on the street in Manhattan, and there were a lot of panhandlers on the street and a guy comes up to her and asks, and she said, "Come with me." And she took him to a cafeteria kind of place where they obviously knew her very well, and she handed over money at the till and she said, "Give him a meal." She was very involved with St. John the Divine, the cathedral there, and that was her way. And man, when Madeleine told you to come with her, you went! She was wonderful.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]