Ava DuVernay's fantasy epic, A Wrinkle in Time, made its way to theaters this past weekend, garnering some mixed reviews but a pretty solid box office. The film, which adapts Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel of the same name, follows the adventures of Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin as they travel to distant planets in search of Meg's father, who has been missing for four years. They are accompanied by Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, three otherworldly beings who act as guides to the children.
The book has been beloved by fantasy fans since its release, marking itself among the canon of great children's fiction. Naturally, when a work is so beloved in its original form, the question arises as to whether the material can withstand adaptation into another medium. If you're strictly looking for an assessment of which version is more successful in its storytelling, then A Wrinkle in Time is like most other books-turned-film: The book is better. But let's be honest — there's more to it than that.
When it comes right down to it, the movie is actually hindered by its allegiance to the source material.
Most critics agree that the main issue with the film is its script. The plot of the film is choppy, especially off the top. Things just seem to happen out of nowhere, but in fits and starts that attempt to punctuate the backstory invented to explain character motivations not present in the book. For the first half of the movie, you're jostled around from standard movie format to bizarre new fantasy character and back again, with big visual effects set pieces slapped between huge chunks of exposition. It's not hard to follow, per se, but it is frenetic and a little disorienting. It's also quite a lot like the start of the book.
The thing about a lot of children's literature is that it structures itself episodically. Each chapter is essentially self-contained, building up to a larger whole. This works well when dealing with the attention spans of children. You can tell a tiny piece of the adventure and save the rest for later, or move on to the next chapter, introducing a new part of the journey or new characters at a rapid pace. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does this to great effect, and the start of A Wrinkle in Time is much the same, very quickly introducing you to the three "Mrs."-es, the Happy Medium, and the concept of tessering.
The movie does the same thing, but where the quick succession works when separated by chapter headings, a film does not allow the same segmentation. As a viewer, you want the film to be a smooth transition, but in an attempt to introduce all the same elements at the same rate and with the same episodic nature as the novel, and with the addition of new elements (Meg's bully, more backstory about her father and his research, etc.), it sacrifices smoothness for speed.
This wrestling match between the source narrative and the new elements added to this updated version of the story continues to be a thorn in the film's side, even while it drives home a very important message. The core of the film lies in its characters and the wonderful performances that DuVernay is able to pull from her actors, all of which stand to make the film an overall enjoyable experience. Meg's character arc, for example, is much deeper in the film than it is in the novel, centering itself on her experiences as a smart but detached and cynical young girl who struggles with bullying and her own insecurities (there's an especially interesting message about Meg's self-consciousness around her natural hair that will land well with African-American and mixed-race audiences). Meg's arc is all about her coming to recognize her flaws as strengths, and to rely on her love for her family to overcome the darkness in the world. Storm Reid, for her part, manages to make Meg a deep and nuanced character even in the face of all the strange and sometimes clunky dialogue.
The main difference between the book and the film is in what the IT — essentially the villain of the story, insomuch as a story like this has a villain — represents. In the film, the IT is the creeping darkness in all of mankind. It is the force that drives out the light in people and makes them jealous and mean and even self-hating. Essentially, the IT is cynicism — the thing that, as we grow up, makes us adults that our younger selves wouldn't recognize. In the book, though, the IT is conformity. It halts creativity and inquiry and makes us all the same. Both of these are good messages, and the film makes certain changes to the various confrontations in the climax of the story to drive home its version, but it does so by only making small alterations to the scenes from the novel. It maintains visuals like the cookie cutter neighborhood and the recurring motif of rhythm as a weapon but removes that piece of the narrative that makes all of that make sense.
This isn't to say the movie is bad. It's no flawless masterpiece — though if we were looking for that then we would never enjoy a movie again — but it is an entertaining adventure that children in the audience will surely enjoy, and an important message about turning to hope and love in the face of the darkness of the modern world. The film succeeds when it deviates from its source material most: the added backstory, for example, making Mr. Murry's research part of his relationship with his wife rather than an assignment at his job, and the addition of a series of action scenes that heighten the stakes and allow Meg to prove her ingenuity and bravery. Ultimately, though, it would have been better served by leaning into those themes harder, and concerning itself far less with pleasing fans of the novel.